St. Louis Doesn't Suck

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Originally written for

I’ve lived a somewhat nomadic existence in my adult life, moving from Richmond to Miami to New Orleans to New York to Raleigh to St. Petersburg. Six years ago my wife and I reluctantly moved to St. Louis but very quickly found it to be a great place to live, work, and raise small people.

St. Louis has its problems like anywhere else, but there’s a lot to like: good schools, nice parks, great public institutions, competitive sports teams, strong corporate base, the world’s largest mustache (Gateway Arch), and plenty of places that make delicious beer.

In the last two weeks, however, two stories have taken pot shots at my adopted hometown.

First there was a farcical piece in The Onion that the Labor Department reported 4 million new U.S. jobs in October, “though government officials hastened to add that the new positions are all located in the St. Louis…” I love The Onion but it essentially delivers the underlying message that people outside of “The Lou” think it’s not so hot.

Then there was something a bit uglier. Yahoo! Health reported St. Louis to be among the 10 saddest cities in America based on suicide and unemployment rates, the percentage of households that use antidepressants, and other factors.

Oye gevault!

I’ve got to believe St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, the Regional Chamber & Growth Association (RCGA), or St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley can’t like pieces like these.

The trouble being that nearly every political or civic entity in the region working to fix metro-St. Louis’ reputation is doing it on their own, in a silo, with little coordination with other partners. There have been some quiet efforts to galvanize private sector forces, but nothing has materialized primarily due to the political infighting that seemingly lies beneath the surface.

Why do you think that despite being a relatively safe place to live, St. Louis crime statistics are listed by the FBI as being four times higher than the national average and the city is routinely noted as one of America’s most dangerous? It’s because as the city and surrounding county battle for turf, they refuse to do what most other major metro areas do in combining regional crime statistics which leads to better rankings.

Thank you Mssrs. Slay and Dooley.

So with all of this in mind, as my holiday gift to St. Louis, I’m going to outline a strategy for altering St. Louis’ reputation on the national landscape.

Let’s begin with the foundation — one that’s a bit edgy and disrupts the same conservative Midwestern sensibilities that caused the city to foolishly pass on hosting Red Bull’s popular Flugtag event a few years back.

You see, despite a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch report citing that the city attracted more young people than it lost for the first time in eons, the city has a long way to go in drawing the younger workforce that leading edge employers crave. And as my partner Brian Cross wrote on his blog, natives are still looking elsewhere for post-graduate jobs.

After all, a recent Stanford or Univ. of Miami graduate doesn’t really care if St. Louis is “Perfectly Centered. Remarkably Connected.” They want to live and work somewhere that has a thriving downtown with a great night life and is perceived to be progressive.

Which brings us to the St. Louis Doesn’t Suck campaign, focusing on delivering four key messages that support any thriving metro area:

  • St. Louis has affordable housing: According to the Cost of Living Index Calculator, greater St. Louis has the lowest cost of living among the nation’s 20 largest metropolitan areas for 2010.
  • St. Louis has a collection of outstanding education resources: The cities of Clayton and Ladue have two of the finest and well-funded public school systems in the U.S., there is a nice collection of high ranking private and parochial schools, and a several leading colleges including Washington University — regularly ranked in the top 10 nationally.
  • St. Louis has a strong employment base: Did you know there are more plant scientists in the St. Louis region than any other concentrated area in the world? We do a great job telling each other that here — just not the outside world. But thanks to the likes of Monsanto, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, and a host of mid-size and smaller plant science related entities in the region — and the fact that the city is located within 500 miles of 90 percent of the U.S. corn crop — St. Louis is arguably the center of plant science research and innovation worldwide. Add that to the fact the region is also home to 21 of the Fortune 1000 companies with leading employers like Anheuser-Busch/InBev, Peabody Energy, Emerson Electric, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Boeing, Mastercard, Nestle-Purina, and Build-A-Bear — and the case is easy that there are good jobs to be had.
  • St. Louis has rich cultural resources: Let’s start with the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals and the team’s fine downtown ballpark. Then there’s one of the top ranked zoos in the U.S. that also happens to be free of charge to enter, a symphony that is highly respected worldwide, one of the largest urban parks in the U.S., a very healthy and diverse collection of restaurants, tremendous live music venues, acclaimed art and history museums as well as a City Museum that is beyond explanation, and the list goes on.

