With its low self-esteem and high urban blight, Hartford is the ultimate underdog city. Sad City Hartford documents the joys, sorrows and eccentricities of New England's Rising Star.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Where's The Beef?

The latest thing whipping everyone up into a frenzy on the Hartford scene is the Hartford branding effort being undertaken by the MetroHartford Alliance. It's an effort whose intention is in the right place, but it's an effort that is unduly expensive and far too drawn out. These days people seem love the idea of marketing and branding. Go hop around Twitter for awhile, every third person appears to be a VP of marketing or branding for some sort of company.

Having a fancy consulting firm, two years of deliberations and endless surveys are appropriate for the marketing of some products. For the city of Hartford it is not. That type of marketing that needs that sort of effort is the marketing of soda, insurance, potato chips, and toothpaste. Products that are widely consumed and for which there are many similar options. When a company is battling it out for a small slice of market share and millions of dollars in sales result in a 1% move in market share, that's when you spend years and thousands of dollars on marketing your brand. 

Coca-Cola is perhaps the best marketed company on the planet. It is so ubiquitous that Coca-Cola people will tell you that after "OK" "Coca-Cola" is the second most recognized phrase in the world and they are probably right. On a recent CNBC show about the iconic soda retailer one of their executives said that the company reaped an extra couple million in sales in a month simply by changing the two liter plastic bottle from a plain bottle to the classic contoured Coca-Cola bottle shape. Coca-Cola spend millions annually on building their brand, that's how they convince the globe to buy their soda rather than the many other easily and readily available options. 

Hartford doesn't need that kind of marketing operation. It's not necessary. Enlist a handful of local artists and designers. Have a contest. Let people submit their logos and slogans and then pick one. There is no need for the sort of drawn out process that this has become.

Everyone knows Hartford has an image problem. A logo and a slogan isn't going to change that. Hartford's image problem is due to twenty dead bodies before August. Hartford's image problem is due to vacant buildings, abandoned lots, understaffed police and open air drug markets. 

Hartford has a bad reputation. There are those who never or rarely come into town who have nothing good to say about Hartford. They can be found on the Hartford Courant's comments section. It's a mystery to us what motivates these people. There isn't anything wrong with not liking cities or not wanting to live in one. To each their own. In fact we can state without even knowing where these commenters are sitting that we probably wouldn't want to live where they live. Almost assuredly.

We just don't feel compelled to seek out their local papers and blast every story with negative comments. We don't have the time or the inclination to do so. We assume that these people are independently wealthy successful individual that have accomplished everything else in life except commenting on a news web site. Has to be right?

Then there is the group of Hartford residents that don't just enjoy living here. They love it so much one might be lead to believe that the streets of Hartford were paved in gold. Insinuate that Hartford might not be a world class city? Blasphemy! You're likely an ignorant bigot! Suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, Hartford doesn't have everything to offer that neighboring cities like say, New York or Boston might? You'll be held in contempt and chastised for your lack of an open mind. This is not also not a realistic nor useful way to look at things.

There's nothing wrong with not being a world class city. By definition there can only be so many of them and for all the advantages these cities have they also have disadvantages that smaller cities don't have. Hartford happens to be located right in between New York and Boston. That fact is going to lead to inevitable comparisons between Hartford and those two. No rational person would argue that Hartford isn't inferior to those two cities in many respects. I mean one is NEW YORK CITY, widely considered one of, if the not the world's top city. Let's be realistic here. It's not the end of the world. Hartford is not a world class city and nor does it need to be to be a good place to live.

This is a small city that over the last twenty years has seen a mayor found guilty of several serious charges, nearly had the public schools taken over by the Federal government, had Federal law enforcement come into town to help stop the gang warfare, and lost the one professional sports franchises and a good deal of downtown business along with it. These are facts. Hartford has a ton of problems and they sure didn't start because Sad City acknowledged them. People don't get shot in Hartford just because the Hartford Courant covers shootings. As much as some might wish, pretending that sadly obvious problems don't exist won't make Hartford a better place.

At Sad City we have over a decade combined of living in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. In many respects Hartford doesn't compare to them. But Hartford does have some advantages over those cities. Hartford is affordable. Hartford is small, it's easy to get around. As much as one might miss the ease of traveling by subway it can take a long time to get to and from different parts of Boston and New York. Don't even get us started about "traveling" in Los Angeles.

While it may lack in size Hartford still has a diverse population and that usually means tons of good food. For all the exploring we have done we are still finding new surprises and new food places. We have never been bored in Hartford. As we were telling one of our friends last weekend over a beer at the Spigot, we've found the time in Hartford to be more enjoyable than the other cities we lived in.

We do feel a little bad being critical of the whole rebranding effort. Maybe we'll even be proven wrong and to be honest, we hope that is the case. While it is a laudable effort, it just seems that a lot of time and effort went into a slogan and logo when Hartford needs so much more.

Hartford needs more jobs. Cheaper rents downtown to attract young professionals to live there. Cleaned up vacant lots and abandoned buildings. Either more police or a better policing plan or both. We really would have loved to say "no" when we were asked by a friend on Friday "is it likely that someone will get shot in Hartford this weekend?" That fact that we had to concede that the answer was in fact yes probably should tell us all that all time and money are more needed elsewhere.

As Colin McEnroe might say "Hartford, the city that needs you!"


  1. Well said, and I believe an accurate point of view. The only point I would add to is that the police are not just understaffed, but IMO, poorly managed. Mayor David Dinkins of NYC, was instrumental in the beginning of a major turnaround for the city when he instituted, not just more police, but more visible foot patrols. I witnessed, as a resident, a shift in the mood of the whole city.

