What Defines the San Antonio Brand? Hint: Don’t Make Assumptions

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A view of District 1 can be seen from the Tower of the Americas.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Downtown San Antonio as seen from the Tower of the Americas.

When it comes to defining a brand, two fundamental questions are:

  1. How is our brand perceived now?
  2. How do you wish your brand to be perceived in the future?

A lot of work goes into answering both questions. But one huge mistake regarding the first question is assuming that you know how your brand is perceived and believing that your customers see it the same way you do.

We all know what happens when you make assumptions.

Case in point: I recently heard someone who is involved in marketing downtown San Antonio state with absolute certainty that, “Downtown is what defines the San Antonio brand.” That’s a pretty bold statement.

I know this person sincerely believes that statement. But I also know that he is so myopically focused on downtown that he isn’t the slightest bit objective, and that he couldn’t imagine anyone disagreeing.

Defining a brand is partly about asking hard questions; questions that challenge preconceived beliefs; questions that may be painful to address because the answers don’t fit our assumptions.

If our firm were working on how the San Antonio brand is perceived today, some of the hard questions we’d ask would include:

How do the tens of thousands of people now living beyond Loop 1604 view downtown, given that many of them rarely – if ever – visit downtown?

How greatly, if at all, do the following organizations define the San Antonio brand?

  • The Spurs
  • USAA
  • San Antonio Military Medical Center
  • H-E-B
  • Toyota
  • Six Flags and Sea World
  • The JW Marriott, La Cantera, and Hyatt Hill Country
  • Fiesta and the Rodeo
  • The Pearl
  • The University of Texas at San Antonio

How do people who live 75 miles or more from San Antonio define the city?

If downtown really does define a city – any city – is that a net positive or negative for that city?

Is the idea that downtown defines San Antonio’s brand how things really are or how we wish things to be?

Is it even a good idea to pursue defining a city’s brand by its downtown if the vast majority of its residents neither live there nor work there?

Hard questions, right? The point isn’t to say downtown is unimportant. The point is to challenge dogma and assumptions.

The point is that when someone says, “Our brand is known as …” or “People love us because …,” they need to be challenged to back up such assertions with proof.

Downtown San Antonio is a wonderful place. It is steeped in amazing history. It attracts visitors from around the world. But does downtown really “define San Antonio?”

Says who?


13 thoughts on “What Defines the San Antonio Brand? Hint: Don’t Make Assumptions

  1. So you throw your friend under the bus and say he is being myopic, and you write an article providing nothing but the theme of challenging that assumption. The headline of this article would have sufficed, as you gave nothing beyond that challenge. Having lived in Texas all my life, in most of its major cities but also in many different geographic regions, and in San Antonio a cumulative 15 years in many neighborhoods, and traveling for business throughout the US and much of the world, I can tell you that the dominant majority do associate San Antonio with Downtown, including the tower, the river walk, and the one element you didn’t bother to mention, the Alamo.

  2. I have driven through most of the neighborhoods in San Antonio for years doing a housing survey and I would say that there are many San Antonios. In some areas you almost feel like you’re in Mexico. Some areas, particularly near UTSA and USAA are very multicultural. There are upscale neighborhoods (Alamo Heights, The Dominion, etc) and there are poor ones. There are family friendly areas and there are areas that cater to singles (downtown in particular). There are square areas (outside 410) and hipster areas (Southtown). San Antonio can’t be defined by one thing. I’d say “Come find your San Antonio”, might be a better slogan.

  3. I don’t understand. San Antonio should attract more visitors by emphasizing its suburbs “beyond Loop 1604” that are just like suburbs in every other city in the country? What point are you trying to make?

  4. JW Marriott? Those are all over the world. It’s the downtown core, make no mistake about it. No one goes to NYC to hangout in Long Island or Staten Island.

  5. San Antonio’s brand, other than tourism, is defined by freeways, arterial surface roads, and parking lots. Car culture, just like every other Texas city. Nothing else has a higher priority, including the Alamo, as was shown by all the people outraged by the possibility that they might no longer be able to drive past it.

  6. Other than the sad skyline for a city this size downtown on the street level needs major improvements when compared to other cities.
    Austin is eating SA lunch when it comes to marketing and branding. If it wasn’t for the Spurs no one would identify with the city.

