What is Dallas' Promise?

By Deborah McMurray
Published in Dallas Morning News
Dallas’ citizens now know that The Richards Group has been hired to "brand" our city. The headline of Henry Tatum’s February 4, 2004 column was, "We need to put a brand on Dallas to be competitive," and Steve Blow’s Sunday (February 8, 2004) column lead was "Let’s coin Big D slogan with rhyme and reason."

As a city, we’ve been branded for years by outsiders. As Tatum pointed out, we’ve been called the City of Hate, we donned Hollywood-enhanced cowboy hats and big hair because it gave us desperately wanted attention, and Dallas has been the de facto "hometown" of America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys. (At various times this has been inspiring and positive—at other times, it’s been a stretch of the truth.)

As happens with any business or organization, if leaders don’t consistently and repeatedly tell their constituents who they are and what they stand for, these groups will make it up for them—if they care enough to think about them at all.

But there is something even more problematic to layer on top of this—that a catchy slogan or ad campaign or airport diorama means that the company/organization/city is "branding." It’s not.

In order for Dallas city leaders to super-charge interest in Dallas as a destination, their focus must first be on strategic positioning. Simply, positioning is the promise that we make about what a visitor, conventioneer or business prospect can expect here. Any positioning strategy, including that of Dallas, must be (1) anchored in truth, (2) resonate in the minds of our buyers/visitors, as well as our citizens, and (3) be something that we can live up to, day in and day out. The position must distinguish and differentiate us from the cities competing with us, and we shouldn’t make claims we can’t prove.

If positioning is the promise, think of branding as the "personality," or the human qualities with which people identify. Creating a short list is typically an intellectual exercise—but choosing one candidate over all others is influenced by emotion and how we "feel" about each of our short list choices. This is why the concept of personality is critical in the viability of any brand. Branding is when we breathe life into our position, and over time and with consistent application, the brand becomes memorable.

In a perfect world, all Dallas citizens would see themselves as an integral part of this new promise. But that’s not realistic—"something for everyone" isn’t a position that makes sense for Dallas or any company or organization. City leaders and Dallas citizens should expect that, in developing our positioning strategy, some will gripe and grouse—nothing great ever receives unanimous praise. Criticism is bound to come to those who dare to stand out.

Positioning or repositioning takes a lot of courage, and branding requires patience. It’s not for the faint of heart—it requires a willingness to put a stake in the ground and proclaim, "this is who we are." This takes courage, but even more fortitude is required to say (or imply), "this is who we are not."

A result of this rigorous process in any entity is that some people and groups will feel (and in fact, be) left out. Visionary leaders know that this is part of the strength of positioning. Leaders define who their coveted clients/customers or targets are and they develop go-to-market strategies to reach them. Typically, the narrower their focus in defining their audiences, the more successful and profitable they can be.

Are Dallas city leaders—the mayor, city council, city manager, school board, etc.—prepared to speak with one courageous voice in order to strategically reposition our city? Are they willing to self-examine and uncover Dallas’ strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities? And are they ready to address and/or fix what’s hindering our success as a major competitor among American cities? And, are they and Dallas citizens prepared to be patient, understanding that this is not an overnight reparation, and that we may not be able to measure the return on this investment for several years?

Once we take this new promise to market, it’s important to remember that the good, bad and ugly will all be a part of our brand. Dallas’ brand will be defined by our best strengths and our worst weaknesses. It will be judged by families, convention and business visitors—from their entry into DFW International Airport or Love Field to their cab rides to their hotel stays and friendliness of personnel to the food they eat here. Tens of thousands of Dallas citizens (plus those who work here but live elsewhere) will become (perhaps unwittingly) the stewards of our new brand. The success and "realness" of this new position and brand rests in the hands of us all.

Seth Godin, in his book "Purple Cow: Transform your Business by Being Remarkable" (Portfolio, 2003) states that "safe is risky." Why? Because safe fails to create any impression at all. Safe doesn’t penetrate the blur sustained by other advertisers. Godin says, "You’re either a Purple Cow [in a field of Guernseys] or you’re not. You’re either remarkable or invisible. Make your choice."

I’m ready for Dallas to be a Purple Cow, and I’m ready for the promise.


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