Monday, November 17, 2008

Houston's Unique Selling Proposition

Lisa Gray recently wrote a column on Houston's brand and a recent talk by Patricia Martin at the Greater Houston Partnership. (HT: Houston Strategies)

The world thinks of us (and with reason) as a city built on oil, the headquarters of the world's petroleum industry. In this era of global warming and disappearing fossil fuels, Martin says, that's not the image you want. It's an "anxiety brand."

Anxiety brands play to consumers' uncertainty or fear. Hillary Clinton made herself into an anxiety brand, portraying herself as the seasoned, known candidate, less frightening than her (then) unknown competitor. The result was about what Martin would have predicted: effective at first but not long-term. People don't like anxiety brands.

Martin suggests that Houston could instead become a "compassion brand," known for its friendliness and big heart. When Hurricane Katrina showcased that side of our civic personality, people in other cities were surprised — just as they're surprised, once they get here, to discover Houston's openness to newcomers and its easy racial diversity. We could be known for our niceness — a city akin to Minneapolis, a brand like Kleenex or Dove soap.

Alternately, and more powerfully, we could be an "idea brand," a brand that seems magically new and transformative. The iPhone is an idea brand, says Martin, and so is Barack Obama.

But if Houston became an idea brand, what would its idea be?

One of the cardinal principles of marketing is the Unique Selling Proposition (USP). The USP is that characteristic or benefit offered by a company that differentiates it from competitors. Houston has a USP, and it isn't friendliness or compassion-- it is freedom.

I have previously written about the causal relationship between freedom and economic prosperity. Freedom, and particularly in regard to land use, is greater in Houston than most other American cities. The economic growth and prosperity Houston has enjoyed for decades is the consequence of that freedom. Houston's most unique characteristic is the relative freedom that citizens enjoy.

Of course, to advertise Houston in such a manner requires that City officials take freedom seriously. They must stop their assault on property rights. Houston will not retain its freedom if City officials continue to place restrictions on the actions of individuals and businesses. Houston will not remain America's freest city if City officials continue to restrict individual freedom.

The economic benefits of freedom are readily evident. Simply compare America's economy to that of nations with greater government control. Compare Houston's economy to that of cities with greater government control. The greater the freedom, the greater the economic prosperity. But economic arguments are insufficient.

While individuals are often motivated by their pocketbook, their ultimate motivation derives from morality. Politically, the City's increasing restrictions on private property are founded on the belief that the "public welfare" or the "common good" supersedes the rights of individuals. It is founded on the belief that the community is the standard of good, and individuals must sacrifice their values to those of the community. This is the premise that underlies the prohibition on "attention-getting devices", airport zoning, and the effort to stop the Ashby High Rise. It is the premise that underlies restrictions on billboards, the preservation ordinance, and every other land use regulation. Morally, these restrictions are founded on the belief that the individual must serve others, and those who refuse to do so "voluntarily" may properly be forced to do so.

Freedom is not a primary. It is founded on the premise that the individual has a moral right to pursue his values without intervention from others, so long as he respects their mutual rights. It is founded on the premise that the individual cannot be forced to sacrifice for others, nor can he force others to sacrifice for him. It is founded on the premise that each individual has a moral right to his own "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness".

Houston has respected this right more than any major city in America. That is a fact that should be advertised. It is a fact that makes Houston unique. It is a fact that identifies the essence of Houston.

"America's Freest City" is more than a quaint tag line. It is a title that addresses the fundamental difference between Houston and other cities. It is Houston's Unique Selling Proposition.

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