Branding Buffalo

25 Feb

In a couple of recent posts, I’ve identified the brand of Buffalo as our biggest business and redevelopment challenge, and I’ve established that our culture in Buffalo is holding us back from progress. Today I want to examine our brand, and rebranding efforts, more closely. Why now? More on that later in the post.

Cities have brands the way any other product does. Just as Nike shoes will forever be linked with an image of Michael Jordan sailing to the basket, cities have brand reputations. And this goes beyond “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” (though that is great branding). New York is the Big Apple where anyone can make it, and anything can happen at any hour of the day or night. Los Angeles is the center of glitz and Hollywood. Nashville and Austin have fun music reputations. In the latter two cases, a couple of streets and bars (plus a music festival or two) is all it takes to keep that reputation intact. If you don’t like your city’s brand, you can remake it, a la Balboa, where a new famous museum changed everything. Brands morph and change. Hummer used to be known for rugged strength. Now it is a poster child for everything wrong with the American car industry, and is being shut down.

So, as a review, what is Buffalo’s current brand? I once described our potential logo as “an over taxed rusting factory covered in snow.” Chris Smith, in an article from a couple years ago, described it this way:

I would argue that our current national brand is that of a snowy, dying, heavily unionized, rust belt town that is still reeling from the death of our local manufacturing base.  Marketing organizations like the Buffalo CVB, Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, Buffalo Homecoming and Buffalo Rising have attempted to demonstrate that we are more than that confining description through urban and regional boosterism.

City brands are important because they help to attract (and retain) business, draw tourists, and attract (and retain) population. Phoenix’s reputation as a boom town became self reinforcing at a  certain point. Residents of the midwest, where there are “no jobs,” would move to Arizona because there “were jobs.” Many took construction jobs, building houses for the next wave of midwesterners with the same thoughts.

Buffalo’s snowy, rusting, dying brand is so important because not only does the rest of the country believe it, much of Buffalo believes it too. If Buffalo had a good reputation among more of its current residents, we would be shedding less population. Likewise, if the rest of the country had a different impression of Buffalo’s brand, jobs, tourists and population would be attracted to it, and the reality would change in addition to the illusory brand.

So its the brand boosterism efforts Chris references above that I really want to talk about, because I think the impression of Buffalo (brand) is more important than the reality of Buffalo. And in any case, the impression is much cheaper to change.

The first major rebranding effort I term the Drew Cerza Plan. Drew is the Wing King, of course, and organizes the yearly Buffalo Wing Festival, among other things. The Drew Cerza plans says “What good things is Buffalo already known for? Lets enhance those.” So if America already thinks of chicken wings and sports (Bills and Sabres) when they think of Buffalo, lets do more of that. Cerza himself was spotted in Pizza Hut adds selling more chicken wings nationally, and if you like sports, 2010 is a good year for you to be in Buffalo: the Sabres are winning, NCAA basketball in March, Empire State Games in the summer, and World Juniors Hockey in December. The CVB and new Buffalo Sports Commission have also been pushing smaller events – Buffalo will host the New York State high school swimming state championships soon. Those events add up to a real tourism industry, real jobs, and real visitor impressions changed. The benefit of the Drew Cerza plan is that you are altering the reputation of Buffalo, not completely rebuilding it.

The second major rebranding effort I call the “Donn Esmonde Plan.” This plan says “Everything people know about Buffalo is wrong – lets show them all the great things Buffalo really is.” This plan gives great satisfaction by finally showcasing the “real” Buffalo. But it is also a constant uphill fight because 60 years of Buffalo brand opposes it. So we package up the historic buildings, biomedical research, and a flourishing arts community and try to sell it to a skeptical audience. Every time we are named a Distinctive Destination by a niche organization, or our architecture is mentioned in a national publication, we cheer that America has finally noticed. We count each visitor to the Darwin Martin House, and hang on Cleveland Biolabs bringing 15 workers to the medical campus. One commenter on Chris Smith’s post mentioned above, Nathan Wallace, suggested Buffalo’s brand should be “Historically Innovative.” I love it – we do have great architecture and a great history of medical innovation (like the pacemaker). But you’d have to educate 98% of the Buffalo community on this history before you try to sell it.

Beyond these two major efforts, I find it interesting what major brand resources we have that seem outside of the rebranding process: Niagara Falls, major banking giants, and a huge college population. Note that the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s efforts and targeted industries (agribusiness, advanced manufacturing, life sciences, logistics, professional services and renewable energy) seem separate from either rebranding effort, or those three resources I mentioned.

For me, I’d be happy to rebrand our image into “fun.” As in, “Oh, you’re from Buffalo? I hear that’s a fun town.” Buffalo is a fun place already. We have enough known commodities (sports, chicken wings, beer), and enough unknown items to share (festivals, food) that staking out a reputation as “fun” should not be overwhelming. “Fun” would go a long way to dismiss some rust belt blues – Detroit is not a fun place.

