San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

June 22nd, 2010
Editorial: Branding the town down


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.

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33 thoughts on “Editorial: Branding the town down

  1. i thought we already had a “brand” – a Texas Natural. i agree with the editorial board on this one – neither logo is worth $150k….

  2. By and large, I agree, although I do see some value in branding the city. But then, I have a marketing background. I certainly hope the branding goes far beyond a logo, for $150,000. I hope it really gets into identifying what sets us apart from Austin and other cities and towns – what makes us special. I hope that it outlines our strengths and our weaknesses (so that we know what to work on).

    That kind of brings me to the larger issue, which is the whole identity thing. I go to Austin about twice a year. I work in San Antonio. It is nice to be relatively close to both cities, for job security. It would be far nicer, to have more careers here in San Marcos. Either way, the appeal of San Marcos is right here in San Marcos, and to a lesser extent, in the communities immediately around us, like New Braunfels, Gruene, Kyle, Buda, Wimberley, etc. I can get to Austin and San Antonio when I need to, but I am in San Marcos, because this is where I want to be. I drive 35,000 miles per year, to be right here. I don’t need to see the city branded as anything related to Austin (or San Antonio), because I’d move there, if that was what I was looking for.

    I wonder why San Marcos wasn’t represented as sitting atop the hill, overlooking Austin (not that I believe Austin belongs in our brand). Was it a coincidence, or do we see ourselves as beneath Austin? Is that how the branding team sees us? Is that the image we want to carry forward?

    It reminds me of a friend in college, who always had a little trouble getting a date. At one point, my girlfriend sat him down and told him that women could just sense that he was desperate and told him to “fake it, until you make it.” It also reminds me of a phrase an old boss was fond of: “if you can’t conceive it, you can’t achieve it.”

    Instead of being an apologetic “also ran” to Austin, why not set our sights a little higher? Why not work on a brand (not just a logo and a slogan), which highlights all that is great about San Marcos and even embellishes a little? After all, like a resume or a dating profile, people are going to see what we say about ourselves and then knock it down a little, to what they believe is the truth.

  3. Sorry, but this is lame.

    It looks like a freshman marketing assignment.

    Is this what $150,000.00 is buying us?

    We just got sold out,


  4. Um, I belive that is supposed to be our Courthouse and Old Main, not the Capitol the the clock tower.

  5. That would be better. I don’t think the clock tower has a spire, so you may be right. Maybe the branding team has an explanation. I wasn’t able to attend the meeting at the activity center. This editorial, if inaccurate, could have been headed off with a quick press release, I suppose.

    I’ll have to take back some of my initial thoughts, now that I see the courthouse and Old Main. I think it might grow on me; particularly the one on the left, but I wonder if it is flawed, if it is misinterpreted so easily.

    Unfortunately, for me anyway, it is too late for me to say if I would have seen Austin, or San Marcos in that skyline, if I had looked at it before reading the editorial.

  6. And, to turn things around (since I like to keep an open mind), perhaps “Near” means near Austin and San Antonio, for folks there, who would want to come here for a day, or a weekend, as opposed to near for people who would live here, when they can’t afford to live there.

  7. Yeah, I think I was mistaken and the editorial board was too. I’d like to see some trees on the left, perhaps between the river and the buildings (sort of like the right), but I think there is potential here.

    Again, branding is a lot more than a logo and a slogan, though. I’m curious what else we got for our $150,000.

  8. The logo on the right makes me think of driving down Congress Ave. toward the state capitol. If the building in the middle is the courthouse and the one on the right is Old Main (the spire is abstract and doesn’t look just like the clock tower or Old Main), then how do you explain the building on the left? That shape isn’t in San Marcos, but it is in Austin. Maybe the logo is supposed to be ambiguous. But if you say “near” with an image that looks so much like the drive on South Congress, I don’t think you can escape thinking it’s Austin.

    The logo on the left I can see either way, as showing San Marcos or Austin, but I see Austin right away (especially when you put it with those words) and have to be talked into seeing San Marcos. The logo looks dopey, and it is ambiguous. The shapes are so abstract that you can’t tell if they are capital and clock tower, or the courthouse and Old Main. The clock tower/Old Main shape doesn’t really look like either one. The spire is more like Old Main (not exactly), but the representation is a tower. The clock tower is a tower, and Old Main isn’t.

    Putting the words with the image, I see it like the editorial does. I see Austin, and I don’t think Austin should be in our brand. If you need an explanation from the designer to tell you that its trying to show San Marcos, then it’s not very effective.

  9. Pull the yellow building, replace with trees; I think there is potential. I like the simple shapes in the logo on the left. I think they work well.

  10. Because the brand is supposed to draw people from outside San Marcos, we have to think about how they would see it. It stands to reason that the people being targeted will see Austin in these logos, and not San Marcos, especially when you put the text with the images. People all over Texas walk around with images of the capitol and the clock tower. Old Main is much less familiar to outside San Marcos, and who would know about the courthouse or think its a big deal? I don’t think anyone would see anything about San Antonio.