Not sucking at all thus far. But now comes the hard part. How do we best deliver these messages? It takes a comprehensive approach that not only touches the manner in which people seek and find information today, but then compels them to take action.

St. Louis Doesn’t Suck harnesses the most meaningful marketing communications channels and surrounds working adults ages 22 to 55, delivering a consistent message that St. Louis has the housing, education, employment and cultural resources that encompass a great place to live, work, visit, and play.

The tools the program leverages include:

  • Digital centerpiece: While the Regional Chamber has tried, there’s no digital centerpiece or website that represents the region in a way that makes you want to stay on the site for more than 30 seconds. It’s an ADHD world people, and to keep an audience — especially today’s 21 – 35-year-old young professional — you need engaging and fresh content that is comprised of the people and entities that enrich the region telling the story in first person. No one really wants to read, “Situated at the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois rivers, we have a tradition of leadership in transportation, distribution, and logistics.”
  • Video speaks volumes: A strong message in 60 seconds can potentially say far more than 1,500 words of text. Let’s see CEOs George Paz of Express-Scripts, Hugh Grant of Monsanto, Energizer’s Ward Klein talking about their vision. How about young employees from Arch Coal, HOK, or Brian Cave showing people their favorite haunts around town? Remember the “I’m a Mormon” campaign from the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints? Very strong stuff.
  • Social media: Yes, have a Facebook page. Sure, a Twitter account is nice. More important, however, you’ve got to understand how to use these tools other than to simply have an account or page, like the Regional Chamber’s Facebook page that has 140-some fans. How about livestreaming a free concert from the Pageant music venue on Facebook; or get a group of CEOs from mid-size companies engaging in a Google+ Hangout with some top college students talking about what they are looking for from the local workforce; or take suggestions from city residents via Twitter (and actually use one of them) on how to improve a public park. Just spend some time looking at how Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak engages constituents on Twitter. It’s not your standard press feeder.
  • PR: Once you’re doing some of these things and there’s an actual story of change to tell, take some leaders of influence on the road in tandem and visit some national media. And by “leaders of influence,” I don’t necessarily mean the Mayor and head of the Regional Chamber. It’s about the sum of the city’s parts — a coalition of leading CEOs, the heads of the five local angel investors group, a handful of leading entrepreneurs. Or, how about pitching a recurring HuffingtonPost column from the mayor or a collection of local CEOs. Why not ask InBev CEO Carlos Brito or one of his top lieutenants to write a column on beer.
  • Mobile: There are more cellular phones in the U.S. than there are people, and at the very least any centralized website for a coordinated effort should be mobile enabled. But think bigger: an app that serves as a virtual tour guide, has push notifications for events, and includes searchable capabilities for activities meeting specific criteria.
  • Paid media: Look at a small, controlled program of paid media — traditional and digital. How about a Letter to America ad in the Wall St. Journal about the needs of American business co-signed by a group of local CEOs, but more important use Google Adwords and Facebook cost-per-click to drive to engaging video content telling first person stories about the region.
  • SEO: I saved this for last because online search is the magic bullet. It’s what everything drives towards. And if you don’t have an SEO component as part of an integrated marketing plan, you lose. Think of it this way: you own a business in Miami and you’re tired of all of the fair weather sports fans there so you tell your director of facilities it’s time to find a new headquarters town. What does that director do? He puts together a due diligence committee and they all start doing research — online — using search engines and terms like “best cities to work” and “best cities to live” and looking at tax incentives and quality of life, etc. In short, all the other stuff you’re doing in the marketing channels are filling the SEO funnel that needs to be filled, stacked, stuffed and overflowing with good news.

