Tim Leon
President/Brand Strategist

Opinion | St. Louis needs to build a new brand. Here’s what it should say.

This article is featured in the current issue of the St. Louis Business Journal printed on April 1st, 2022.

I recently received an email from the St. Louis Business Journal inviting me to fill out a survey regarding how St. Louis is perceived in the business community, the challenges of the region, and possible solutions for addressing those challenges.

 As I was filling out the survey, It got me thinking about one solution that is near and dear to me and my profession. And that is how do we consistently and effectively brand our city going forward? When you think of St. Louis, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Some will say the Gateway Arch, others will say the River City or Budweiser beer. Some, especially those who don’t live in our region, might say crime. 

Our brand as a city is all over the map.

Outsiders like travel writers and historians still refer to us as the Gateway to the West. We, too, continue to use that moniker, which refers to the era 175 years ago when steamboats chugged westward up the Missouri River delivering people and supplies to support our nation’s westward expansion. Some argue that Kansas City was the true Gateway to the West, as it was the last civilized stop-off before pioneers ventured west. I’ll leave that argument to historians.

But I think we can agree that “Gateway to the West” is NOT a key message for how we wish to be known today. In an economy in which global trade and next-day delivery have blurred the lines of geography and bring the world to us at the click of a mouse or tap on a smart phone, this slogan doesn’t resonate any longer. Our “brand” as a city could use a refresh. I think it’s fair to say that today we are building toward being the Gateway to the World.

The formation of Greater St. Louis Inc., over a year ago provides a platform to bring forth a unified economic development effort to attract business. In their own words they state: “Greater St. Louis Inc. brings together business and civic leaders to create jobs, expand inclusive economic growth and improve St. Louis’ global competitiveness.”  Hard to disagree with that statement and we see a global theme being echoed with another organization: St. Louis Regional Freightway. Front and center on their website is the line: “The St. Louis Region — One Location. Global Access.” This translates to the fact that St. Louis is highly accessible to all world markets from the middle of the United States. That’s a pretty good place to be!

In addition to attracting business, we need to retain our highly talented workforce and future workforce. Consider what’s happening in the St. Louis region: for a number of reasons, we continue to lose millennial and Gen Z talent to similar-sized Midwest markets like Nashville, Indianapolis and Kansas City.

If St. Louis was a corporation losing customers, a university losing students, or a non-profit losing donors, management would search out the reasons for the losses and address them. They would then work hard to communicate improvements to their stakeholders in order to win them back.

Our city is no different. We have our challenges and we’re working to address them. We also have so many important assets we can showcase: We’re at the confluence of two rivers used for recreation and shipping. We’re a major hub for transportation, tech, defense, agriculture, plant science, medical research, and startups. We have the National Geospatial Agency, NorthSide Regeneration, Cortex, the Federal Reserve, numerous corporate headquarters and heck, even a strong micro-brewery scene. We’re building protected bike paths, renovating beautiful historic buildings, and juxtaposing new contemporary designs between those buildings, all of which urban planners say are highly desirable features.

If we want to attract businesses and talent to St. Louis and retain the younger generation in our region, we need to communicate what we’re doing and why we’re relevant. And we need to do it consistently over every platform and every economic development and tourism entity. Universities, corporations, retailers and nonprofits can help support this branding by including it as part of their marketing presence.

A brand refresh is in order, one that proclaims who we are – with boldness and self-confidence. One that reflects why St. Louis is a great place to live and work. And for those new to St. Louis, let’s blur the lines of city and county to deliver a unified message. We seem to believe St. Louis city and county are different as they operate under separate governmental authority. To the outside world, we are viewed as St. Louis. Period. I know this is a conversation for another day, but we have one brand: St. Louis.  Let’s proclaim our pride in who we are and what we offer the world. Let’s not stay stuck in the past. Let’s live in the here and now and brand St. Louis as the forward-thinking city that we are today.