  2. Excellent article, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a..... Throwing money at a problem never creates a solution. You can market prostate cancer to men all you want, no one is going to want it.

    What the city is lacking is in leaps and bounds, is incentives. The city's political system is doing everything it can to keep people OUT. The taxes in Hartford are outrageous, what do we get in return? High crime/murder, the most un-friendly state to do business in America, 2nd worst schools in the state, and rampant poverty.

    What we need is to give people reasons and incentives to visit the city, whether it's art or food...hell CT still hasn't legalized MMA so Mass and the casinos get all that attention. I say first start with lowering taxes to stop the flight, then work from there.

  3. This is an interesting and nuanced piece, which I really appreciate. I've lived here for 26 years and have always believed that Hartford should accept itself for what it is, a small city. The fact that comparisons to New York and Boston are inevitable is a little silly. You can't really compare any of those cities to each other. They're so very different.

    I wrote about perception and perspective awhile ago: http://www.liveinhartford.net/2010/01/05/standpoint-theory/

    I have no desire to see anyone live in poverty. I have no desire to see anyone killed. But I stand by my conclusion that Hartford is already the city it wants to be in many ways.

    For those of us aren't impoverished, it's easy to find a great place to eat. For those of us with access to information and a desire to get off the couch, it's hard to be bored. There's *too much* to do.

    I love it here. I've moved away a couple of times and I've always come back. It works for me. It's small. It has a lot of heart. It has a lot of wonderful people.

    I went to school here. I became an adult here. I continue to grow here, and will continue to do so.

    Hartford isn't perfect. But seriously, can anyone tell me where is?

  4. There is a big difference between Hartford and Hartford. The North and South ends are nothing like the downtown area or the West end and in typical form Hartford is known for it's bad but never it's good.

  5. @anonymous Thing is, there are beautiful neighborhoods in both the North End and the South End, full of gorgeous houses and trees and children playing. There are seedy areas in the West End, and the methadone clinic that serves Hartford and the suburbs is right downtown.

    The city is too complex to be divided into your quadrants.

    You're right, though, that it's usually known for its bad and rarely known for its good.

  6. I grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut. Until I went to college at UConn, all I'd ever really known about Hartford was that it was the state capitol and home to a lot of insurance companies. As I drove back and forth between Fairfield County and Storrs for summers and holidays, I'd pass by the city on 91 north and notice how nice the high-rises looked, but I never stopped. If my parents visited me at school, we'd get dinner at Willington Pizza or maybe some chain restaurant in Manchester, but we never considered going out in Hartford – not because we’d heard bad things about it, but just because the city wasn’t on our radar.
    Since graduating from UConn, I’ve been working and living in Hartford for three years. In retrospect, I’m glad I grew up in Norwalk; if I’d spent any time living in Hartford’s suburbs before moving to the capitol city, I’m sure I would’ve been scared away by Hartford’s negative reputation among its neighboring towns. Hell, if I’d even read the Courant before moving to Hartford I would’ve thought the city was like Mogadishu circa 1993. Instead, I came here with a blank slate and experienced this place for what it is. Hakaan is right on with his assessment of Hartford. People who love this city (like Hakaan and Jumper, Julie Beman, Councilor Cotto, and all the other sane Hartford residents I’ve recently started to follow on Twitter) seem to get it, but others don’t. Celebrate Hartford’s assets and focus resources on addressing its shortcomings. If we do that, the city will steadily build a reputation for itself – without the help of an expensive advertising firm.

  7. Hakaan, this post is on... as a recently new resident to Hartford, I can tell you that you have to take the good with the bad... we live in the West End and people's car's get broken into and tire have been slashed, but we also have super cool neighbors and a diversity that you can't duplicate in any other town, including West Hartford. I hope that the management of the city improves... but as social networking, blogs, etc. are showing, there are people that live in the city who care, and are willing to chip in to make the city a better place to live. I hope that as the internet tools evolve to better connect people, those of use that care for the city will get involved, be it in politics, the art scene, or whatever motivates you!

  8. Hartford is a gem. I love it! Say what you will. This town is still the cultural/financial/political center of our little region. If you want NYC, go there; if you want Boston, go there; stop complaining that those places aren't HERE because they never will be. If you want chain stores and ethnic homogeneity by all means stay in the suburbs. If you want to experience the world here at home, come to Hartford. There's your slogan.

  9. @rob I love your story. It's so important to tell.

    I really appreciate the tone of these comments. We create so much goodwill when we keep it civil. When it comes to Hartford, that's what we need.

  10. "Hartford doesn't need that kind of marketing operation. It's not necessary. Enlist a handful of local artists and designers. Have a contest. Let people submit their logos and slogans and then pick one. There is no need for the sort of drawn out process that this has become."

    What's been submitted thus far is terrible and trite, but the method you recommend will produce results much worse. More goes into a brand than art and design. Think of the "I Love New York" and "Virginia is for Lovers" branding campaigns. Those were done by pros and are memorable. Hartford just hired the wrong guys. And in the end, it doesn't matter. If you don't live in Hartford, you probably hate Hartford. Heck, I live in Hartford and there are days when I'm not crazy about it. Other days, it's great.

    Mike Byrne

  11. I think they should get kid's at Uhart's Art School involved. It's one of the best art school's in the country and they did an excellent job on the Albany Ave. mural.

  12. Hakaan, you are my hero. This post is dead on.

  13. Excellent and spot on.

    Rational person, not rationale.

  14. Do you drink Coke or Pepsi?
    PARTICIPATE IN THE POLL and you could get a prepaid VISA gift card!

  15. eToro is the #1 forex trading platform for new and advanced traders.