Williamson County cities use branding to become more than suburbs

BY ANDRA LIM | Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, 7:24 PM

The post “America’s Best Suburbs” published on the real estate blog Movoto told Williamson County cities what they did — and didn’t — want to hear.

Georgetown, Round Rock and Cedar Park earned bragging rights for making the top 10 in the country, which required them to score well across five different measurements, including student-to-teacher ratio and the number of local businesses. There was just one problem.

They were called suburbs.

“We were here in 1848. We are not an Austin suburb,” said Shelly Hargrove, Georgetown’s Main Street manager.

“I would say it’s our role to educate everybody, and let them know that we are not a suburb of Austin,” said Ben White, vice president of economic development at the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce. “We have Fortune 500 (company) headquarters here, we have five hospitals, we have world-class education facilities, a medical school.”

As much as outer communities give thanks to Austin for sparking population and economic growth throughout the region, that proximity has also raised the sometimes sticky question of how those smaller cities should define their relationship to the big one.

Several cities in Williamson County — including the county seat, which distances itself from Austin’s trademark weirdness with the “Keep Georgetown Normal” slogan — have grappled in recent years with who they are and what makes them special.

Branding has emerged as a way to articulate and cement a city’s identity. On a less philosophical level, it’s a shiny new marketing tool that officials think will spur additional economic development grounded firmly on their city’s singular character, not simply their closeness to Austin.

Round Rock hoped to increase tourism when it launched its “Sports Capital of Texas” brand around 2003. A couple of years ago, Georgetown dubbed itself “The Most Beautiful Town Square in Texas,” in part to combat high business turnover.

More recently, Mayor Matt Powell challenged citizens to think about Cedar Park’s core essence during his December State of the City address. The same month, Leander hired a firm to brand the development district around its Capital Metro station, and Round Rock brought in a consultant to brand its downtown.

Austin did the same sort of thing years earlier, in 1991, when City Council members adopted “Live Music Capital of the World” as the city’s slogan.

The practice of place branding has picked up within the last couple of decades. In an age of information overload, places started thinking about strategies to draw attention to themselves, said Derrick Daye, managing partner at branding consultant firm The Blake Project.

Often, the end result is a neatly packaged image and slogan, like Round Rock’s combination of the Texas flag folding chair and the phrase “Game on!”

As part of the branding campaign, Round Rock purchased 100 Texas flag chairs and began planting them in random residents’ yards along with a certificate to be a city ambassador. The chairs became a well-known sight, and some residents took one along when they went traveling, snapping pictures to send back to the city from places like Maryland and New York, said Nancy Yawn, director at the Round Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“One guy tried to get it into the Olympics several years ago, but he couldn’t get it through security,” Yawn said.

Round Rock now hosts an average of 28 sports events a year, and it is preparing to hold its first tournament in a new city-owned $14.5 million sports facility, Yawn said.

Citing the success of the tourism marketing campaign, the Round Rock City Council voted in December to spend up to $65,000 branding its downtown, which has been in the midst of several changes, including rezoning and street realignment.

Georgetown, which had for years touted its historic square centered around a courthouse, paid IF Marketing $17,500 for a 2011 study that recommended scrapping the adjective “historic” because the word covers too much ground.

The city held focus groups to help choose a more specific brand, and one downtown property owner emailed saying he thought the city’s Victorian-style town square was the most beautiful he’d seen. Since no one had claimed that title, Georgetown did.

“Y’all could have claimed it, but you didn’t,” Hargrove said. “You got to put a ring on it.”

City officials did make sure to contact development professionals around the country to get a second opinion on whether the title “The Most Beautiful Town Square in Texas” was deserved, Hargrove said.

Both Round Rock and Georgetown hoped their brand identities would draw more tourists and create an economic impact. But it’s hard to measure the effect of such marketing campaigns, beyond anecdotal evidence of more foot traffic in stores.

A current research project by Oklahoma State University and Texas State University is analyzing whether place branding helps attract more residents, investors and companies. Researchers surveyed more than 200 small communities across the United States, including some in Texas, said Jane Swinney, associate professor of merchandising at Oklahoma State University. The study will come out late this year, Swinney said.

But being known as an Austin suburb can be crucial to drawing more rooftops and more companies, said Mike Castleman Sr., the founder and former owner of Metrostudy. Branding would be more useful in resolving a city’s identity crisis than in growing the local economy, Castleman said.

“It sounds to me like there are local politicians saying, ‘We want to feel better about ourselves,’” Castleman said. “That we’re creating our own growth, we’re doing our own economic development, we’re not the tail of the Austin dog, we’re not getting wagged by somebody else. That’s more of a self-image thing.”

Bill Pohl, a broker and developer who has worked in Austin and Williamson County for 42 years, agreed.

“Branding could make people talk about your town more, give more energy to citizens,” Pohl said. “Whether that brings a Nordstrom to you is completely irrelevant. They’re going to go there when there are 1.2 million people, within seven miles, with a certain median income.”

The term suburb also has a positive connotation: affordable family living and good schools within driving distance of a major city, said Madison Inselmann, regional director at Metrostudy.

When the Greater Austin Area Chamber of Commerce talks to businesses, officials market the whole five-county Central Texas region — but a large part of the region’s image comes from Austin, said Dave Porter, the chamber’s senior vice president for economic development.

“Austin is the brand name, like Nike is,” Porter said. “But Nike has a lot of different product opportunities for their customers, so, like Nike, the Austin Chamber has a lot of different product opportunities for our prospects in our five-county region like Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell counties.”

A case study of Austin by a communications consulting firm said that the city’s “creative, inclusive, technology-driven ethos” was key to its economic success.

Brands are important, though, to differentiate one Williamson County city from another, Castleman said. When a company’s looking to relocate to the fringes of Austin, it matters where their employees want to live, he said.

“You’re defined by where you live,” Castleman said. “So if you perceive a place as being a really cool place, if Georgetown sells you on that concept, then you’re going to want to live in Georgetown.”

Three local development experts agreed that Georgetown has done a good job at distinguishing itself. Cedar Park and Leander, they said, are tougher to pick out in the crowd.

Key officials from those two cities said they consider themselves suburbs of Austin.

“That’s just a fact,” Leander City Manager Kent Cagle said.

“I don’t know the Webster’s definition of suburb, but we still have a big part of our community that commutes to Austin every day,” Cedar Park’s Powell said. “That’s just the reality.”

Cedar Park does have a tagline: “Live | Work | Learn | Thrive.” But Tony Moline, president and CEO of the Cedar Park Chamber of Commerce, said he thinks the city and the chamber should consider developing a brand.

Meanwhile, the Leander City Council voted last month to pay $50,000 to $60,000 to brand the Capital Metro station area, which is slated for mixed-use urban development. At first, the brand would just be used in talks with developers, but the city expects all of Leander to eventually be defined by its commitment to mass transit, Cagle said.

“What we have right now are quality single-family developments, a great school system,” Cagle said. “With the TOD (transit-oriented development), we’re trying to build something that’s different.”

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