Columbus' Identity Crisis: Who Are We, Anyway?

Michelle Sullivan

Live music booms from within the Battelle Grand Ballroom at the Columbus Convention Center late one morning in March. Inside, hundreds of professionals in suits and skirts mingle while nibbling hors d'oeuvres, glancing politely at one another's name tags. They've left their offices to network at the 2015 Experience Columbus Annual Meeting, a yearly opportunity for the city's convention and visitors bureau to brag about all the things that make Columbus a worthy destination.

There's no denying that list is robust-like any major city, Columbus has much to offer both residents and visitors. Allusions to our many perks are scattered throughout the ballroom like so many ribbons pinned on a lapel. Rows of banquet tables are topped with stainless-steel air pots full of piping-hot coffee from local roasters like Cafe Brioso, One Line Coffee and Stauf's, each of which is on the tourism bureau's Columbus Coffee Experience, a promotion that awards a T-shirt to anyone who visits all eight participating coffee shops. Remember when Columbus was the next great coffee town? Columbus Monthly even put the trend on our March 2013 cover with the tagline "The push to make coffee Columbus' next big thing."

After the band plays its last song and guests are politely ushered to their tables, neon lights brighten the dark room and the program begins. It's so club-like, you'd forget it was a luncheon in the middle of the day. A slideshow rolls on a jumbo screen on stage, frames alternating between images and quotes from national media outlets plugging Columbus Pride Festival, Ohio State University's national football championship, Columbus' bid for the Democratic National Convention and the city's culinary and craft beer scenes. It's a great segue into the awards ceremony that follows: Seven organizations, including the Columbus Zoo, Franklin Park Conservatory and the Wexner Center for the Arts, receive awards-dubbed Expys-honoring their respective contributions to tourism.

Before the event comes to a close, Experience Columbus President and CEO Brian Ross emerges on stage modeling a coat he informs the audience was made by a local designer. Columbus, he says, is the third-largest fashion city in the country (behind only New York and Los Angeles). To celebrate our latest claim to fame, he tells the audience, please enjoy this fashion show featuring the work of local designers.

A model, draped in a silky floor-length gown printed with red roses, steps from the stage and makes her way to the makeshift runway to the pulsing beat of music and the audience's applause. But before the long-legged beauty is halfway down the aisle, the crowd gasps in unison as her feet tangle beneath her and she topples to the ground in a splash of fabric.

The cringe-worthy incident was an all-too-perfect symbol of what some people in that room were surely thinking: Since when is Columbus the next big fashion city? Weren't we just bragging about our craft beer scene and our coffee roasters? Isn't this Buckeye Country? Or is it the Indie Art Capital of the World? There Columbus goes again, prematurely staking a claim in the next big draw to our city.

Columbus' struggle with its identity isn't a secret, especially not among the folks at Experience Columbus.

"I think we all know that Columbus does suffer from sort of a vanilla image," says Amy Tillinghast, vice president of marketing for Experience Columbus. "We don't have a bad image; people don't think poorly about us. We just aren't at that awareness level yet."

Last summer, Experience Columbus commissioned a nationwide study, conducted by market research behemoth GfK, to find out just how people perceive Columbus. What they found was somewhat frustrating, but not necessarily surprising. When asked to select words that describe Columbus, more people chose "traditional" and "welcoming and friendly" than "cool," "young and vibrant" or "creative." The study also highlighted a stark gap between Columbus residents and visitors versus travelers who have never been to Columbus. While Columbus visitors and residents perceive the city as being known for its overall pulse-nightlife, urban vitality, an abundance of things to do-national respondents who had never visited do not, according to the study. It also showed national awareness of Columbus is very low. But the number of people who favor Columbus as a destination jumps from 52.5 to 86.6 percent after a visit.

"Once you visit, you feel pretty good about the city," Tillinghast says. "But from a national perspective, folks who haven't visited, that's where the biggest bulk of the work is to be done.

"So we put a dedicated budget aside to try to tackle this image problem," she continues. That budget was carved out last year after Columbus City Council decided to reallocate the city's "bed tax" revenue to various organizations, including the tourism bureau, and Franklin County upped its funding as well. With the extra money, Experience Columbus ordered the GfK study and launched a new marketing campaign, dubbed "Life In Cbus," which targets young professionals in Chicago and Washington, D.C., through videos and ads strategically positioned in high-traffic places like Metro stations, high-rise elevators and highway-side billboards.

