Dallas’ Brand Identity: Should the Winspear Opera House Be Sporting a Cowboy Hat?

The Winspear Opera House, all gussied up.    Photoshopping by Strauss Marketing
The Winspear Opera House, all gussied up. Photoshopping by Strauss Marketing

Dallas is a great place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit here. I don’t blame tourists for not flocking to our sights. I don’t blame those who do find themselves here with time to spare for trekking to Southfork Ranch or JerryWorld or spending more time in the Fort Worth Stockyards than in downtown Dallas. Because, besides Dealey Plaza’s infamous history, what have we got to boast of that they can’t see more impressive versions of in any number of other cities?

When a fellow gets only a couple weeks paid time off a year (and he’s not a JFK nut), are you honestly going to urge him to spend those days here? I mean, really? (Assuming your name’s not Phillip Jones)

And that lack of cachet with the tourists must have some effect on our ability to attract corporate leaders to want to live here, and thus to want to move their companies here, bringing jobs. That was a big reason local leaders cited for why hosting a great Super Bowl in 2011 could have had long-lasting impacts on our region. No corporation is going to move just because its CEO had a fun time at a football game, but one that’s considering a move may well give extra consideration to a place that feels as though it’s brimming with energy and is a great place to raise a family, with many cultural and entertainment offerings. (Best not to think of what impression visiting executives were left with following last year’s Super Bowl snow-and-ice storm.)

So, yes, I’m talking about Dallas’ quest to be a “world-class city,” or put another way, its attempts to re-imagine itself beyond its stereotypes. Like by building a fancy new Arts District, a fancy new bridge, or resurrecting streetcars.  Will Doig wrote about the pitfalls of city branding on Salon over the weekend. He cites Dallas as a place that’s always had a big personality (“Dallas has always been DALLAS!”), but otherwise doesn’t mention us.

Yet I think we should consider the caution he urges against trying to transform a city into something that it isn’t. He cites urban analyst Aaron Renn’s case-study of Chicago, which in the last decade has been widely praised for its civic projects like the wonderful Millennium Park but also has been losing ground in terms of population and economic activity:

Chicago’s mistake was chasing a standardized formula for success, says Renn. “There’s this tremendous fear of doing anything that’s out of the ordinary. Whenever some fad gets hot, whether that be ‘creative class’ or streetcars or bicycles, everyone jumps on it. Every city says they want to be the No. 1 bicycle city in America – whether or not that would actually work for them. They’re all trying to check the boxes of what they think makes a world-class city instead of thinking of how they can add some new boxes.”

Nashville and Indianapolis get praised for building upon already established brands – country music for Nashville, the Indy 500 and sports events for Indy – rather than trying to ditch the identities they already have in an effort to satisfy the current favorite trends of the “global elite.”

“What leaders can do is spend some time thinking about what the Gestalt of all their good attributes are,” says Renn, who’s lived in Indianapolis and thinks the city has plenty of brand potential. “No one’s going to believe that Indianapolis is super-fashion-forward, and that’s fine. What are the unique values, history and culture that make up your brand? Because you have one, whether you know it or not. Every city’s got a story to tell.”

Ah, so what is the gestalt of Dallas’ attributes?  How do we build upon our stereotypes/reputation – oil-town full of Stetson-wearing businessmen, the big-haired hypocrites of GCB, the city that killed JFK, plus a low-cost business-friendly place where the word “entrepreneur” is uttered in reverent tones – and turn those to our advantage?

Should we have built a giant cowboy hat on top of the Winspear Opera House? Should Big Tex spend his off-season greeting the cars that drive across Large Marge? Are we getting away from ourselves with our flirtations with bike plans and food trucks? Are we merely checking off the same boxes as everybody else?

Just imagine a Stetson hanging off one corner of the Wyly Theatre.  Photo by Elizabeth Lavin
Just imagine a Stetson perched atop the Wyly Theatre. Photo by Elizabeth Lavin

16 comments on “Dallas’ Brand Identity: Should the Winspear Opera House Be Sporting a Cowboy Hat?

