Atlanta and Detroit: A Tale of Two City Brands

AtlantaIt’s tough to imagine two communities with more different reputations than Detroit and Atlanta. Having lived in both places, I have seen this first-hand.

Every time there’s something controversial in Detroit, it’s considered “a black eye for the city.” Every scandal, political dispute, every crime report, every odd news story has locals on edge about how the region’s national reputation will be impacted.

But, Atlanta has the most resilient brand a city could ever imagine. While Detroit has no margin for error in public perception, Atlanta’s reputation is Teflon-coated. The locals there, rather than living in fear of what the country will think, act with uncanny PR instinct. Urban-suburban squabbles, even those with racial overtones, are kept local. Sprawl is touted as attractive economic development. Problems like traffic (at Los Angeles levels, according to many reports) and smog are treated as “a price to pay” for living in a “hot city.”

This phenomenon even true in sports. The snowstorm at the Super Bowl in 1982 was a catastrophe. But the ice storm at the Super Bowl in Atlanta in 2000 was an aberration. Now, the Atlanta Braves say they are leaving a Downtown stadium built for the 1996 Olympics for a new stadium in suburban Cobb County in 2017. The story, so far, has been mostly a local one, save sports media. Here’s a link to a commentary on some of the potentially-embarassing flaws in that plan, which is certainly controversial. It’s easy to imagine that if something like this happened in Detroit, it would be much more than a sports story.

Cities have brands and live with stereotypes just like companies. Also like businesses, each city has its positive and negative attributes once you cut beneath the brand. But just like in business, culture helps shape brands, which help shape reputations. Detroit is in the midst of what could be a culture change. Now could be the beginning of the story beginning to change. But, it’s important to remember that Atlanta has been building its story consistently since Reconstruction – an effort that helps to contain controversies while others do not enjoy such a luxury.