Tillinghast says the ads are designed to reach people who are most likely to move in the next three to five years.

"We want them to have an impression of Columbus as being young, hip, vibrant-that cool vibe," she says.

The campaign, designed by marketing and communications agency Fahlgren Mortine, is rooted in a bold and spirited 60-second video that highlights an array of Columbus attractions and attributes. Set to a powerful acoustic tune reminiscent of something Mumford and Sons would play, alternating snippets of jovial, racially diverse friends meeting in the Short North and a gay couple picking up their child from school are overlaid with messages like, "Where standing out doesn't mean standing alone," and "This is where you become you, and where one-of-a-kind becomes one of us." It ends with a simple plug: The same goes for the ads, which each feature a photo of a hip urban dweller, a message like "Where cost of living is more living than cost" and the Web address. There's no call to action, nor a specific message urging people to visit Columbus. This ambiguity was by design, says Dave Bowers, chief creative officer for Fahlgren Mortine.

"We knew we couldn't do something that felt overtly promotional, because they're very marketing savvy," Bowers says of the target audience. "If they're told about something, they don't want to know more about it. We want them to feel like they're discovering something."

The website is essentially a landing spot, a content aggregator that pulls articles, videos and social media mentions from sites all over the web through the hashtag #lifeincbus. It features a compilation of news and opinions all about Columbus, permitting the element of discovery.

"We didn't want to tell them what to think, because that's not Columbus," Tillinghast says. "That's not authentic to how our community operates."

Instead, the campaign will help insert Columbus into the national conversation and help boost the city's reputation. That's the goal, anyway.

"A lot of our competitors are top of mind and have more brand awareness," says Ross of Experience Columbus, referring to cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C., but also Charlotte, Nashville, Milwaukee and Indianapolis. "We work very hard to get into that consideration set where we're top of mind. The image and awareness of our destination is tremendously important to our overall success as a city."

One of the reasons behind Columbus' ongoing struggle for recognition, he says, is a historic lack of focus on the city's brand. "We have not emphasized a campaign sharing our city's assets outside of our community over a period of time," he says. In the past, all Experience Columbus' advertising dollars (and still the bulk of them) were spent on recruiting tourists, conventions and trade shows.

For decades, it was hard enough to get residents to realize what Columbus had to offer, let alone tourists. The city's inferiority complex dates (as far as we know) back to 1978, when the sentiment made the cover of an issue of Columbus Monthly. The story asks, "Are we as weak as we think we are?" and goes on to say: "Complain, complain, complain … That's all you hear. Badmouthing Columbus seems to be the pastime of the day. True, we don't have one single thing to be famous for. But there are a lot of areas where we're not as bad as we'd like to think."

This citywide discontentment was so ubiquitous, in fact, in the early 1980s the Chamber of Commerce, the organization that spearheaded marketing the city before Experience Columbus came along in the 1990s, commissioned an advertising campaign promoting Columbus to its own residents. Steve Johnston, former vice president of advertising and brand management for Nationwide Insurance, was working for the ad agency behind the Chamber's campaign, which used this tagline: "Columbus, We're Making It Great." (The agency eventually became Fahlgren Mortine.) He says the campaign, which featured radio and TV spots as well as print ads and billboards, was targeted to residents to increase their positive feelings about living here.

"We'd just gotten through the [Vietnam] war; the economy was soft," recalls Johnston, now retired. "There was something going on that caused a malaise about Columbus at the time. The chamber felt we needed to get pumped up about Columbus before we brought new people in, to say we're positive and upbeat."

Several years later, another marketing campaign launched with not only the Chamber but also the city and the county at the helm. "Discover Columbus" targeted businesses, with ads that ran in publications like the Wall Street Journal. "Each ad featured one new fact about Columbus," Johnston says. "Here's another reason to think about doing business in Columbus, whether it's Ohio State or the ease of getting around or the tax base."

He points out there never really was one consistent message about Columbus back then-the same could be said now. But the starting point, he says, always aligned.

"People had little or no opinion of Columbus," he says. "It's not that it was bad. They just didn't know anything about Columbus. If there's a theme, it's still in place. We're trying to educate people about what a great place this is to live and run a business. If there's any consistency, that's what it is."