  1. Dallas has always struggled with its image like some insecure middle-aged housewife getting her 5th Restylane treatment. Maybe we should embrace that image and use it to our advantage: Ft. Worth can keep the Stetson ’cause Dallas is the cougar-milf capitol of the world.

  2. Good questions and insights.

    I think one of the flaws, however, is assuming that bike plans and even food trucks are simply trends. They are more indicative of paradigm shifts.

    Bicycling in particular is an easy one to tackle. Quite simply, people are tired of relying on cars. Bicycling has proven to be the cheapest, healthiest and most fun form of transportation available. Not everyone wants to do it, sure, but look around WORLDWIDE and you will see examples of cities harnessing a shift towards cycling and pushing for more bicycle friendly streets. By not addressing the need for cycling infrastructure, Dallas falls (further) behind in what is an increasingly heated competition between cities.

    Trends exist within food truck culture – korean tacos, quirky donuts, etc. – but the idea of food trucks themselves are a complete paradigm shift. Our culture has become more fluid. Permanency is giving way to participation. People are getting involved and food trucks allow a rather simple method of changing the nature of a space. Bring in food and suddenly you bring people. Take a desolate parking lot or empty plaza. Throw in a bunch of food trucks. Bam! You’ve got people. Again, cities with laws prohibiting food trucks are essentially swimming upstream.

    Now, back to Dallas.

    Dallas is….complicated. Our stereotype is one that JR Ewing created for us. The fantastic article in last months magazine explained this beautifully. It was a total falsity. Houston or Ft. Worth would have been much better settings for the show, but Dallas had the commercial charm — America’s team, Neimans, etc.

    We HAD a vibrant city to match all that charm…but that all went away when everybody fled for the suburbs. The JFK assassination ravaged the city’s psyche, probably contributing to the inferiority complex that has persisted ever since. Deep self segregation exists still. The inefficiencies of our local bureaucracies make us a very cynical bunch. Our history gets buried in shame and bulldozed at the drop of hat.

    Now, we have to rebuild. Its going to take a long time, but we have the foundation to be a great city. We just have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot. We have no control over our brand. We will always be BIG, LOUD OBNOXIOUS DALLAS. But the heart of Dallas, the little Dallas, is working to make real changes. Changes that aren’t simply cosmetic.

  3. To add to my last comment, I propose that the Convention and Visitors Bureau invest in a TV and print campaign featuring a funny character, like Flo from the Progressive commercials but a dumb cougar who loves to shop. She can look exactly like Kristin Chenoweth in GCB and we can show her shopping at Neiman’s and Stanley Korshak, cutting off the trolley in Uptown with her Aston Martin, eating a Tic Tac at the State Fair, and other situations that show what Dallas has to offer but that our idiot heroine can’t appreciate.

  4. Ask the question “Should the Winspear Opera House be wearing a cowboy hat?” Include picture of Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre.

  5. Put a dome over Dallas and pump in air conditioning. I vacation in places that have pleasant summer weather.

  6. UPDATE: We issued a Twitter challenge for the best photoshopping of a be-hatted Winspear, and Strauss Marketing came through. I’ve given their image a place of honor.

  7. Nothing says Dallas more than our MASSIVE highway system and interchanges! 635/75 is Dallas’ Eiffel Tower. 121 & Tollway is our Big Ben. George Bush and 75 is our Statue of Liberty! Every outta-towner visiting Dallas is amazed…shocked…left speechless when they see what matters most in our metroplex…huge, massive highway systems…they’re even blown away by our exclusive u-turn lanes built underneath overpasses…the only difference between our highway system and LA’s highway system is that ours moves….even during construction and rush hour accidents…it crawls, but it is moving! We’re a city of drivers…not cowboys…it’s cars cars cars cars cars cars cars….when we tell fellow metro-pelexers where we live, we use interchanges as coordinates rather than neighborhoods… We even build parks over our highways! Wait until 635 is done! That’s gonna be a marvel in and of itself too! We don’t even bother complaining about highway construction any more…that’s just the normal way of living in Dallas. We can’t function without our highway systems! You know you’re a Dallasite when you’re able to navigate through our network of tollways, expressways, interstates, highways and loops! All Dallas cars need two things…ACs and GPSes! That, my fellow dallasites…makes us Dallas!

