Charlotte owes much of its rise into a major Southern city to its roots as a bank town, an image that the city’s leaders say doesn’t capture the diversity of its economy.
On Thursday, Charlotte leaders touring Nashville, Tenn. – known widely for its country music industry – said Charlotte could benefit from branding itself around something specific, as Nashville does with its “Music City” brand.
But here’s the challenge for Charlotte, officials said: What would that brand be? NASCAR? Financial services? Or something else?
“Charlotte’s brand perception is not as singular” as Nashville’s, Ronnie Bryant, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, said to about 130 attendees on the Charlotte Chamber’s annual trip to another city to learn economic development strategies.
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The discussion comes at a time when a variety of labels are being used to advertise Charlotte. The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority markets the city with the “Charlotte’s Got a Lot” slogan, while the regional partnership promotes the area as “Charlotte USA.”
Outside of Charlotte, the city is mostly known as a financial services center, Bryant said.
“Health care is much … stronger in our local economy than financial services at this particular time, but it’s not health care that’s highlighted” as Charlotte’s calling card, he said.
The next step for Charlotte, he said, is to “sit down and think about what is our messaging.”
Bryant said his organization, the Charlotte Chamber, the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority and Center City Partners were already talking about how to best brand Charlotte. “We need to truly work and determine: What is the primary audience we want to touch, and what brand messaging are we interested in portraying?”
Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber, asked panelists from Nashville what they thought Charlotte’s brand is.
“My perception if I had to think first and foremost, at least for me, I think NASCAR and I think of financial institutions,” said Charles Starks, president of Music City Center, a Nashville convention venue.
Charlotte business leaders and public officials are turning to Nashville for advice on developing a brand more than 10 years after Nashville launched its Music City brand.
Music City origins
Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., said the “Music City” label was developed after his organization around 2002 started a branding process that included examining Nashville’s strengths.
The brand is based on the city’s decades-old nickname “Music City USA,” Spyridon said. Signs of that brand are all over Nashville today, from the Music City Walk of Fame to the image of Little Richard and other musicians on traffic signal boxes, he said.
Nashville’s experience with developing a unified brand shows the process could be tough in Charlotte.
Jeff Lipscomb, president of Gish Sherwood & Friends, a Nashville advertising agency, said there was disagreement between various parties over what Nashville should emphasize in the brand. There were also reservations about associating Nashville with a “certain style” of country music, he said.
“There was the ‘Hee Haw’ factor,” he said, referring to the nationally syndicated TV series featuring comedy and country music.
Music could play a role, Bryant said, in Charlotte’s branding.
“While music is not as ingrained in Charlotte’s brand compared to that of Nashville’s, we do have musical traditions that we can build upon,” he said. “Even back in the 1960s and ’70s, when Charlotte was just a small Southern city, legends such as Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix played in Charlotte.”
As Charlotte continues to grow, there are steps the city can take “to make music a more integral part of our brand,” he said. But, he said, “to say we want to emulate Nashville, I’m not there yet. I don’t think that’s what we should be attempting to do.”
For Charlotte, the stakes are high as it competes with Nashville for conventions and other major events.
“You guys have really become our toughest competitor,” Tom Murray of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority told Nashville officials. “You certainly have become a force to be reckoned with.”