Why is marketing so important for a city, anyway? Just think of a city like it's a consumer product, says Paul Carringer, professor of marketing at Columbus State Community College.

"The real concept of marketing is to look at the attributes of any brand and turn those attributes into benefits that help consumers make a position," says Carringer, who also owns a marketing consulting firm. "So the idea of marketing is to suggest that, over all of the options people have to choose from, our brand has certain things about it that [make] people to say 'yes' to it. For a city and a region, it's exactly the same."

It's how a city packages those attributes that builds its brand-and thus its national reputation. The arm of a city's national reputation reaches beyond the tourism industry; it affects the economy as a whole.

"It helps build your workforce; it helps attract development projects," says Bill LaFayette, owner of Columbus economic and workforce strategy firm Regionomics. "No matter who you are, if you're looking to move somewhere, or expand your business somewhere, or go on vacation, you have a list of cities in mind. If Columbus isn't on that list, we don't get visited, we don't get new projects, we don't get new workers."

The bottom line, he says, is Columbus needs to be not only visible but branded in such a way that outsiders know what kind of experience they can expect here. It's much easier to write off a city you don't know anything about. But, he points out, sometimes a brand that's too defined can actually pigeonhole a city.

"Take Nashville," he proffers. "If you don't happen to like country music, it might not even go on your list. You don't realize what else the city has to offer, which is a lot. There are clearly advantages and disadvantages."

"Life in Cbus" is a step in the right direction, Carringer says.

"I think it's great, mainly because it speaks to the millennials, those kinds of people that we want to keep here," he says. "The problem Experience Columbus has [with marketing] is you have the government you're trying to address, you have business missions and everything else. Oftentimes, what you end up with is a camel (when you're trying to design a horse)."

Translation: You have the right message for the wrong audience. Targeted marketing coming from the city isn't nearly as effective as organic, from-the-people messages.

Case in point: Austin. On paper, the 11th-largest city in the country and Columbus, No. 15, look nearly identical. Both boast large public universities. Both have vibrant art and music scenes, as well as reputable craft breweries and world-class cuisine. Both have professional sports teams, are home to headquarters of major corporations and have a diverse population of residents. Yet while Columbus struggles to find and successfully market its brand, Austin has it nailed.

The city adopted the identity of "Live Music Capital of the World" in 1991, citing more music venues per capita than any other city. The moniker has since become a trademark, one the city heavily promotes. Ever flown into Austin-Bergstrom International Airport? You probably noticed one of six stages filled with guitar-strumming, melody-crooning greeters. Even City Council meetings kick off with a live music performance.

Though the live music shtick is the city's official tagline, the one that's most widely recognized is "Keep Austin Weird." That didn't come from a marketing committee or a city-hired agency. It came from the people.

"It stemmed from a local businessman years ago," says Jennifer Walker, director of marketing communications for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. "He wanted people to support local businesses, those one-of-a-kind boutiques you don't find anywhere else. It's evolved into a mantra for Austin residents."

It's also become a nationally recognizable brand that helps outsiders understand what the city's all about. Think Austin, and what probably comes to mind is an eclectic, creative place that's proudly quirky and a little bit different, especially for Texas. The food and craft beer scenes fit under that umbrella. So does live music. While neither the visitors bureau nor the city officially endorse the slogan, there's no denying they perpetuate it. "I don't see any reason why our brand and that phrase can't live hand in hand," Walker says.

This type of grassroots branding is what many say Columbus needs, yet can't seem to find. When it comes to marketing a city, "the lowest hanging fruit seems to be, 'Let's be everything to everybody.' Nothing unique is said about it," says Shashi Matta, clinical associate professor of marketing at Ohio State. "We're competing on some of the most common things cities have. How many cities have you been to that don't have great shopping and dining and a local art scene? We've not yet been able to articulate what it is that ties all of these things together."

To be successful, that overarching brand should happen organically, like it did in Austin.

"There are countless branding campaigns for cities that have been duds," Matta says. "They failed because it comes from the city. It should happen naturally. It should come from entrepreneurs and local businesses, from that young energy in Columbus … that will articulate and capture what Columbus is all about."

Columbus came close to embracing a grassroots tagline in 2007, when a couple of local artists dubbed Columbus the "Indie Art Capital of the World." City Council eventually adopted a resolution cementing the title (for what it's worth), and it gained enough traction to earn itself a message board on Columbus Underground and one tongue-in-cheek Columbus Dispatch article.