  11. the view on South Congress looking north is strikingly similar to the logo on the left. My first impression, prior to even reading the editorial, was that it looked like Austin. That said, after looking at it for a bit I think the yellow building is supposed to symbolize a business, and the pink one is a home. Still, if you have to explain the logo, then it isn’t a good logo. It doesn’t immediate register. It is very ambiguous and almost juvenile in both shape and color. The one on the right comes a bit closer to symbolizing San Marcos, with the tree/river motif being more apparent, but the buildings (particularly the building on the left) don’t connect visually with San Marcos. The one on the left is particularly bothersome because it emphasizes the human built environment despite San Marcos being more known for its natural environment. In both, I think the ‘tower’ look to represent Texas State is derived from the ‘bull’s eye’ Texas State logo that has one of the spires of Old Main inside a filled circle.

    Also, I don’t like the modernist look of either logo. I am very concerned it is too trendy, for lack of a better term, and as a result will lack staying power and become dated. That would result in us doing this whole little $150K exercise again in 5-10 years. Speaking of which, I agree with Ted that I would love to find out what else that $150k bought us.

  12. CWS, I think the view from Congress looks more like the logo on the right. Take the non-descript brown building, next to the Frost Bank building and move it to the left of the capitol, change the scaling and crop a little.

    http :// www (remove spaces).

    I don’t really see Austin in the logo on the left.

  13. Now I’m starting to, but not as much as the one on the right.

    I need to stop looking at this stuff.

  14. They should have taken a look at Thomaides’ campaign signs from last November.

    That appears to be the look that the “image” consultants were trying to achieve, but they certainly missed the mark.

    These nonsensical shapes are reminiscent of Sesame Street.

    Perhaps Mayor Susan could ask Mr. Thomaides very nicely

    if he would consider donating his campaign logo artwork (and thus saving us $150,000.00),

    for this otherwise pathetic, lost cause.

  15. My thought was this brand was to last for years. It looks like a modern (fad) design, and I can see this design phased out over the next five to ten years. And it also doesn’t promote what is best about San Marcos – our green spaces, rivers, and shopping. I am highly disappointed. Look at Georgetown’s brand – simple and classic. Even Kyle has a pretty good brand with the state of Texas outline behind the city name. I don’t feel either of these examples will fulfill the need of a brand/logo/slogan for long. For $150,000 I would have expected better. The slogan with the brand should promote the city. I feel there is a double meaning with Pretty. Near. Perfect. It puts down the city… “Awe, we ain’t perfect, but we’re pretty near”. What? Don’t insult yourself in the slogan!!

  16. I liked John’s campaign signs, but I prefer the simple “Sesame Street” buildings. Simpler is better, IMO. Look at the Windows logo – four colored squares, in a square; Apple: an apple with a bite out of it; McDonald’s golden arches; Nike’s swoosh; Intel’s name in a circle; Dell’s name in a circle (with a tilted ‘E’); Budweiser’s bowtie and crown; etc.

    In the end, I am not sure how important it is, although it would be nice to get it right. If you Google (another simple logo) “best city branding,” very few of the articles even mention logos, or slogans. Perhaps a better starting point, would be to reach a consensus about the brand we are trying to build: Who are we? What makes us special? Who/what are we trying to attract? Who/what are we trying not to attract? What experience do we want people to have, when they are here? What do we want them to tell others about us?

    Once those questions are answered, the logo and slogan could reinforce those, to some extent, but they don’t build the brand. They aren’t the foundation for the brand. The logo and the slogan aren’t really what would make or break an effort like this. What makes or breaks this effort, is whether or not we have clear definition of how we want the city to be perceived, a plan to address any glaring inconsistency between that perception and reality, and a plan for getting the word out.

  17. I think this city is the heartbeat of Texas. For 10,000 years human beings have understood the magic of this place and lived here. I’m not particularly supportive of the branding initiative, however, I see the value of it. But we’re so much more than just a couple of buildings and a blue line to represent the river. We’re a hotbed of musical talent, we’ve got world class shopping at the outlet malls, we’ve got a gorgeous river and big lush trees. Birds and butterflies and flowers. An awesomely preserved downtown that shows us a glimpse of the past. A wonderful university that’s not absurdly over-glamorous. Little theater companies and ballet. Public art and cool new tennis courts. A melting pot of cultures. I just don’t see that in the graphics for the brand. I know it’s impossible to get all that on a logo but maybe one of them would have been nice. We’re lively, not generic. I see the branding as, perhaps, a necessary nod to popular culture. I’d just like to see something with a little more backbone.

  18. Hap, that’s what I’ve been trying to say. The logo is not our brand. Things like you described are our brand. The logo, like the swoosh, is just something that people (in a perfect world) woud see and associate with all of those things. But, like the swoosh, the logo won’t be able to create that association and it probably won’t be able to reinforce that association. It merely creates a simple way to put our stamp on things.

    When you see the Nike swoosh on something, you immediately know it is Nike. Any assumptions you then make about the product are based on what you know about Nike, not what you think of the swoosh.