St. Louis isn’t perfect — the local style of pizza is horrendous, our NFL football team should not be playing in a dome, the airport is an embarrassment, and the traffic lights aren’t timed. More important, we still struggle to create, attract, and retain more skilled workers. It’s an old-time, Mississippi River-based manufacturing economy that’s yet to fully reinvent itself that last year lost 14 percent of its professional services companies (law firms, architects, ad agencies).

Without question, St. Louis does not suck. But with the exception of one very smart tourism campaign developed by the CVB, we typically do a terrible job of externally articulating what those offerings are.

Perhaps by stepping out of our comfort zone, moving beyond silly turf battles, and developing a comprehensive approach to marketing the area, St. Louis can better promote a region that has much to offer.

Happy holidays.


The biggest problem St. Louis has are all the people who whine about how terrible St. Louis is. Useless. So thank you for exhaustively listing the good things about this town.

In addition to everything listed above--which is hard to dispute, aside from safety issues here and there--the city is loaded with diversity of all sorts. Generic we ain't.

The universities draw people from all over the place, many of whom stay for awhile then vacate upon completing their degrees. That's a shame. Are they leaving because there's not much opportunity? Or is it something else? I think it's something else--it's not uncommon for young, single people from elsewhere to come to St. Louis and find it hard to break into the community. That's an attitude problem. I've listened to many stories from people who just couldn't find a home here. Hell, I'm from here, but after having left for seven years, coming back was brutal. Even now, most of my friends hail from other cities. As Richard Florida has pointed out, cities require three things: technology, talent, and tolerance. He's noted that St. Louis has the technology and talent, but that it sorely lacks for tolerance. I'm not sure how to change that.

I think the ideas listed here are great; at the very least, implementing some of them would demonstrate the city's at least making an effort, and that alone goes a long way.

There is a common issue I've perceived in centered located cities where I've lived. At some point great hubs of trade, culture and vibrancy in the past; and a sense of decay, coyness, and low sense of self in the present. You can see it in the faces of locals when outsiders share an authentic enthusiasm for this City. But the City is just an abstract concept. The real issue is the individual who makes the City what a City is.

I've been in St. Louis for five years now. I owe a lot to this City. A lot. (Pause for effect). I left Cuba in 2004, and lived in Quito for two years. I can see how same shit happened with Quito, Ecuador... Quito was the Virreinato in Colonial times for South America (where the Virrey lived. Virrey is the word for Sub King). Lima, La Gran Colombia and other cities where created after. So the Center got diluted in time, since peripheral destinations showed up.

Somehow centers are repelling magnets, not exactly magnets that atract. Centers are "the point zero" from where depart. The place you go back, after being born and raised. If an individual stays for ever here chances are that that guy might think "I'm lame for staying where I was born", therefore "this City = lame" is the next thought, when what is really going on is on the individual level; and its own perception towards its City.

Havana is becoming something like that, too... Everybody leaves. But that's a different story.

I get the point of covering certain bullet points that articulate a "St. Louis Doesn't Suck" campaign. But I think it might be more effective -polite and honest- making a campaign that focuses on the individual. Something like "I am Saint Louis". A campaign that fuels individual's sense of place. A campaign that infuses pride in people. People proud of themselves for living here. That would be my approach.

Empower people. They will do the job.

Sounds like a plan to us Carlos; good thoughts.

I've done quite a bit of place-branding and one for one of the projects, I divided the populus into three groups:
1) Legacy - born and raised and have never left
2) Pioneers - arrived one way or another (generally job or love)
3) Boomerangs - born and raised, left and returned

What I discovered is the Legacy group generally had the negative opinion of the city (in my example I am referring to Fresno, CA). I looked further and found that same dynamic in other cities: NYC, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, etc. The fact was that people needed to leave.

All too often a community is concerned with brain drain, but I posit that we need to encourage people to explore. I boomeranged (or is it boomerung) back to Fresno, CA in 1997 and am now pioneering to STL in less than two weeks. My girl friend will become a STL boomerang, she brings with her a very different perspective and a greater appreciation for STL.

What I learned in my place-branding activities is that each audience needs a different message (sorry for stating the obvious) .

You know who probably doesn't think St Louis sucks? People with perspective: Boomerangs & Pioneers.

I look forward to joining this dynamic community.

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