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What Amazon’s HQ2 will mean for a city’s brand

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Can a city hold onto—and control—its identity when a mega-corporation moves in?

Alyssa Nassner

Amazon announced plans in September 2017 to build a second headquarters, and cities across the country have since pitched their best and most ambitious selves to try and snag the tech company’s expected $5 billion investment and projected 50,000 jobs.

Now the pageant is over. Today, Amazon announced it’s opening two new headquarters: one in Long Island City, a rapidly developing area in the New York City borough of Queens, and the other in Crystal City, a neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia, just south of Washington, D.C. It also announced an “Operations Center of Excellence” in Nashville.

Now, the cities are thrust into the spotlight both locally and nationally, and will forever change. Amazon has already rebranded Crystal City as “National Landing” in its news release and New York is speculating about what comes next. This raises a crucial question: How does a city define—and hold onto—its identity when a big, powerful, and influential company moves in?

Long Island City will be the site of Amazon’s new headquarters in New York. The area has been rapidly redeveloping.

What is “place branding?”

Throughout history, brands have become closely associated with the cities in which they build headquarters—and vice versa. Apple prints “Designed in Cupertino” on the back of its products. Mountain View is a Google town. Nike put Portland on the map as an athleticwear city and, soon, other brands, like Adidas and Under Armour, followed.

Cities have become brands in and of themselves; try to count all the places aspiring to be “The Brooklyn of…” General Motors and Ford came to represent Detroit, for better and worse. Since the automotive industry’s contraction, the “Motor City” has been struggling to reverse its single-sector image. And Seattle, before Amazon, was and still is associated with Starbucks.

Now that Amazon announced its next major bases, the respective cities have an opportunity to signal what they stand for now and what they will stand for in the future. Just as companies sell and position themselves through their branding—including strategy, slogans, visual identity systems, and logos—countries, cities, and neighborhoods can, too.

Throughout the HQ2 process, cities have touted their high quality of life, receptiveness to business and innovation, and their willingness to grow with a partner. Even places that didn’t make Amazon’s list of finalists for its second headquarters still revamped their economic development policies, in bids to better execute their visions for the future of their respective cities. Essentially, they were thinking about their brand.

“Branding is all about perception,” says Geoff Cook, a partner at the creative agency Base Design, which has worked on a number of place-branding projects from the scale of buildings all the way up to cities, including design and strategy for Brussels, Belgium; Lausanne, Switzerland; and New York City’s Meatpacking District. “If one makes a conscious decision, one can communicate that and attract the types of businesses needed to fulfill that desired perception.”

Cities usually cite one of three reasons to brand themselves: to attract business investment; to entice tourists (who also bring money); and to inspire civic pride among residents. A place-branding project involves examining what a city or neighborhood stands for, then translating that to a set of principles will inform things like signage, websites, typography, social media campaigns, slogans, a logo, and any other medium that communicates the area’s ethos.

“You always want to fundamentally understand what that city and neighborhood is about at its core: What are its values? What’s its history? Where has it been and where is it going?” Cook says. “It’s really important that the foundational work be done correctly so that the [visual expressions of that narrative] are accurate.”

Crystal City, an area in Arlington, Virginia, is the site of a third Amazon headquarters. The tech company’s announcement already rebranded it “National Landing.”

The “self-contained citadel” vs. the “ballet of the city”

To Suzanne Livingston, global principal of the branding agency Wolff Olins, there are two main things to consider for the city that lands HQ2: How Amazon affects the city and how the city affects Amazon.

“The bigger question is how the city sees itself, how it persuades Amazon to invest in its existing spirit—to amplify it and extend it—so that the city retains its identity, and Amazon benefits from its vibrancy,” Livingston says. “The ideal scenario is that Amazon allows the life of its new home city to run right through it.”

Livingston has worked on city-wide branding projects for Beijing, London, and Qatar. She cautions against a city giving its identity over to Amazon and effectively becoming a “sponsored town,” which, she says, could bring short-term gains, but would alienate people who don’t work for Amazon and who aren’t part of the tech industry. To express this identity, Livingston suggests enrichment initiatives: sharing resources; investing in talent, education, and community groups; and enhancing the natural environment.

Amazon is opening a new headquarters in the Crystal City area of Arlington, Virginia.
Courtesy Amazon

The tech company chose Long Island City, a neighborhood in Queens, for its New York City headquarters.
Courtesy Amazon

“No company should be a citadel,” she says. “More than anything, big companies need to work with the flow of the city. Jane Jacobs talked of ‘the ballet of the good city’—a city which is always improvising, where the same thing doesn’t repeat twice. Amazon and its new home city, would do well to be equal partners in that dance, each responding to the other, and letting surprising things happen.”