So, to my original point: why talk about this today. Because a major rebranding effort, in the Drew Cerza model, is taking place this weekend downtown. While local high schools are playing their hockey championships in HSBC Arena, Labatt is hosting its massive pond hockey tournament, and the inaugural Powder Keg Festival is sandwiched in between. This expanding event combines not just our love of hockey, beer, and food, but it adds a little rebranding with a love of winter too. I will be taking my kids downtown to watch a little pond hockey, walk through an ice maze, and do some skating. Despite global warming, Buffalo will continue to have a reputation, and a reality, of long snowy winters. Colorado, Vermont and New Hampshire have long winters too, and yet are seen as winter sports paradises. We don’t have the mountains, but we should be able to find a way to play hockey, drink, ice skate, snow shoe and cross-country ski our way into a “fun” reputation.

5 Responses to “Branding Buffalo”

  1. Mark February 25, 2010 at 9:23 pm #

    “Detroit is not a fun place.”


  2. lefty February 26, 2010 at 2:15 pm #

    For the lifestyle branding, I would run full speed into a celebration of the winter. WNY has 4 seasons. The spring kinda sucks but Summer, Fall and Winter all have great positives. Sure other places do not get snow, but they have shitty weather for 3-4 months, where it is to crappy to do outdoor stuff and not cold enough for the fun stuff that comes with snow. See Pond Hockey and Powder Keg.

    As for businesses, that pitch is a lot harder then it should be. Buffalo and WNY has an AWESOME location when you consider the metro areas around it. It has good to above average Universities and Colleges and a lot of them. It should have super cheap power…

    If WNY could somehow find a way for the power that is created locally to stay local and become cheap, the region would explode with technology. Chris Smith posted about trying to get Google to bring Fiber to WNY. While that is an uphill battle, the allocation of large amounts of cheap power to technology companies that employ high skilled workers could and should be thrown into the mix. It just makes sense. But sadly, the power allocation goes to old industrial sites and too much is shipped downstate because it is Albany and NYC that run the Power Authority.

    Just imagine if Buffalo would try to build a Technology campus, similar to the Medical campus. Where there was talks of relocating ECMC, at the same time American Axle was closing down their plant, I envisioned a technology campus in this neighborhood. The AX site is large enough for say a Google Data Center. The ECMC campus is large and could be converted (with a ton of money) to a tech hub. Just down the road on Delavan is the Math Science Technology Preparatory School at Seneca and in a 2.5 mile radius you have Buffalo State, UB South and Canisius.

    If the powers that be were to get behind something like this with say a massive amount of close to free power and development funding, it could work. I know this has little to do with branding other than a Buffalo putting the globe on notice that it is serious about wanting to be a player in this century and not focused on trying to regain what it had in the last two.

  3. Buffalo International Film Festival February 26, 2010 at 4:33 pm #

    The Buffalo International Film Festival now has one of the largest public relations outreaches of any organization in Western New York. It reaches 165 countries and has a major presence on all the Social Networking sites: Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Flixter, and more.

    By producing a professional, international film festival, BIFF hopes to re-brand Buffalo as an extremely important Cultural Tourism destination.  Professionally run film festivals can bring millions of dollars into an economy in just a few days.

    In addition, BIFF supports the re-branding of Buffalo as a highly desireable film-production location.

    All of these things require the support of the entire community especially with community members spreading the word about positive things and not just repeating the old “myths” about the region.

    We appreciate all and any support from the community

  4. Nathan Wallace February 26, 2010 at 10:55 pm #

    Thanks for the shout-out Brian. I agree that the “Historically Innovative” brand would not be easy to pull off. I’m no branding expert, but my limited research in the field of place branding has led me to the conclusion that Buffalo needs a very ambitious brand. It’s also important to note that place branding is not just about perception. It is about enhancing ones brand by bringing about real change and progress. I think the “Historically Innovative” brand can connect Buffalo’s past, present, and potential future in a way that gives us a litmus test for the decisions that we make as a community. If we were to adopt this as our brand it would mean that we would have to build innovation into everything we do and every decision we make. This would undoubtedly be extremely difficult (especially for our local government), but we cannot affort to maintain the status quo if we want to compete for business and residents in this global economy. One possible avenue for bringing about this paradigm shift would be to use the web in a way that fosters collaboration and problem solving. I’m in the process of attempting to do just that with a website that I’m calling The motto of this collaborative effort is “ReBuff Cynicism, ReBuff the Status Quo, ReBuff Politics as Usual”. I’m hoping to win a contest that would give me some seed money to make this site a reality. I’ve made it to the second round of the competition, so if you’re interested in checking out the proposal I submitted for the contest go to or just Google “ReBuffalo”. I would appreciate any ideas that you or anyone else might have that I could use to improve on the concept.


  1. On Critics and Slush | - March 2, 2010

    […] applaud the organizers and their rebranding efforts. Better to have tried and achieved mixed success than not tried at all. A couple tweaks and I […]

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