Austin might be the Steve Urkel of cities. Once assumed to be a bit player, the town’s bigger-than-life personality has turned it into the star of the show — not to mention Texas.
At the core of Austin’s winning quirkiness is a phenomenal brand presence that companies everywhere can only hope to emulate. But it takes more than flashy suspenders and nerd-worthy glasses to get attention. Organizations striving to hit Urkel-level pay dirt should study Austin’s awesomely weird rise to the top if they hope to re-create it.
Leveraging “decidedly different” as a competitive edge.
Austin’s bold city branding creates loyal advocates. Rather than downplay its unusual blue-in-a-red-state status, Austin flashes individuality like a neon sign at a BBQ joint. Every corner of the city oozes creativity, diversity and uniqueness.
As a result, tourism is booming, and so is the local economy. From realtors to hoteliers to restaurateurs, businesspeople love being part of the weirdness that makes the home of the annual SXSW festival the No. 1 destination experience in the southwestern U.S., according to a J.D. Power study.
Kate Bristow, chief strategy officer and partner at creative agency M&C Saatchi LA, is hardly surprised by these results. In a write-up for Travel Daily News, Bristow explains why Austin has benefited so comprehensively: “When a city’s brand hits the mark, it can also increase investment, attract new residents and workers and bolster civic pride.”
Of course, some naysayers wonder if the hype might be too good to be true. Can one city realistically take its oddities all the way to the bank? Is Austin’s energy buoyed by branding, or is its quirkiness a distraction in the long run? Consider similar cities such as Portland and Nashville, which are punctuated by a vibe all their own. If their success is any indication, Austin should stay brand-solvent for quite some time.
Locals are protective of the city’s reputation, and tourists are eager to understand it. If you crave brand advocates as passionate about your products and services as Austinites are about their town, consider mimicking some of the city’s branding strategies.
Related: Breaking Down the Business of SXSW
1. Champion inclusivity.
Austin’s middle name should be “Inclusivity” because weirdness is welcoming. Yet inclusivity is more than a checked box. For Austin, diversity represents the values of its residents and the visitors it seeks to attract. Whenever possible, the city allocates marketing resources to promote itself to diverse audiences at regional, national and international events, including New York Pride, meeting planner activations of the Congressional Black Caucus and International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association trade show events. It’s even created a diversity field guide series.
The same is true for brands such as ThirdLove, which has seen 180 percent annual growth in the last four years. ThirdLove sees itself as a company for anyone in need of its products, regardless of age, appearance or societal expectations — which is why it offers an astounding 78 sizes. Heidi Zak, ThirdLove co-founder and co-CEO, believes your specific inclusivity efforts should be guided by customer feedback. “If you make the effort, it’s not difficult to be an inclusive brand,” she says. “You just have to ensure everyone in the company is on board. Set the goal, listen to your customer, figure out what you need to do.”
The Austin effect hasn’t occurred in a vacuum. In fact, Austin’s leaders have partnered with plenty of other entities, including Waller Creek Conservancy and Austin Sunshine Camps, to co-brand and cross-influence. Each partnership elevates a specific aspect of the community while improving the visibility of the organizational partners.
Brands that find and woo partners with compatible outlooks can scale their marketing efforts in similar ways. For instance, forming relationships with social influencers and reviewers can be a low-cost, high-impact way to grow a fan base and penetrate untapped markets. A great example is H&M’s gender-nonconforming product collaborations on unisex products. In addition to partnering on neutral products with Eytys, the clothing company’s marketing teams joined forces with like-minded influencers, such as RuPaul’s drag queens, to show support and win consumer hearts.
3. Stay true.
Austinites embrace the weird because it comes from a genuine place. It is their authenticity that fans adore. When Eeyore’s birthday rolls around, expect Austin to be one of the few places to celebrate it in oddball, fun-filled style. The point is not that the city has to be weird: It just is. And that originality is infectious.
Brands need to find their authentic positioning, too, no matter what it might be. Otherwise, they can’t live and market the experience they want to give their customers. Logos, taglines, social media images and blog posts mean nothing without evidence. Sometimes, this means taking a controversial stand, as Gillette did with its #MeToo-inspired anti-toxic masculinity ad that made waves earlier this year. The company never backed down from its assertion that it stood with equality and healthier gender norms, not with men who choose to act aggressively.
Urkel and Austin are strange. Their attraction is not. People respond positively to charisma, whether from a TV icon, city or brand. And they won’t hesitate to put their money toward joining the party