Commentary

The City Of Slumped Shoulders

First, there was last year's double Forbes slam, then the Olympics debacle, Blago, the unhappiness scale -- and now, adding insult to injury, Fortune couldn't find a single Chicago-headquartered company worthy of its annual listing of the Top 100 Companies to work for. It seems the city of Big Shoulders is in a public relations/branding slump these days. Ironic, as it's also second base for the world's largest marketing firms. Where's the civic pride, guys and girls?

Chicago's most recent brand problems were started in 2008 by Forbes magazine, which is about lists: the Richest, the Best, the Most Richest Bestest, and, in the case of Brand Chicago, the (sixth) Worst City and then the Most Stressful City. Comments like "lousy weather, long commutes, high unemployment rates, political corruption and the country's highest sales tax" were cited as reasons why Chicago was being treated like a gassy, leprous old uncle at Thanksgiving dinner.

In early 2009 it seemed like Obama-mania might pull Chicago out of its downward PR spiral. While it wasn't Camelot redux, the halo effect of the Obama campaign/election had a definite, albeit short-lived positive impact on Brand Chicago. The election night million-person group grope at Grant Park was so lovingly televised, anyone watching it could have mistaken Chicago for the ethereal cloud city in the second "Star Wars" movie. And all those people we Chicagoans had stood behind at Starbucks -- Valerie, Desiree, Rahm, David and Barack himself -- were now running the country! But leave it to our friends at Forbes to yank that cloud away when they declared Chicago the third Most Miserable City.

And as if this wasn't enough, America's least popular governor (Rasmussen Report), Rod Blagojevich, created more controversy with his appointment of Roland Burris to fill Obama's senate seat. PR problems were compounded by Chicago's failed Olympic bid, which even presidential intervention couldn't save. A report by the Trust for America's Health found that Illinois adults were the 27th fattest in the country but the kids were the 10th! Then the New Year's double tap: a Warwick survey of 1,000,000 Americans ranked Illinois 45 on the nation's happiness scale, and of Fortune's Top 100 Companies, not a single one was headquartered in Chicago (or Illinois, for that matter).

If your company was described as miserable, stressful, unhappy, corrupt and fat, you would have a marketing nightmare on your hands. Those are the words that the media has used to define Brand Chicago. Forget the fact that Chicago is home to several world class museums, an amazing lakefront and more bars than any other city in the country; it's clearly not a happy place to live or work! As a matter of fact the only populations that seem to be in a rush to move to Chicago are invasive fish: the Gobi and Asian Flying Carp!

So, with the collective brain trust of companies like Leo Burnett, Edelman, DraftFCB and Ogilvy & Mather, among others, why isn't Chicago's marketing community taking care of its home turf? Why not pool resources for a marketing blitz that kicks Arnold's smirking California campaign back to the fault line? I work in Chicago, and I'm not particularly stressed, miserable, unemployed or unhappy, which makes me either atypical or about to move.

Chicago is a story in a room full of storytellers who have yet to figure out that they should be picking up the pen and siren and telling it to the rest of the country. In the meantime, you'll find me at one of 300 bars within walking distance of my office. That fact alone should make any sane person happy.

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1 comment about "The City Of Slumped Shoulders ".
  1. Doug Ruhl from J Walter Thompson , February 22, 2010 at 3:24 p.m.

    Great article! Chicago bashing is pretty popular of late. http://www.newgeography.com/content/0040-the-decline-chicago-the-city-doesnt-work.

    Isn't the new paradigm of "it's not what you say it is, it's what they say it is" being understood? I am on the road all the time and constantly defending my decision to live here. Having to explain why I do so against all of the odds that are presented here especially this time of year. We all were hopeful the the Obama halo and the Olympics would put us on the map in the way nothing had before. But now, I think it is time for the next generation of Chicagoans to take over and create the new Brand Chicago that will keep moving us all forward. I love my city and want to be a part of keeping it great!