  19. Incidentally, I just recreated the logo on the right, from the Austin skyline, in about three minutes. Could be a coincidence, though.

  20. There’s a big problem if you can’t identify the buildings. Shoot, I think the domed building looks like Mission Concepcion in San Antonio. And I agree that the logo is a put-down. Why would you pay someone to do that? The price tag is a bit much to bear.

    Why didn’t the City sponsor a competition? Might have gotten better ideas for a lesser price.

  21. Lila, that’s a great idea, to crowdsource things like this in the community. We don’t have to keep paying big bucks to hardly out of town consultants in order to move forward.

  22. As one who lived in Austin in the mid 70’s when it was still weird sans bumpersticker to reminisce, how about my Facebook suggestion of the “The New Weird.”

  23. As for the Editorial: Amen and amen and amen.

    Especially the part about the “branding” FAD, which was dreamed up by underemployed marketing consultants, and which will pass in due time. What is fundamental about us as a community is not a commercial issue, but an existential one: WHO ARE WE? What we are cannot be easily packaged or sold. We are not as compact as, say, Lady Ga-Ga, nor do we appeal to the same base instincts–YET. What we are, I think, is “NOT Austin. NOT San Antonio. NOT a real or imagined prostitute. Maybe just “A Texas Natural,” which encapsulates all the reasons I have chosen to spend almost a half-century here. It’s about pretty, easygoing, friendly, but seriously competent, charm.

    Did the “consultants” who read our watches and told us the wrong time, and who have done spent much of that money, know that 40%+ of the faculty at the University choose to live outside the city, and could not be lured back by a slogan or graphic? Do they know that TXSTATE has also spent a bucket of “branding” money? (Wonder if the “brands” will coincide in any way?) They’ve got the industrial and business recruiting ground pretty well covered, and have the resources to back up their claims, unless it is their readiness to get into big-money sports, which may be a huge disaster. (You have to HAVE big money to “run with the big dogs.”)

    Are they aware that about 40% of our local population prefers to live here and work “out there,” like Ted? Now why would that be? Perhaps because it costs more to live in a metro area, and therefore pays better? Perhaps because living in a metro area, unless you are really affluent, is such a perpetual and unrelenting pain in the behind?

    One might assume the “brand” is about what we wish to be, not what we are–else why bother? We just about have it all now, except for an adequately diverse economic base; even in this case, we are diverse enough that when one sector takes a downturn, others sustain us. Recruitment of “jobs” (code for capital investment) is driven SOLELY by locally available resources, like minerals, natural resources, scientific and technical talent, cheap labor (one of our most unfortunate assets), proximity of supply and distribution chains, and harvestable money, including tax giveaways and other “incentives.” Oddly, worldwide research over time has shown “quality of life” and quality of educational resources to trump “incentives” every time, two first and one last among reasons for location choice.

    So what are our best historic resources? People, pace of life, sense of community, and natural setting. Those are also the keys to our future, unless we sell our collective soul and foul our own nest. Growth? We have no choice. Growth in a direction that sustains us and makes us better? That is our most serious choice. We can take any path to the future, including both the scattergun throbs we have had lately, and growth managed so we still HAVE choices. There is a point of no return. Ask Detroit. Ask California, for that matter.

    It’s not about a logo and slogan, however juvenile or sophisticated or graphically seductive. Look at all the “brands” for striving Texas communities in publications like “Texas Monthly,” “Texas Highways,” etc. Do YOU feel an incredible urge to check out Grapevine or Port A or Odessa or Six Flags when you see their stuff? Well, maybe Fredericksburg, but not often or for long.

    It is, after all, the people, not the Chamber or the City Council folks, who are left with the results. It is the people who are supposed to care enough to make the choices, since they pay the bills and mop up the messes.

  24. Just put a pic of the outlet mall. as for a slogan: “San Marcos the place where irregular is regular”

  25. Brand is not a logo. Brand is not a corporate identity system. Brand is not a product. Branding efforts are not to be summed up by the designers or one selected individual. Brand is built upon reason. Brand is what the audience says it is, not what you say it is.

    The foundation of a great branding strategy stems from the identity, as the identity is the gateway into an effective idea. In short, the identity is lacking three major components: who, what and why. It is evident in the statements above reflecting “what building is what” and confusion becomes the underlying response rather than an refreshing design built upon reason, evidence and innovation.

    San Marcos is more than buildings and san serif typefaces. Read the thirty comments above from other participants to generate a word list beyond the thirty minutes spent invested in a lesser attempted focus group.

  26. whew! i think everyone is missing the target on what san marcos needs–including the people who sit on the committee board. san marcos needs an identity more than just a mark; a brand, perhaps. but what san marcos is lacking is at the core of all successful small towns. a true sense of community and additionally a sense of pride.

    first and foremost we need to really get on the physical image of the town–pick up the litter! and pass a city ordinance on yard trash.

    second, work on your road system and inner town beautification. additionally work on the main areas where people first get an impression of san marcos–the off ramps. draw them into the town, both logically and aesthetically.

    then maybe we can start working on wayfinding and an identity system.

    my two cents

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