Creating an identity alongside a “Mammoth, Pervasive, and Bland” brand

Amazon made its name as a company about efficiency. Aside from pragmatism—getting you want you want quickly, easily and cheaply—Amazon as a brand doesn’t have too many associations. Its image isn’t about aspiration (like Nike), or social good (like Patagonia), or innovation (like Google or IBM).

Its HQ2 city search was carried out in a similar way: Amazon initially said it was only looking at a few requirements: having good public transportation, a population of over 1 million, and proximity to a major airport. It didn’t discuss wanting to be in a creative capital or in a place that had a particular identity. This open-endedness is mirrored in Amazon itself—and offers a unique chance for cities to capitalize on it.

Amazon has evolved from an online bookseller to selling just about everything: It’s a media company, through Prime Video and Amazon Studios and a hardware company, thanks to products like its Echo home assistant. It sells furniture. Its facial recognition technology makes it a software company, too. Essentially, if there’s a way for you to spend money, Amazon probably has a product for you.

“Amazon wants to be like air and water,” says Abbott Miller, a partner at the design firm Pentagram. “[The company is] a medium; [it’s] not a brand unto themselves.”

Aside from its logo, Amazon doesn’t have much in terms of a brand identity. In the 1980s, a fictitious ad agency called “Mammoth, Pervasive, and Bland” began placing ads in newspapers. It was actually a satirical critique of nondescript brands and a surreptitious advertisement for an actual creative agency who produced more evocative campaigns. Because of its disinterest in establishing a strong and singular visual identity, Miller believes that cities have an opportunity to create their own image in a way that’s more open-ended than a company like Apple—whose worldview is expressed through its architecture, product design, and graphic identity.

“What’s interesting about Amazon is it’s a strong brand, it’s a mammoth brand, but it doesn’t bring with it associations of personality or spirit,” Miller says. “Maybe these city ventures will come with some of the articulation.”

Over the past few years, Long Island City and Crystal City have been positioning themselves for growth. JBG, the primary landholder in Crystal City, has embarked on placemaking initiatives like public artwork and painted bike lanes to help attract new life to the area, as vacancy rates for commercial space remain high. And with the Amazon announcement, it has an entirely new name: National Landing. Meanwhile, Long Island City has rezoned, constructed thousands of residential units, and transformed its industrial waterfront into a recreation space. Still, it struggles with major inequality issues.

These areas are known to outsiders for their proximity to other points of interest—like easy commutes to midtown in the case of Long Island City, and proximity to D.C. without the high taxes in the case of Crystal City. They have the opportunity now to develop a more nuanced story depending on how they associate themselves with certain elements of what Amazon represents.

In its announcement, Amazon described Long Island City as a “mixed-use community where arts and industry intersect” and expressed interest in its “diverse community with a unique blend of cultural institutions, arts organizations, new and converted housing, restaurants, bars, breweries, waterfront parks, hotels, academic institutions, and small and large tech sector and industrial businesses.” In the context of Arlington, Amazon mentioned its mixed-use nature and “abundant parks and open space with sports and cultural events for residents of all ages throughout the year.”

“Each location has to think: How am I going to improve what are known to be our challenges and how can we co-create with Amazon?” says Sabah Ashraf, CEO of the international creative agency Superunion’s U.S. operations. They’ll receive so much free press and free advertising [when HQ2 is announced] and they’ll need to be prepared with what they want to say about why they’re chosen, and amplify these messages.”

Will a brand even stick?

Measuring whether or not these strategic branding initiatives work is challenging—and there’s a scant amount of empirical data about their success rates. They don’t often work out.

Miller is skeptical about place-branding in the context of Amazon’s second headquarters.

“It’s hard to say what they will become, but it seems difficult to engineer that to happen,” he says. “There are certain things—like iconic transportation or pedestrian wayfinding or marketing campaigns—that can build a sense of identity as a place, but the real impact is something that emerges organically over time and has as much to do as how the company interacts with the city and neighborhoods as anything else.

If, Miller adds, “[Amazon is] viewed as a beneficial new force or one that completely alters the landscape of the city and gentrifies the city in a blunt way, those things will have more impact than the ‘Amazon Brand.’ The social force will take precedence over any message they engineer.”

But if a city takes a long and hard look at how it is communicating its values to current and future residents, it could steer the social forces in the direction it wants and assure that the message doesn’t get lost in translation. An image of these cities in the context of Amazon is already being formed in our imaginations. There’s still a great deal of uncertainty and opacity to the whole HQ2 bidding process, which has led to nervousness, distrust, and anger in some, and optimism, opportunism, and excitement others. With branding, cities have a chance to ensure their image conveys their reality.