Warning: Branding Coming Back to Pittsburgh

I almost missed this: As part of the upcoming "Pittsburgh 250" celebration, plans are afoot (again!) to "rebrand" the city. The Pgh Business Times, earlier this month, quoted a number of local ad agency folks who were skeptical of earlier branding efforts -- not because the concept was off, but because there were too many people involved. Ever heard of that problem in Pittsburgh? Maybe they're on to something.

Curiously, though, no one quoted in the piece mentioned the fact that the message was mush. Lyndon Johnson had a credibility gap; Pittsburgh does not have an "image gap." A growth gap, a jobs gap, a clean air gap -- there are lots of gaps to go around. Is image really the worst of the region's problems?

I can't imagine that the powers that be really want to *change* Pittsburgh's image. The smokestack and ash-filled air thing -- does that "image" really survive any more? It's been a long, long time since I encountered anyone who thought that Pittsburgh is still literally choked with soot. The honest, earnest, hard-working, "run first, throw second" ethos -- that's the image that most Pittsburghers like, isn't it? I think that it rings true, and I suspect that it's part of Pittsburgh's appeal. So that shouldn't go away, should it? If you're going to set out to deal in image, make sure that you don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. If they're approaching this the right way, the imagemakers should be talking about *adding* things.

What should be added? In other words, what about itself has Pittsburgh failed to sell over the years? If a branding campaign is inevitable, and it seems to be, "innovation" may not be a bad theme. Pittsburgh has a grand history of industrial innovation. But that hardly distinguishes Pittsburgh from a lot of similarly-situated cities. What city is going to stand up today and say, "Always Complacent, Ever Proud"? (Anyone caught muttering "Washington, DC" may consider their comment already on record.)

More to the point, is there any *evidence* to support the proposition that marketing a city can help it grow? Is a city a product that can be moved -- like, say, ketchup? Beanz Means Heinz worked for a long time. Heinz could count the cans. Fill in the blank: XXXXX Means Pittsburgh. How does anyone know if that's working?


9 Responses to "Warning: Branding Coming Back to Pittsburgh"

Anonymous said... 8/17/2006 5:42 PM

Forget the branding campaigns - not enough money can buy the exposure that one one home run (you brought up baseball) company brings with every news article. Austin-Dell, Seattle-Microsoft, etc.

Plus people are pretty savvy about these campaigns - I think it reinforces negative thoughts actually - subconsciosly you're thinking "what great cities need to advertise like this."

If it is more directed marketing, like for a particular event or for a particular group of people and will bring in more tourists, I might be okay with it - and that is actually how the image changes - more people coming to the city to visit or move and having a great experience.

But at the root of it, politicians and civic leaders are just trying to show they're doing something, anything to improve the situation. People need to deamnd results and ask what outcomes are expected and is this the best use of money? How does the return stack up versus say, lowering taxes to improve the business climate or improving the road infrastructure.

Anonymous said... 8/17/2006 6:29 PM

I disagree with your comment that "the smokestack and ash-filled air thing" about Pittsburgh is false. I lived in North Texas and South Florida for many years and unfortunayely people's perception of Pittsburgh is that it is snowy and cold all year and the smoke from the steel mills make the sky black with soot.

Jim Russell said... 8/17/2006 6:38 PM

My experience is that Pittsburgh does have an image problem. But I'm not sure about the efficacy of an ad campaign to rebrand Pittsburgh. If something of substance is going on in the Burgh, blogs and message boards should suffice. There needs to be an organic buzz about Pittsburgh, not a top-down image makeover.

Anonymous said... 8/18/2006 12:20 AM

Yes. There is an image gap and a pretty good study a few years ago (...another one!) that validated it.

There are organizations in this region such as the Convention Bureau, or whatever they call it now, that need to market the city to promote and sell. But I think their efforts to meet their own promotional needs get interwined into grander ambitions for a new brand concept for the region. The latter will only occur when other people have something else to replace "home of steel" as the concept of what Pittsburgh is. This change can ONLY happen organically.

Until we have something that replaces it, our image will remain "steel." Until then, we should embrace steel and leverage it. It's our region's strength, not its weakness. Good marketing people know that negative brand recognition is much better than no brand recognition. They focus on strengths not weaknesses. Other cities wish they had something so strong that people associated with their cities. Steel is something to build up from, not tear down. The region doesn't need another region-wide rebranding effort; it needs more competent, risk-taking marketing leaders.

Unknown said... 8/18/2006 9:11 AM

Branding campaigns, by their nature, will always be fairly generic and bland. They are commissioned by polititions and reviewed by committees to reach the largest possible audience in the least contraversial way.

Pennsylvania is "The State of Independance", and Virginia "is for Lovers". These slogans attempt to make you feel warm and fuzzy about a State without saying anything of substance and I hope that Pittsburgh resists any lame attempt to promote the region with bland, unimaginative slogans like these.

I have spent alot of time promoting some "bumper-sticker" slogans for the Pittsburgh region that celebrate what Pittsburgh is really about - innovation, hard work and achievement. These qualities are our "brand", and they are not sweet, warm or fuzzy.
They are inspiring and tough like Pittsburgh.

The true "branding" of Pittsburgh occurs every time there is a medical breakthough at UPMC,or when CMU creates a new nano-device or when Westinghouse develops some more efficient way to generate energy. If we promoted these individual events consistantly the "image gap" would shrink.

p.s. - If I were in charge of things during the All-Star Game, I would have hung huge signs at the airport and along the parkway coming into the city that read:


That is why no one puts me in charge of this stuff.

C. Briem said... 8/18/2006 12:30 PM


a variation of "Trenton Makes, The World Takes"? or I suppose one could just reuse the title of Harper's book: "Pittsburgh: Forge of the Universe".. a little over the top though.

Tim Murray said... 8/18/2006 2:43 PM


Well, let's see the city this is ad is directed to first. I mean, I wouldn't want to say that about Philadelphia. Perhaps we could adopt a slogan that would assert our superiority to the rest of Pennsylvania: AMERICAN MIGHT HAVE BEEN BORN IN PHILADELPHIA AND SAVED AT GETTYSBURG, BUT IT WAS BUILT IN PITTSBURGH (with a picture of Fred Rogers and Andy Warhol laughing it up together).

Anonymous said... 8/18/2006 3:21 PM

Pittsburgh doesn't need a brand identity. If one happened to work, that's great, but it's better than these organized money pits where some lame slogan is created.

What would help is if the CVB etc. got a creative campaign that showed off different assets of the region. It's not going to change things dramatically, but an effort tailored to specific regions would be nice.

Target NYC, and also DC, and Boston, maybe SF. Creatively (yet briefly) convey the cultural, recreational, and other pluses of the area... both urban and outdoorsy... coupled with emphasis of the LOW COST OF LIVING

Show a $3000 apartment in NYC etc and then show what that gets you in Pgh. Show a pricey Long Island home, or Bethesda or Silicon Valley.. then show Pgh.

John Morris said... 8/24/2006 9:51 PM

I think JoeP is on the right track, but i also think that should fit Pittsburgh's current brand quite well. The city should be "sold" on it's real qualities. Honest, cheap, value-- sort of a "volkswagon image" vs. other cities which can be contrasted as over hyped rip offs and posers.

Unfortunatly, the city is increasingly known for it's red tape, high costs and constant attempts to be things it ain't.

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Updated September 2020:

Pittsblog 2.0 was written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, from January 2004 through December 2011.

Since then, Pittsburgh-themed essays have appeared from time to time at madisonian.net, on law and technology, and in some of Pittsburgh's classier professional media venues.

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