  8. It is too hot. The overwhelming vast majority of people are not going to ride their bikes to work or around town for leisure when it is north of 95 degrees. Sure, they’ll ride for exercise because sweating is part of that, but no one is going to ride their bike to work when they’ll be dripping with sweat when they get there.

    The heat is what will keep Dallas from being an outdoors city and from being a world-class city. Where do people want to visit? NYC, DC, San Fran, Paris, Rome, etc. None of them are as consistently hot as Dallas.

    The only thing I could ever see that could have changed Dallas into a world class city that tourists would want to visit is if the Trinity really became an impressive city-side lake. We have everything else. Oh, and some world-class casinos would be nice, too.

  9. “..everybody fled for the suburbs” Who? Dallas is almost twice as large as it was when I was a kid.

  10. Two ways to do this. Neither will ever happen.

    1. Make the Trinity the center of a huge, cultural, multi-destination, walkable area like San Diego’s Balboa Park. Why won’t it happen? People will complain, saying, “That’s what Fair Park should have been.” And of course they’ll be right. But it’s too late for Fair Park. At least for the foreseeable future. Maybe 150 years from now, it’ll be right in the heart of things again, and the Texas Centennial planners will once again seem shockingly prescient.

    2. Build something outrageous, unique, and entirely unnecessary. (You weren’t far off with the giant Stetson.) Think the Eiffel Tower, or even the Palais des Beaux Arts in San Francisco (both built as temporary structures, for expos, by the way). Or even something really wild but with an actual function, akin to this project, once planned for Vegas: http://bit.ly/Id1T1I

  11. From paving White Rock to paving the Trinity (thanks D!), our Metropolitan Complex is really sucking wind in the livability department. Stocking the city with douches in Uptown is not building vibrancy.

  12. As a long time resident of Dallas (Oak Cliff), I don’t think of Dallas in terms of buildings (they keep tearing them down), I think of the bigger than life people who come to Dallas with nothing and then start a business, a group or do something unique. Dallas is people like Ebby Halliday, Mary Kay Ash, Stanley Marcus, Katherine Owens and others who probably would not have made such a difference in other cities. I think our slogan is Dallas where your dreams can come true.

    I wish the Dallas Convention Bureau would focus on the features of our city which make us special vs other cities. White Rock Lake & Fair Park are gems that other cities can never match. Our culture scene is quite lively it justs needs better marketing to outsiders. Our traffic can be bad at rush hour but it beats Austin or Houston. DART’s rail system is the biggest light rail system in the country and still growing. I think Dallas is much better city than when I moved here in 1983.

  13. “But what’s there here to put a city beside, or over, or near? Nothing. Dallas is its own confident reason for being and has been since birth. This sounds simple, too simple. Cities stay alive on something more than determination. Agriculture, mining, timber, harbor – they must have some economic role that keeps them alive, if it’s just a place to laze in the sun or lose money by means of machines, cards, or dice.

    But there Dallas sits, ‘an example of a city that man has made, with a little help from nature and practically none from Providence,’ in the words of the late Dallas historian Herbert Gambrell. Dallas has always been characterized by aggressiveness, opportunism, promotionalism. In 1872, when it was a village of two thousand or so, the Fort Worth Democrat newspaper vociferated, ‘The first thing the children are taught to speak is “Hurrah for Dallas!”‘ Dallas believes in civic investmentism. Or, as Gambrell put it, ‘It chooses its objectives after shrewd forecasts of the probable direction of economic and social winds.”

    Dallas USA, by A.C. Greene, 1984