There sure has been a lot of conversation about branding in Fort Worth lately. The city and Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, worried we’re losing the economic development race to Dallas and its north suburbs, have launched into plans to elevate our profile nationally and brand us as a creative hub.
The bureau that promotes Fort Worth to meeting and tour planners changed its name to Visit Fort Worth. Even the bus system changed its name to Trinity Metro to reach a broader audience and draw in more communities.
Memes like “Cowboys & Culture,” which emerged years ago, and “Where the West Begins,” decades earlier, have been useful in highlighting the city’s Stockyards heritage and renowned museums and still resonate today with certain groups, like international visitors and older residents and visitors. But as Fort Worth has diversified in recent years, building a vibrant downtown core, broader business and cultural base, and a more youthful demographic (Fort Worth has the youngest average age among Texas’ major cities), the city has found it’s not telling many aspects of its story, those involved in pitching the city to everybody from creatives to corporate relocation prospects, conventions, and meetings say.
That’s helped lead to little perception nationally of Fort Worth; the city is largely viewed as a “subset” of Dallas, Mitch Whitten, Visit Fort Worth’s vice president of marketing, says. “Currently, there’s no perception,” Brandom Gengelbach, executive vice president of economic development at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, says. “Worse than a perception of is no perception.”
The broadening of the message doesn’t mean Cowboys & Culture is out to pasture. “There are communities that would kill to have a representative image that is that iconic,” Robert Sturns, the city of Fort Worth’s economic development director, says. “So you won’t want to get rid of that.” Where appropriate, “you do want to say here’s an alternative image.”
The alternative image was on display when Fort Worth — led by Visit Fort Worth — set up shop at this year’s South by Southwest, an annual festival in Austin celebrating the technological convergence of interactive, film and music. The city gamely brought along Bell Helicopter and the flying urban taxi it’s developing; Hillwood and the “vertiports” it’s signed on to build in the Fort Worth-Dallas area for Uber Elevate and its oncoming fleet of vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicles; and Lockheed Martin with a F-35 flight simulator. Visitors to the Fort Worth house at South by Southwest got to taste and learn the science of Fort Worth-made whiskey and view the photography of Fort Worth’s Rambo Elliott, whose often-black-and-white portraits portray a diverse Fort Worth. “There wasn’t a cowboy in the pictures,” Sturns says. “For me growing up in Fort Worth, I’d never seen my community presented in that light.”
What’s the story Fort Worth wants to project through its new city and chamber plans? First, talent. “We have a huge advantage in the arts, entertainment, and technology,” all important among millennials, Gengelbach says.
Fort Worth isn’t known as a tech hub, but it has substantial technology plays in defense, like Lockheed Martin and Bell, the new Facebook data center, and a health care and an emerging life sciences sector soon to be augmented by the new TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine.
And Fort Worth also wants to project its friendly, laid-back, unpretentious feel, low costs, and relative ease of moving about. “You can go anywhere, and there’s an authentic look and feel,” Gengelbach says. Even frontline staff at restaurants generally leave an impression that’s consistent with the city’s friendly feel, Whitten says. “I really believe the way people speak to each other and the way people are treated in our restaurants leave you with a great feeling.”
Fort Worth touts rapidly growing dining options, recreation assets like the Trinity River, and an emerging film scene being nurtured by Visit Fort Worth’s Fort Worth Film Commission. All are popular potential assets among millennials.
“We find more people are coming to the city for various reasons,” Whitten said, explaining Visit Fort Worth’s rebranding from the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau moniker. Visitor bureaus in other cities have been rebranding to include “visit” in their names. “We’re coming off a record 9 million visitors in 2017.” Whitten said the term ‘CVB’ is a bit of a throwback to a time when convention activity was a major part of what they did.
How Visit Fort Worth will promote the city will depend on the niche audience, Whitten says. “We still use Cowboys & Culture, but if you don’t know Fort Worth, then you might see a post on Facebook that grabs your attention or a post from an influencer. We try to play different cards in different situations. There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of stories to tell.”
“Cowboys & Culture” — developed when the Stockyards and museums were well established as a visitor draw and before downtown emerged — resonates most with international visitors, Bob Jameson, Visit Fort Worth president and CEO, says. “I think it continues to be appropriate, depending on who your customer is,” he says. It’s a noisy marketplace. If you’re going to be successful, you need to know who your customer is.”
One challenge in telling the Fort Worth story for all of the organizations that are working on it: “We’ve just got to get on the same page,” Gengelbach says. “And it’s not just the agencies [like the chamber, Visit Fort Worth and city]. You need to have all of Fort Worth tell the story.”
The city’s bus system joined the branding party, rebranding itself to Trinity Metro from the Fort Worth T, to create a more modern image and draw in other communities as it prepares to launch downtown Fort Worth to DFW Airport TEXRail service in December. At year-end, Trinity Metro will also roll out a new service called Dash that will connect downtown to West Seventh Street and the Cultural District. The goal is to make it easier for downtown workers and visitors to come to West Seventh Street and the museums, and for West Seventh Street patrons to move about the congested street without having to worry about parking.
Trinity Metro, which hired the Fort Worth firm J.O. Design to help it come up with the new name, has added new business service, such as a downtown to Alliance route, augmented service on other routes, and cut back some extraneous service. “The basic service is well,” Paul Ballard, the CEO, says. “We feel the service we do offer — although there’s not enough of it — is ready for marketing.”
Trinity Metro also wants to figure out how to get a greater share of medical district traffic. “Ultimately, that’s our goal — to get people who have fairly standard work hours,” Ballard said.
Meanwhile, the chamber, looking to broaden its reach, has substantially increased its budget and is hiring executives who will lead business recruitment and retention; talent development, attraction and retention; small business and entrepreneur support; and government advocacy. It’ll be collaborating with the city, Visit Fort Worth, Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce.
“The depth and breadth of what we have is not broad-based indicative of Fort Worth today,” Gengelbach says. “We are going to be a much broader-based organization going forward.”
The city-chamber strategy, crafted in collaboration with each other: Work with commercial brokerages and their Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth to create a national strategy that generates interest in Fort Worth, highlighting abundant land, lack of natural barriers, and growth-friendly posture; expand the chamber’s role in marketing Fort Worth for international business development; redesign the city’s business retention program to better address needs of major employers and their industries; and expand employer-led sector partnerships to address critical workforce issues.
The city and chamber want Fort Worth to become a hub for creatives and the businesses they start or work for. How? Formally designate the Near Southside as a “medical innovation district,” with incentives to draw innovation and research; audit resources available for small business in Fort Worth and help beef up the TECH Fort Worth business incubator that nurtured an ophthalmological products startup that last year sold for $465 million; broaden national and international promotion of the annual MAIN ST. Fort Worth Arts Festival; create a Futures Forum at the city; and rapidly increase the density of residential development in downtown and surrounding urban districts such as Panther Island.
The city expects to be more choosy when it comes to which deals it wants to offer incentives, targeting prospects that offer high-wage jobs and expand Fort Worth’s creative pool. “It changes with the economy,” Sturns says. Heading into the downturn a decade ago, “in order to engage with the few deals that were out there, we had to be as creative as we could be on some deals. That’s moved into the last few years. If I look down the road, I can see a future where there may be fewer announcements, but bigger announcements.”