    The answer is high the PR and Mad Men from Austin because they have more to work with and a city that’s has great bones.

  7. Cities that people enjoy market themselves. The ability to travel to (from the airport or other gateway) and all around in a city enjoyably without a car is huge part of the fun and draw of urban life and visitation. Currently, San Antonio does not make these marks, but it is not to say we didn’t in the recent past.

    It might be a rose-tinted recollection, but greater downtown San Antonio in 2001 seemed way more fun (and easier to navigate) than where we’re at in 2017. This seems to be opposite most other U.S. cities that have in recent years invested smartly in improving street-level walkability as well as transit system improvement quickly — including and importantly, through legacy transit system preservation and integration.

    I think the demise of the downtown VIA trolley bus or ‘streetcar’ system has hit the center city and San Antonio identity as hard as the loss of the Spurs and AT&T downtown, noting how the list above misses the key role that VIA trolley buses played historically in positive San Antonio branding.

    There’s no denying that the trolley buses / ‘streetcars’ of old were goofy and fun (clanging bells, propane powered, open-air balconies on the back for taking in the city more adventurously). Visitors as well as locals rode the wheels off these things at 50 cents a ride (with a paper ticket or two quarters) and lined up for them. You can still see the major ‘streetcar station’ signage on Alamo Street (intersecting with the River Walk and encircling the Torch of Friendship) where sizeable crowds of riders would form at this key interchange between various trolley bus lines. I remember red, blue, yellow, green and purple criss-crossing downtown and venturing into non-touristic areas such as Probandt when it was more industrial than ‘Southtown’:

    VIA’s trolley bus network was essential to San Antonio’s identity for over 30 years and this Council / New VIA (like Crystal Pepsi, etc) more or less just threw it away. Sure, the frequent, overlapping, legible and fun trolley system made downtown feel a little like a theme park, but people like that. Legacy transit systems are undeniably popular with visitors and locals (the inclines in Pittsburgh, the sky gondola in New York, the people mover in Detroit or Miami, cable cars in San Francisco), and they can be integrated with and enhance modern transit systems (I still can’t believe there’s no frequent mini-bus between the airport and VIA’s North Star Hub). As others have noted, the scale of the trolley buses (mini-buses are currently back en vogue in transit planning; electric buses are the predicted near future for all city transit systems) works very well with our city design as well as ridership patterns. Early blog posts from visitors about San Antonio inevitably stress VIA’s streetcars / our trolley buses as a highlight of their visit, and you can still find visitors seeking out the last remaining VIA trolley bus service.

    It received no love from the current Council, but imagine where we would be in June 2017 if Council/ New VIA in 2015 HAD bought into the maximum $80m proposal for an electric mini-bus system; the proposal expanded the old color coded trolley bus network in all directions within the historic footprint of the city (6 mile by 6 mile) to areas historically served by streetcar and added much utility to VIA’s routes — improving connections between college campuses including St Mary’s, OLLU, UTSA downtown, Trinity, UIW and St. Phillips with the center city as well as groceries and shopping at Quarry Market. Importantly, the proposed routes reached deep and frequently into the City’s 2009 urban reinvestment target areas — East Side, Roosevelt corridor and the West Side (which are gradually re-surfacing as essential to our city health) when the new VivaVIA routes and massive (and largely vacant) 40ft buses (bought used from Dallas as they move to smaller electric buses) do not.

    You could argue with or have changed the proposed routes, but the all-electric mini-bus system could easily have been in place and tested before the Tricentennial, which is more than can be said about any of the grand work that the City is now trying to fast track in time for 2018.

    Judging from the VIA trolley bus riding I experienced during the Seventh Day Adventist convention in July 2015 (when the City was still running a fare-free trolley bus loop downtown), San Antonio missed the easiest avenue to major local transit improvement for locals and visitors as well as opportunity to resurrect a key aspect of our urban identity and branding in time for SA300. It’s what happens when you don’t have thoughtful urban leadership at the core.

    This description from 2015 (quoted in the Rivard Report) still rings true:

    The all-electric and color coded mini-bus system would have been for San Antonio “a River Walk-quality amenity brought up to the street level that’s for locals and that’s why visitors will want to ride it. This would solve a lot of San Antonio’s transportation challenges and will earn the city the kind of national attention it deserves and needs in order to keep flourishing.”

