Iowa City’s Search for a Brand

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2008. Iowa City Press-Citizen (August 20): 16A.

Take a look at the cover of the Press-Citizen’s new book about the flood. You will see a woman at the bow of a small boat floating down Highway 6 in Coralville. But of course the book is not about this solitary soul. No, we are all in the same boat, this compelling image clearly implies. This image is reinforced by text in the Press-Citizen’s advertisements for the book: “Neighbors helping neighbors. Strangers helping strangers. But really, it was a community rising above and rising to the occasion simply because it’s what we do.”

When combined, the image and the text tell a story about who we are: a community that pulls together. It’s a good, comforting story that conveys a substantial amount of truth. But it’s also a slippery tale that elides two crucial questions: who are we and what are the boundaries of our boat?

One answer lies in the simplicity of branding. Another lies in the complexities of community identity.

The idea of “branding” a city has become a pretty hot idea in economic development circles over the past few years. According to the American Marketing Association, the idea is to devise “a name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of them, intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competitors.” For those who think in terms of branding, a place like Iowa City is a market commodity not unlike a can of soup or a car. It is something to be bought and sold, produced and consumed, and it is competing with other commodities in a global marketplace.

The downside to branding is that it puts us into a pretty leaky boat; it vastly oversimplifies a complex reality. One can see that oversimplification at work in advice that a firm named Smart Solutions Group recently gave to Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Technology Corridor, a partnership of the Iowa City Area Development Group and Priority One (the economic development division of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce). According to that advice, the partnership should leverage economic development resources more efficiently, and “present and proactively market the economic region as ‘one product’—one vision, one voice.”

All in the same boat, speaking with one voice?

To a degree, Iowa City-area writers have enthusiastically jumped onto this branding boat, partly by supporting the “Stories” project in Coralville’s Iowa River Landing District, and partly by applying to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Creative Cities Network to have Iowa City designated a “Creative City of Literature.” Iowa City, the application says, has long been, and should continue to be, “a place for writers: a haven, a destination, a proving ground, and a nursery.” Building upon this solid history as a home for creative writing, “Iowa City will defend and extend the UNESCO ‘City of Literature’ brand, take steps to monitor the use of the brand, and ensure the highest quality in all applications of the brand.”

While it is easy to see why the idea of branding appeals to people who are trying to attract investment, tourists, and particular kinds of employees (“the creative class”) to our neck of the woods, it doesn’t go very far toward capturing the complexities of our identity and the spatial reach of our place. In the end, branding can best be thought of as a form of selective storytelling about a place’s future; it is a trope intended to transform the place in a particular direction, a direction that some would prefer and others would not.

We can do better than stamp ourselves with a simple brand and then transform ourselves to behave like the brand demands.

The image of the woman at the bow of the boat creates an opportunity for our city’s great writers to jump ship; that is, to craft stories that complicate the simplicity of branding and cozy images of community, and hence help us understand who actually lives here, how we actually relate to one another, who benefits and who loses from conventional policies and programs, how our actions affect (and are affected by) people who live far away from eastern Iowa, and generally help us imagine creative ways of solving problems and bringing something new into the world.

What say you, writers? Are you up to the challenge?

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