Next is now: Re-branding Pittsburgh during pandemic

How does place branding evolve during a pandemic? Mark Thomas, President of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance - and one of our jurors for the upcoming City Nation Place Awards - joined us to explain the thinking behind Pittsburgh's re-brand and how they're putting the focus on inclusive recovery. 

What does place branding mean to you?

Establishing an identity that people can connect with. There are obvious places that have built solid brands over the years as destinations for opportunity, the pursuit of fame, relaxation, gaming, nightlight and more. When a place decides to establish a brand, it’s important to elevate the assets that speak to a target audience.

A new brand, ‘Pittsburgh Region. Next is Now.’ was launched during the pandemic. Did that impact the launch in any way?

It did. First, we were extra careful on the timing and how we framed the launch at a sensitive time. In addition to the lives that were impacted by the pandemic, our regional businesses were also challenged with surviving and adapting to all the disruption. Yet, it was important that we continued to advance the region, and the brand – designed to help drive that – was always envisioned as a multi-year, multi-phase effort. 

What can places do to support their downtowns in recovery? And what role does placemaking play in revitalising downtowns?

The nostalgic images of downtowns with men wearing suits and ties and carrying briefcases and workers cramming on highways and transit distort our perception and somewhat cloud our imagination. Downtowns must adapt to the new ways that people want to work and live and convene within a city – more housing, more culture, more businesses that serve as meeting places, and seamless interplays with the natural environment.

The past eighteen months have seen a substantial shift in the way that many people work. Do you think the shift towards remote working will become permanent? What does this mean for your investment and talent attraction strategies?

It resets the rules. The conventional approach to economic development assumes that people will follow jobs and opportunity. That is still important. Yet as more companies embrace flexible work and distribute jobs where people are migrating and moving, it challenges our norms. We must have a dual message for business and people. I foresee dramatic shifts in how our industry works over the next few years.

One of the things I know Pittsburgh has been putting a real focus on is attracting and supporting diverse talent. Can you tell me a bit more about this?

The latest census provides a meaningful context. The country is growing more diverse. Many of the aspirational markets already have the demographic diversity that is only now registering on a national level. At the core, growth is diverse talent. That’s the message. The places that are truly designed around inclusion will thrive. Pittsburgh has so much to offer. This includes existing assets, but also the opportunity for entrepreneurs, creatives and talent of every type to help us build a Pittsburgh that’s an even more dynamic, liveable place.

Do you have a top tip for other cities or regions looking to be more intentional with their diversity and inclusion strategies?

Don’t overdo it; keep it simple: create a message of openness and build capacity locally for the community to embrace the message. I’ve visited other countries where there were no people who looked like me, yet I felt very welcomed and embraced. 

With expanding air travel, new tech tools, international cities vying for immigrant talent, and a more open society, it has never been easier to explore the world. It’s important to keep in mind that the talent you’re targeting are part of a community of people who are well-travelled and have a great deal of global exposure.


And finally, what will you be looking for in a winning entry in the City Nation Place Awards?


Entries that excite the senses and leave an imprint. That’s really what success looks like.

Interested in entering the City Nation Place Awards? Find out how to enter here.

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Diversity, talent attraction, and the Pittsburgh Passport

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REPORT: Collaboration is king - identifying new opportunities for collaboration in place branding

Six major pitfalls facing place brand strategies

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The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.