The Branding Bamboozle

For authentic city building, Sacramento must look across the river

Back Web Only Jul 20, 2015 By Thomas Dodson

When I worked in television news, newsrooms were known by the faction that had the most internal influence. Some shops were producer-driven, some were reporter-driven and others were photographer-driven. These designations were largely implied but could sometimes be very telling about a station’s philosophy and its approach to covering the news.

I often think cities can be seen through a similar lens. For eons, the construction and government sectors drove Sacramento’s economic engine. You either worked in one of these two areas or you knew someone who did. It was that simple. Remember 2005?

We saw the direct and indirect effects of this across the region. The construction industry set local policy, and (too often) everyone just went along with it. Developers were given carte blanche to plow under some of the most fertile farmland in the world in order to build beige, stucco boxes. Concepts like innovation, economic diversity and job creation were laughable.

Then the bubble burst. And everything changed.

Sacramento Slide

The economic shift gave rise to something Sacramento hadn’t seen in ages: a creative renaissance. Newly unemployed people suddenly found themselves with a lot of time on their hands. They filled this time by taking pictures, drawing, painting and making stuff. A new generation of the creative class was born in Sacramento.

That’s when the marketers entered the henhouse. It was subtle at first, barely noticeable among the new and more diversified economy. But it was there, pushing, promoting and eventually, branding.

With a void in our economic identity, the smart move would have been to use this opportunity to reshape, refocus and redefine. But we blew it. We let the tail start wagging the dog.

Sacramento 3.0. Farm To Fork Capital of the World.  Always in Season. #InDowntownSac. A City That Works For Everyone. Vague. Uninspiring. Pointless. You could even argue counterproductive, I suppose.

We’ve allowed Sacramento’s identity to fall into the hands of mostly well-intentioned people who have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to civic or economic leadership. They’re throwing darts blindly in the dark in the hopes that something hits. This is not how world-class cities are born.

We’re marketing first, with the hopes that the content and/or programs will magically fall into place. And it’s not working. It never will.

Think about it another way. If you come up with a new product or service for your business, what’s the process for successfully bringing it to market? Concept. Design. Creation. Marketing. Or something like that. The point is, you don’t market your new creation until you have something concrete to launch.

And that’s not what Sacramento is doing. For some reason, we’re skipping what most would argue is the most important part of the cycle. We’re bypassing the content and jumping straight to the flag-waving. We’re selling sizzle, and we have no steak.

Across The River

If you’re paying attention, you know the true civic and economic innovation in our region is happening in West Sacramento. Gardens. Playgrounds. Educational programs. Public-private partnerships. Affordable housing. Ag-tech.

Mayor Cabaldon and his folks are crushing it on all fronts. Yet they’ve not hired any marketing firms to create fancy branding campaigns to tout their accomplishments. No one was paid $15,000 to create a hashtag that will go unused.

The contrast between our cities couldn’t be more apparent.

West Sacramento is putting content first, creating programs that have depth, impact and measurable results. They’re building better products, which will improve the quality of life for its residents.

Sacramento has put marketing first, creating branding campaigns for ideas that may or may not work. We’re floundering to find something tangible that we can hang our hats on and rally around.


It’s always easy to Monday-morning quarterback, to point out what’s wrong. The tough part is in finding solutions to the problems you identify. Luckily, we have a model for what’s working in our Yolo County neighbors.

The solution is simple: Knock it off. Sacramento’s leaders need to stop focusing on marketing, branding and hashtags. Start focusing on results instead. Let the brandapalooza die, OK? Whatever we are, whoever we are, the story will get out. We’ll rally around innovation, job creation and all the other cool, fun stuff we’re capable of. But stop trying to stick labels on empty boxes.

As the saying goes, “If you build it, they will come.” It’s not, “Let’s tell everyone about it and hope someone builds it.”

In short, let’s not back into our destiny. Let’s create it.


Brand Mother (not verified)July 20, 2015 - 2:56pm

Whoa whoa whoa. I hate to sound like brands overprotective mother but, are we using "brand" and "marketing" interchangeably here? A brand is "who" we are, marketing is "how" we tell people. West Sac is actually building a brand and using your example, Mr. Dodson, Sacramento is just making noise.
Brand isn’t the problem, Mr. Dodson, skimping the brand process and leaping right to marketing is.
Knowing who we are, where we are, what we have and where it makes sense for us to go next focuses resources and sustains momentum. A brand empowers a city with a value proposition, relevant differentiators and a cohesive sense of direction that ushers in investments. An aligned brand is key to mitigating risks, guarding resources and achieving strategic objectives across a region. Defining a sustainable brand and a map for the future is the best bet that anyone leading anything has of realizing their dream.
You’ll find me a passionate advocate of place branding having just relocated to West Sac from Buffalo, NY where I spent the last 10 years championing the city brand and ushering in revival.
Love to buy you a beer, Dodson, I’m new to town! @BrandMother

Visitor (not verified)July 21, 2015 - 1:28pm

Sacramento has 'little-man' complex, wanting so badly to be Portland or some other more progressive city, when the reality is so much different. Couldn't agree more with your piece. "The Kay" district. "The Handle" district. Trying to 'brand' every few blocks in a neighborhood does nothing for it's identity. I've lived a lot of places, and Sacramento has so much unrealized potential, but knowing the local bureaucracy in place, I can't see how it ever WILL be realized. Frustrating, and embarrassing.

Barbara (not verified)July 21, 2015 - 3:00pm

I had to laugh at this article too. The "homeless program" was a joke, resulting in much more crime in the state streets, and a mayor who only cares about "big things", not little ones. Existing problems, like the "other side" of West Capitol go unaddressed. Let's build a music barn, but let the prostitutes and homeless run wild on our streets. We have no decent places to eat, give or take the same old store front places or the few sit down. Any time there is a media opportunity, the Mayor is there, but a neighborhood meeting? No way. He cares little of "Old West Sacramento" and only of his beloved Riverfront businesses. Our neighborhoods are suffering, but let's build something big we can brag about!! Next time, try talking to the citizens before proclaiming success.

Emkay Tela (not verified)July 22, 2015 - 8:56am

"We’ve allowed Sacramento’s identity to fall into the hands of mostly well-intentioned people who have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to civic or economic leadership. " THANK YOU! The current state of "leadership" in Sacramento gives me flashbacks to my time in high school government (and we have a mayor who's basically been elected as Prom King). Good intentions for sure, but not really in a position to do anything significant. Also it does seem like the majority of people I've met through different organizations/events in town are to a fault either coming from marketing or sales.