The two branding images up for consideration by the City of San Marcos. Staff graphic.
By the San Marcos Local News editorial board
Back in 2005, the City of San Marcos included, in its annual report, a captivating statistic. Among the population numbers, the publication gave one for the “San Marcos Metro” area.
The population for the San Marcos Metro area came to 3,133,237.
The very idea of measuring a Greater San Marcos Metropolitan Area was positively inspired, treating, as it does, Austin and San Antonio as gigantic outer suburbs and suggesting that San Marcos lives at the heart of it all. We like the tongue-in-cheek aggrandizement of San Marcos suggested by placing the Capital City and the Alamo City in our shadow. Our townies often have been heard calling San Marcos “the jewel of the corridor,” and we certainly couldn’t agree more.
We’re not as thrilled with the idea in play for the city’s on-going branding initiative, for which the city is spending more than $150,000. The two branding images now up for consideration were on display last week at the San Marcos Activity Center, where citizens were allowed to vote for one or the other.
We wish an option had been in place to vote for neither. Each image represents the city’s proximity to Austin along with a little slogan: “Pretty. Near. Perfect.”
Even if it’s the way of the world now, the very idea of cities and people “branding” themselves makes us wretch. People and cities aren’t athletic shoes or boxes of cereal, which pretend to spiritual contents because appeals to health and nutrition don’t motivate enough sales. People and cities truly are spiritual, and they demean themselves when they capitulate to ham-fisted appeals like “branding.”
But if we have to brand ourselves, do we have to tout ourselves for the grand, good fortune of being located on bended knee before the great, imperial Austin? One proposed branding image represents San Marcos, visually, as being on a lower plane than Austin. The other image shows San Marcos as being, literally, beneath Austin.
We don’t know what the focus groups think, but we know what we think. Austin is going to the dogs, and has been for quite some time. Austin has set about aggressively undermining its dusty, cosmic cowboy aura that once made it such a blast. Austin started branding itself as “The Live Music Capital of the World,” just about when young clubbers began picking dee jays over live bands. Austin is what happens when parvenus from San Jose read in Playboy Magazine about “The Live Music Capital of the World,” so they move to Austin, next door to live music venues, then shut down the stages with noise complaints. A fat lot of good branding has done for Austin.
It’s common, and charming, that people in San Marcos point out that their city is what Austin used to be, back in a distant time when the Capital City wasn’t so full of itself. We like what we are, in large part because we aren’t what Austin has become. One would think that a branding effort by a city should somehow communicate what a city likes about itself. Instead, we get a brand proposal that promotes San Marcos as a subservient Robin, the trusted ward of Austin as Batman.
It goes like this: “San Marcos is pretty. San Marcos is pretty near Austin. Austin is perfect. Therefore, San Marcos is pretty near perfect. Pretty. Near. Perfect.”
It would appear that we have seated the only branding committee that could turn a branding initiative into an inferiority complex.
We appreciate that the proposed branding slogan — Pretty. Near. Perfect. — makes each word count more than once, but that’s the most we can say for it. If we’re going to cast ourselves as being in the shadow of another city, why not cast ourselves as being in the shadow of two cities, especially when the cities are so different as Austin and San Antonio? It’s the contrast between those towns, with Austin facing California and San Antonio facing Mexico, that more truly captures our dynamic situation.
Better yet, why cast ourselves in the shadow of any city? If we’re going to brag, then let’s be good at it. Let’s put Austin and San Antonio into our shadow. That would actually be cheeky, and it would describe the true appeal of this town, which is unencumbered by the snarls of Austin or San Antonio while enjoying the easy access to the amenities of both. In between Austin and San Antonio is the best environment for human experience, the “jewel of the corridor.”
No city is perfect, but look at us. We have 50,000 people, the ideal size for the polis. And we’ve got something for all 50,000 of us.
We’ve got a university, the only place in any town where the world is as large as it really is, and that university is making impressive strides. With a large university comes young, vital, curious people to keep us perpetually vivacious. If you’ve got an intellectual bent, we’ve got a university to keep you up to date.
We don’t have professional theater, but we’ve got inspired college theater that presents excellent pieces very well executed, and it’s located just a bracing walk from a downtown that circulates day and night. We’ve got the components of a warm, calm, urbane life.
We don’t have professional sports or big-time college sports, but we’ve got something better. We’ve got small-time college sports that haven’t been polluted by all the entertainment schlock that has made the big athletic shows so nauseous. And that still will be true if Texas State goes to the higher level of college football.
We could improve. We could be more walkable and bikable, and that will happen as the public applies pressure. We could do with some better restaurants, but that comes with higher wages. If the public will to train our workforce is there, then it will happen.
But we’ve also still got a tree line that’s higher than the skyline, and a hot day in San Marcos is never as hot as a hot day in Austin. We’ve got beautiful river recreation on a human scale. We’ve got citizens who often disagree, which is healthy, but they care, which is healthy. We’ve got any kind of shopping anybody would want, the most prestigious retailers as a benefit of the outlet malls.
We’ve got 50,000 people, and we’ve got all that, besides. We’re not a large city, but we’re a great city. We all know, all too well, that accommodating growth while maintaining the proportions that harmonize this city so nicely is a very challenging puzzle. But we also have needs, which means we need some measure of growth, the right kind of growth.
It’s important to realize, though, that growth is not a goal for this city. A goal is an outcome that can only be realized by a concerted effort. We are in the path of growth. We don’t have to lift a finger to grow. Therefore, growth is not a goal for San Marcos. However, the right kind of growth is a worthy and difficult goal, particularly in light of sprawling development trends that have destroyed American cities since at least World War II. If some kind of cheesy branding initiative is going to help with that, then we can live with it.
But if we’re going to slap a logo and a slogan on our forehead, let’s go for something bold and saucy, rather than whimper in the shadow of a city that has lost its way to growth as it succumbs to Californication. We’re a Texas town. We reject the shadow of a California town, especially when we could also pick the shadow of a real Texas town like San Antonio.
As Austin’s recent history so sadly illustrates, the trick to expanding a city is to attract the right kind and amount of people while repelling the wrong kind and amount of people. It’s hard to get growth right on that kind of scale. In that sense, Austin has failed. We understand that, which is why we are not Austin’s idolatrous little brother. Thus, we do not wish to attract the kind of people who want to live in Austin’s idolatrous little brother. So, let’s not brand ourselves as Austin’s idolatrous little brother.
Let’s instead go with a brand that attracts people who will be drawn to San Marcos by their urban perceptiveness and not by their credulousness with respect to marketing messages. Therein lies a conundrum: How do we design a brand that doesn’t attract the kinds of dupes who would homogenize our town through the same flat impulses that make them responsive to branding?
The answer, we suppose, is a subtle, though swaggering, anti-brand. We need a brand that says, “Take us, or leave us.” We don’t need a brand that says, “If you just can’t afford Austin, you can still live and operate here. We’re good enough, and close enough.” Even if all that is true.
By the latest population counts we have seen, the Greater San Marcos Metropolitan Area now numbers about 3.6 million people, which would make it the 15th largest Metropolitan Statistical Area in the country. But that designation will never appear on a report from the Office of Management and Budget, because San Marcos isn’t appropriately situated as a “central city.” However, that designation would be a fine basis for a San Marcos branding initiative. The Wonder Bread people hiding behind spendy haircuts and ironic self-detachment will merely be puzzled, if they’re moved at all. But curious people will be curious. Those are the people and businesses we want.Email | Print