We never thought we'd live to see the day when Houston would make a list—any list—of the world's top tourist destinations. But there we were last year, in the august pages of the New York Times no less, at number seven on a list of the "46 Places to Go in 2013," sandwiched between Amsterdam and the ski resort town of Rossland, British Columbia. The concept of someone visiting my hometown for any other reason than to do business or see their family still seemed foreign when the Wall Street Journal followed up with a travel story highlighting our local food scene. For the past few years, the accolades have kept rolling in: Coolest City (Forbes), The Next Great American City (Smithsonian Magazine), Best City for Your Future (Kiplinger's), Best City in America (Business Insider).
Houston is being overwhelmed by an unprecedented avalanche of free publicity, and for once it's (mostly) not about our weather, our traffic, or our guns. But not content to settle for a good thing, the big thinkers at the Greater Houston Partnership recently decided we need to re-brand ourselves once again. Last month they unveiled their approximately $12 million "Houston: The City With No Limits" campaign. Of course, Houston already has a few not-bad nicknames, all of which somehow arose and took hold without focus groups, advertising agencies, or millions of dollars: Bayou City, Space City, Clutch City, H-Town. The best recent city slogans have similarly been unofficial and created on the cheap: "Houston: It's Worth It" (although that was created by a local advertising firm, ttweak) and our personal favorite "F*** You, Houston's Awesome."
As local consultant and blogger Tory Gattis recently observed, "The City With No Limits" is merely the latest in a long string of expensive, failed efforts to foist a new moniker on the city. By his count, the list includes such gems as "Houston: The Real Texas," "Houston: The Buckle of the Sunbelt," and "Who Says the Sky's the Limit?" The sad thing is that those three aren't even the worst. Below, for your consideration, are our picks for the five worst, most ill-conceived slogans in Houston history:
5. Houston's Hot
This was the semi-official slogan of the 1990 Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations, held on the campus of Rice University. According to Rice history professor John Boles, the host committee, "recognizing in advance that many visitors to Houston in July would comment that the weather was hot"—such foresight!—decided to "turn a negative cliché into a positive plug." Hand fans featuring the motto were given away at the media day before the opening of the summit.
4. Houston: Energy Capital of the World
Speaking of reinforcing stereotypes, it doesn't get much less imaginative than this. Ask someone from outside of Texas what two words pop into their heads when they think of Houston and they'll probably say "heat" and "oil." Austin may or may not have ever been the "live music capital of the world," but as a tagline that sure beats self-identifying as a city of roughnecks, roustabouts, and oil execs.
3. Houston: Expect the Unexpected
In 1997, Mayor Bob Lanier decided to spend $1 million of taypayer money and another $2.5 million in private donations on a national marketing campaign created by his wife Elyse's Houston Image Group. The lavish campaign was introduced, appropriately enough, at a Tony's-catered luncheon at the Wortham Center featuring $3,700 in pyrotechnics and $9,000 in videotaped invitations. The national response? A story in The New Yorker by current Menil Communications Director Vance Muse, that quoted Elyse reminiscing about the good ol' days when "you didn't have to ask your husband's permission to charge hundred-thousand-dollar bracelets." The campaign was pilloried locally as well, with the Houston Business Journal observing that, although intended to evoke the city's hidden treasures, it might inadvertently "create a more ominous impression that something mysterious lurks on every Houston street corner." When the Houston Business Journal turns against you, you're really in trouble.
2. Houston: You'll Think the World of this City
It's hard to believe this was actually a slogan, but Tory Gattis says it was. Anyone who can furnish more information about when and why this tagline was adopted, and by whom, should please contact Houstonia post-haste.
1. Houston: The City With No Limits
Where to begin? When we first saw the logo for this latest (and, at $12 million, possibly the most expensive) re-branding effort by the Greater Houston Partnership, we thought it looked like four buttons on a video game controller. Only when a friend pointed out the "H" carved out of negative space did we 'get it'—it felt like looking at a Magic Eye picture, or an optical illusion. Pro tip: if you need someone to explain your logo, you probably need a new logo. This image campaign violates virtually every rule in marketing: don't rely on negative space, be as snappy as possible ("Limitless City" or "City Without Limits"—the latter at least eliminates two superfluous words—would have been punchier), and it uses a jumble of apparently random fonts.
Worst of all, though, are the slogan's unintended meanings. "It's a reference to sprawl, right?" a former Houstonian now living in San Francisco asked us. She had a point—with a metropolitan area larger than New Jersey, Houston seems to go on forever, especially if you're trying to get the hell out. (It's the kind of phrase we imagine someone screaming in frustration as they're stuck in traffic on I-10.) Is it possible that no one at the GHP noticed this? Like "Expect the Unexpected," the slogan is well-intended but fatally flawed.
If you can think of a better Houston slogan—and really, it shouldn't be that hard—please let us know in the comments section.