Around the same time, artist Adam Brouillette and Michael Brown, then communications director for the city, founded Independents' Day, a free community festival that promotes local, independent artists. Though the tagline surfaced alongside the inaugural festival, Brown says the two were unrelated.

"I wasn't a part of that (the "Indie Art Capital" push), but I saw it happen," says Brown, now director of development and public affairs for Experience Columbus. "It came out of the neighborhoods. It was a group of young people with that DIY attitude-crafters, artists-tired of being unknown, so they planted that stake in the ground. It was them showing ownership of what they felt they were creating."

While the "Indie Arts Capital of the World" hubbub has long faded, Independents' Day is growing, and it continues to encapsulate what the tagline represented. The tagline itself is not what's important when it comes to marketing Columbus, Brown says.

"You need to create a vibe and then get people to come, love it and say 'I'm coming back,' " he says. "What you're building and the people who help build it is hugely important, more so than a tagline."

OK, so we don't necessarily need to define it. But doesn't that make spreading the good word about Columbus that much more difficult?

Yes, he affirms. And so goes the struggle.

Experience Columbus isn't the only voice in town selling the Columbus story. Far from it. For instance, there's Columbus2020, which endorses Columbus as a great business city with a strong economy, a smart population and proximity to colleges and universities. The Columbus Foundation promotes the "Spirit of Columbus" with annual awards. One of the loudest voices in the mix is Ohio State, a behemoth of an institution with a message that's not only powerful but internationally received. But until a few months ago, the university didn't promote Columbus within their marketing message to future students. That changed with a recent recruitment video that lauds the university for its prime location in Columbus, a place where students can access experiences and opportunities not available elsewhere. It appears the university has realized a mutually beneficial relationship.

The Greater Columbus Arts Council (GCAC) has recently joined the chorus with a brand-new campaign, "Art Makes Columbus, Columbus Makes Art." Unlike "Life in Cbus," "Art Makes Columbus," which officially debuted last month at the Columbus Arts Festival, is targeted at Columbus residents.

"No one was really telling the Columbus arts story consistently and engagingly," says Jami Goldstein of the GCAC. "We want to sing from the rooftops how great Columbus arts are and that they're getting better."

The campaign is rooted in a series of video spotlights on emerging artists in Columbus, from painters to ballet dancers. Digital and print ads will convey why these artists chose Columbus. The goal is to sell more local art to residents-whether through tickets to the symphony or ballet or admission to the Columbus Museum of Art or a purchase from a local artist during Gallery Hop.

Ultimately, Goldstein says, GCAC hopes to target a national audience and attract more artists. "For many (artists), it was a conscious choice to move here," she says. "They understand how great our city is for artists. We're excited to lift up these artists and tell the story of why they're here."

Will GCAC's art-focused message distract from Experience Columbus' "Life in Cbus" message? Not at all, Goldstein says.

"We believe we're working hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder with Experience Columbus the entire time," she says. "We believe this message will complement 'Life in Cbus.' Ours is used locally while theirs is being used regionally." When GCAC shares artists' stories, they'll tag them with #lifeincbus-thus beefing up Experience Columbus' "Life in Cbus" content while garnering regional exposure for "Art Makes Columbus."

Still, there's an argument to be made for information overload. Visit, and you'll see an attractive hodgepodge of media, including USA Today stories touting Columbus as a top city for millennials, theater reviews and fashion-related Instagram posts. In a single page scroll, you can read about food, beer, fashion, arts, business and sports in Columbus. The site is beautifully designed, and it achieves Experience Columbus' goal: Provide a conduit through which people can discover the city on their own terms, without the noise of marketing speak. But the content itself represents the root of Columbus' age-old struggle: We're a whole lot of things-but what are we as a whole? Isn't it confusing?

"Of course it is," Matta says. "You need something to hang it all together. We don't need to be either an art city or a coffee city or a fashion city or a food city-not just one of those things. We need to capture the overall essence and allow people to differentiate our city in their minds when they think about Columbus. That's the challenge. It's not easy."

Experience Columbus' Tillinghast agrees, to a point.

"That is the struggle, and we don't have an answer to that," she says. "But we don't think it's our job to say what that one thing is. If that sort of naturally and authentically bubbles up from the community, then we would absolutely embrace that."