In the early 1990s, Stuart Smalley was a character on Saturday Night Live. Smalley, played by now-Senator Al Franken, was a wimpy, push-over of a self-help psychiatrist whose signature move was looking into a mirror and saying “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonnit, people like me.”
Pete McGinty is Columbus’ Stuart Smalley.
Although McGinty is the aesthetic opposite of Smalley, standing at 6’6”, his role to Columbus is much the same as Smalley’s role to his clients. McGinty is president of Fahlgren Advertising, a Columbus-based advertising agency that was recently tapped to solve Columbus’ image problem.
“Historically, Columbus has had no image. It’s been pretty anonymous,” McGinty said. “It’s not been a bad image. I think people mostly don’t know who we are.”
But this isn’t an effort by McGinty alone. Last year, a group of Columbus organizations, including the Columbus Chamber, the Columbus Foundation, Columbus 2020! and Experience Columbus, all combined their efforts to build a message capturing the essence of Columbus.
Paul Astleford is president and CEO of Experience Columbus, the sales and marketing arm of the city’s tourism bureau. He said Columbus’ image problem has put the city “behind in the 21st century.”
“If you’re going to compete for new businesses or income sources like the visitor industry, you have to have an established image presentation,” Astleford said.
Astleford said part of the reason Columbus has failed to garner national recognition is because past efforts were too narrow-minded, often run buy a single organization and treated Columbus like a corporation rather than a community.
“In a corporation, the CEO says ‘You have to do it this way, and if you’re not on board, bye-bye.’ In a community, you can’t do that,” he said. “You will never be successful at creating a successful image distinction that everyone can be proud of.”
The idea of developing a brand everyone can be proud of, along with the city’s bicentennial celebration next year, was what led the groups to collaborate, McGinty said.
“You start connecting the dots and you’ve got all these organizations that have their messages out there and they start looking alike, they’re feeling alike, they’re telling the same story,” he said. “That’s how we’re going to build a brand for Columbus over time.”
Kenny McDonald, CEO of Columbus 2020!, agrees.
“Instead of us all going and doing individual things, at times we need to go at it together,” McDonald said. “We have a much stronger message that way.”
Columbus 2020! is a group made up of leaders from groups like the Columbus Partnership, the Columbus Chamber, the Columbus Foundation and Ohio State. Its main goal is to attract and retain businesses to the Central Ohio Region, which includes Franklin and eight adjacent counties.
“By the time this is all said and done, we want to see 180,000 net new jobs, $8 billion worth of investment, and our per capita income raised,” McDonald said.
Astleford said OSU has contributed to much of the tourism revenue, and a branding effort that attracts more outsiders will be mutually beneficial.
“We owe it to OSU and our community to broaden our attractiveness,” he said. “That will help OSU in its student recruitment, our visitor recruitment, (Columbus)2020!’s business recruitment. We’ll all be in a much better place.”
McGinty said OSU is a huge part of Columbus’ image, contributing intellectual and creative capital through research and the arts.
But it’s only a part.
“The strength of Columbus is that we are more than just the home of the Buckeyes,” he said. “It’s part of the core fabric of who we are, so we need to utilize that for all of its benefits, but also build upon that with all the other things that make Columbus a great destination.”
Some of the things that make Columbus a great destination, Astleford said, are the Center of Science and Industry, Columbus Metropolitan Library, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and Huntington Park. These were all voted no. 1 in the country in their respective fields by different publications and organizations, he said, helping to boost Central Ohio’s tourism to a $7.2 billion industry, with 66,000 jobs.
So what will Columbus’ image be?
“It would be difficult to try to sum it up into two words,” McGinty said.
He said Columbus has one of the largest LGBT populations per capita from New York to Chicago, the second-highest student population per capita next to Boston, a “vibrant” arts scene, ethnic diversity, automotive research and production and research centers like Battelle and the OSU Med Center.
“But it really makes us this really open and smart, or creative and cool destination that we really need to wrap messages around and we need to tell that story to the world,” McGinty said.
Astleford said there is no timeline for the branding campaign.
“We’ve gone 200 years without an image, and we’re not going to rush into it,” he said. “That would only make the same mistakes that we made in the past.”
Still, McGinty hopes the branding effort can get off to a good start.
“In five years, we’ll want people to say ‘you know, Columbus is a really open, smart, progressive, intellectual, creative and cool city,’” McGinty said.
Of course, that description would be attractive to any community, he said, but Columbus doesn’t have to manufacture that image.
“What city wouldn’t want to be that? The truth is, we are that. That is who we are. And a lot of cities can’t say that,” he said. “We haven’t tried to create who we are by building certain things. I think that’s much more lasting, genuine and authentic.”
“We’re not trying to model ourselves after Portland or Austin or San Francisco or anybody like that,” McGinty said. “We’re just trying to be who we are.”
Brandon Roberson, a second-year in electrical engineering, said Columbus is not only the political capital of Ohio, but also the technological, cultural and social capital.
“When I think about Columbus, everything about Ohio is here,” he said.
For Kristen Eickart, Columbus is about games.
“I think about Columbus, I think of Origins, the biggest gaming convention in the US,” said Eickart, a first-year in finance and German.