    The proposed $80m for 60-80 all electric transit vehicles with smart ticketing built in (let that sink in) and that could be charged by renewable energy and draw from a highly popular legacy transit system sounds pretty cheap for marketing and major city improvement / urban reinvestment at this point — and particularly so close to SA300.

    The City has devoted an amazing amount of attention in the past year to updating the private and limited network river barges to electric (an estimated $100m contract). What about frequent electric mini-bus service inside the 410 Loop for visitors and locals — serving our VIA hubs, urban target areas, college students, and greater downtown tourism sites and re-building our urban identity? I thought San Antonio was good at preservation and tourism? Maybe the next Council can turn this bus around.

    • Well written and thought-out points, Mark. Thanks for sharing. I’m with you, hopefully the next Council can bring back some of these ideas to improve downtown and give the urban momentum a major push forward.

      • Thanks Mike! I went to the Pearl last night (unusual for me), and the worst part had to have been the interface with VIA out on Broadway, where locals at one point constructed a Frogger crossing to a make a point about City workmanship and inattention to pedestrians:

        A friend visiting from out of town last year for a conference described a similar ‘Frogger’ experience at this particular crossing riding the new VivaVIA 11 route to the Pearl, which she described as infrequent and untrustworthy (we took the 9 bus last night). Headed north, VIA dumps passengers on the sidewalk opposite Pearl Parkway where there’s no crossing. It’s at least four hundred feet (a full track lap) to the nearest crossing, so people cross without protection, standing in the middle of the street until southbound lanes clear. This is modern San Antonio, inconvenient and dangerous by design.

        In at least 18 months, nothing has changed to improve VIA/pedestrian access to the Pearl while various City ‘transport’ projects have been completed, including a new (poorly done and possibly Unified Development Code violating) surface parking lot southeast of the Convention Center that conflicts with the Hemisfair Park 2012 master plan for pedestrian gateways into and VIA service through the park.

        Locals are also starting to talk about how they are avoiding events at Blue Star Arts Complex as another spot too difficult to access by VIA or car.

        That it is not easy to move between the new Five Points Transit Hub, the new Centro Plaza, the new HEB downtown, Blue Star Arts / new Probandt development, the east side of Hemisfair Park (where there’s the Tower of Americas and our Smithsonian, the Institute of Texan Cultures), and the Pearl by VIA, B-Cycle bikeshare or foot are indicators of how this Council has bungled mobility planning for visitors and locals combined while still spending very big on ‘transit’ work (mainly new parking). Recent work has also all but ignored and further isolated vital resources to the west, east, south and north of downtown and despite past area reinvestment planning.

        Instead of connecting us, the City keeps building ‘trap’ environments downtown and elsewhere that stress car use – ride hailing or otherwise – that we are quickly running out of space for. Retrofits might be able to address some of the City’s mistakes of the last four years, but it would help if we stopped making so many urban planning mistakes.

  8. Yes there are many parts of a city. But no one goes to see Suburbia. Originally from Savannah, Georgia, it was easy to see this. The tourists go where the good parts of the city are, and they avoid the parts that suck. That isn’t to say that downtown is the only thing that can matter. But it does say that city planning ABSOLUTELY matters, and if all you have are crappy housing developments that are the same anywhere in the USA, then no one will visit your town, or move there for any reason but necessity.

  9. Gotta agree with most posters here. I clicked on the link, hoping f0r a well thought out thesis on alternative definitions for San Antonio, with some forward thinking proposals to enhance positive definitions, and improvements for the negative.

    All I saw were some vague warnings about assumptions. No examples of differing perspectives, or anything even close to new ideas.

    While I agree that DT has a rich historical aesthetic, it is sorely lacking in any forward thinking, modernity. The new Frost Bank building, while disappointing in size, will help in scope. It will be modern looking, and with ground level perks.

    In my opinion, what truly defines San Antonio, is a poor lack of vision, an idea that San Antonio is poor, the we have a few nice historical relics, and that it is a city of old people and Spurs fans. Not very enticing to the younger, tech savvy crowd.

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