‘You’re not vibrant’: Ottawa needs better marketing to compete on global stage, expert says


Ottawa needs to do better at telling the world about unique attractions such as the ByWard Market and Parliament Hill if it wants to be a contender in the escalating “war between cities” for the best and brightest workers, a well-known marketing expert says.

Frank Cuypers, a consultant with international marketing agency Destination Think!, said this week the city suffers from a reputation for being dull because people elsewhere don’t know the range of activities and attractions it has to offer.

“The world doesn’t see you as a city,” he told the audience of several hundred gathered for lunch Tuesday at the Shaw Centre during the annual Ottawa’s Economic Outlook event. 

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“You’re not vibrant,” Cuypers added, referring to the stereotypical perception of Canada’s capital. “There is no city life.” 

Cuypers has worked with communities around the world, including Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver, to help them better promote themselves. He cited numerous cities that have become magnets for skilled talent as well as tourists because the entire community has gotten behind efforts to promote their most attractive attributes.

As an example, he noted that Austin has gained a reputation as a hip music mecca and a haven for students and creative types despite being located in the heart of one of the most conservative states in the U.S.

“Twenty-five years ago, they decided to be known as a sort of green oasis in Texas,” he said of the state capital, which has topped numerous lists of the best places to live in the United States. “There was a vision and a plan, and it was long-term.”

Contrasting Tennessee’s two largest urban areas, he said Nashville has earned the catchy label of “Music City” even though its state rival Memphis was actually the home of legends such as Elvis Presley and B.B. King. 

Memphis has “probably even more to offer than Nashville,” Cuypers said. “But they never put any effort into telling a cohesive story together with their citizens to the world.”

In the same vein, he said, Portland, Ore., has recently become one of the most buzzworthy communities in the U.S. Oregon’s largest city has developed a burgeoning street food and craft brewery scene after decades of existing in the shadow of its larger neighbour to the north, Seattle.

“Portland is not as beautiful as Ottawa is. Portland, it’s the people ​– they tell all the same stories. They say, ‘We are weird,’” Cuypers told the audience, referring to the popular slogan, Keep Portland Weird, that appears on buildings and bumper stickers throughout the city. 

“Out of nothing, they created a great reputation.”

Cuypers suggested Ottawa could capitalize on its connection with nature to stand out from the crowd, noting it’s the only G7 capital where you can go whitewater rafting just a few hundred metres from the centre of government.

“It’s not enough to have a good product,” he said. “You (have to) make it experiential. You need to be known as being a very vibrant community.”

In addition to Cuypers, other speakers at the event included Mayor Jim Watson, who cited projects such as the new L5 test track for self-driving vehicles near the Nepean Sportsplex as proof that the city’s economy is firing on all cylinders.

“It’s become the talk of the autonomous vehicles business because one of the things carmakers need (for testing self-driving technology) is four distinct seasons,” the mayor said. “Weather, for once, is playing in our favour.”

Pointing out that the National Capital Region’s unemployment rate has hit a 30-year low of 4.4 per cent, Watson said the lack of a deep labour pool is a challenge for many fast-growing firms. He said Invest Ottawa is working with private-sector partners on programs to attract and retain skilled talent in the city.

“This will help us fill literally hundreds of vacancies that exist in highly skilled jobs,” he said.

The mayor also said projects such as the new main branch of the Ottawa Public Library slated to be built at LeBreton Flats will make the capital an even more attractive destination for talent.

“You’re going to be wowed like there’s no tomorrow,” he said of the library’s design, calling it a “spectacular kickstart” to the NCC’s plan to redevelop the prime parcel of land west of downtown.

Still, Watson acknowledged the city’s largest-ever infrastructure project – the $2.1-billion Confederation LRT Line – has gotten off to a bumpy start.  

After a series of equipment and mechanical failures plagued the train in its first month of operation, Watson announced last week the city would spend $3.5 million to put 40 buses back on the road in an effort to ease commuters’ headaches.

Tuesday, the mayor conceded that riders had a right to be frustrated.

“When the system is working, it’s an amazing system,” he said. “When it’s not working, when there’s one train out, it has a ripple effect.”

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