You’re not from here: City brands in the wake of COVID-19  

The more that cities can declare who they are, the more they’re going to be able to attract people that not only share those values but create communities of belonging around them.  

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”Hi! I’m Amanda! I’m new to New York and—” 

“Clearly, you’re not from here.” 

Clearly, I wasn’tfrom here, as proven by the several times this same exchange played out over the past year: in the elevator at 250 Hudson, in the hallway of my building, and of course, in the German deli at 86th and 2nd.   

Just two weeks after moving from a ‘big, small town’ in Canada, I quickly found that carving out a sense of belonging in a strange, new city was about to become even more daunting thanks to a global pandemic. But as the anniversary passes, I feel a greater sense of belonging in New York City than I did where five generations of my family call home.   

This feeling didn’t make sense to me until two separate projects collided and showed why the pandemic’s influence on where we call “home” suddenly matters so much. Here’s why.  

We millennials were dealt an unlucky hand. We’re in a battle for economic control, armed with a fraction of the accumulated wealth of our cohorts in previous generations. But the pandemic has tilted the scales of control back in our favor, telling us that the location of our offices may be less important than we thought. An entire generation is now empowered to choose cities that satisfy our whole lives, not just our professional opportunities.   

Our newfound influence and control emerges in this month’s launch of the Edelman Trust Barometer, which paints a picture of a world where the employee is in control. We choose the company we work for and increasingly, people want to work for companies that share their values. If our employer no longer mirrors our values, we can simply choose to leave them. The trust stakes are high: People now trust their employers more than any other source of information (76 percent) and we trust our own employers 15 points more than we do business in general. Our generation is putting itself back in the driver’s seat, reclaiming control of the information we consume and use to navigate our lives.   

Meanwhile, back in Canada, a recent project I worked on explored the exodus of young people from cities. Much of the preliminary research came down to the decision to ‘purchase a city’ based on personal value alignment. People asked questions like: 

  • Does this city match my values?  
  • Is it sustainable, diverse, easily accessible, close to the outdoors, etc.?  
  • What is its brand?  

Some cities have adopted strong brands out of need. Austin transformed from a bland, rural college town to a quirky hipster haven with live music, swimming holes and wacky food trucks. After years of living in Dallas and Houston’s shadows, the ‘Keep Austin Weird’ campaign turned it into the fastest growing city in the U.S. Never mind the mediocre job market – techies and artists flocked to Austin, looking for a city that emulated their values.

For cities, the times of resting on laurels of big business, company headquarters or industry districts may have passed. Headlines about new technology or logistics hubs probably won’t carry the same gravitas in a post-pandemic world. For some, it will be a reckoning: What’s left for a city when economic advantage can be found anywhere?   

What’s left, indeed, is culture, brand, community and a sense of belonging. If cities don’t embrace the need for branding, they could risk losing their people to smaller cities – such as Seattle, Portland or Austin – that have something more salient to offer.

Moving right before a global pandemic taught me that the feelings of belonging in a city aren’t built simply from professional opportunity, but from shared values. After a year of socially distanced talks, walks and meals with my fellow New Yorkers, I know that it’s our city’s transience, our not-from-here-ness, that fosters who we are. My cravings for novel and diverse thought were satisfied by the values that are inherent to New York City.  

The bottom line? The more that cities can declare who they are, the more they’re going to be able to attract people that not only share those values but create communities of belonging around them.  

No, I’m not from here; but what’s unique to New York is that once it belongs to you, you belong to it.   

Amanda Schaufele is a senior strategist at Edelman, based in New York. In her role, she helps corporate brands solve problems and be more human.

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