Setting eyes on any new city for the first time is always a fascinating experience. Arriving recently in Seattle from the UK not knowing anyone or anything about the area was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. It got me thinking about what a city – with all its hidden stories – says about the kind of people, businesses and brands that make their home there.
The first thing you notice about Seattle in particular is the way the port (one of the largest and most sprawling in the US) with its web of cargo cranes, container ships and railroad cars sits right next to the city itself. The grit, sweat and graft of Seattle industry, its beating heart, lies literally just a few streets away from downtown’s shiny banks, bars and boutiques.
Oil stained, fist-clenched commerce in lockstep with Seattle’s cultural epicenter; an area that’s given the world everything from Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana and Pearl Jam to organic granola, microbreweries and the Frappuccino.
All of this is encompassed within the raw and uncompromising landscape that surrounds Seattle. The Olympic Mountains to the east, the Cascades to the west and water (literally) up, down, all around. This is scenery – still unchanged – that played host to the madcap goldrush of the late nineteenth century that saw bold and wild-eyed pioneers flock to Seattle en route to the Klondike gold fields.
Over the years this unique and usual mix of influences has allowed Seattle to give rise to a disproportionately high number of groundbreaking global businesses: Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks – to name but a few. And now with the city’s marketing and technology scene growing rapidly it seems this ‘Seattle story’ serves as a fitting metaphor for what forward-thinking brands all over the world are aspiring to be.
First and foremost, modern brands and their agencies need to be industrious. Concrete may have been replaced by code but the ability to build first-rate products, services and utilities from the ground-up, to change the digital skyline on behalf of a brand, is crucial in world that’s increasingly shaped by technology.
This builder mentality, however, is useless unless it’s hardwired to a creative ambition that seeks to create real-life moments in culture rather than just getting in its way. No one remembers who built the stage that Jimi Hendrix was on when he first torched his guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival, or who made the announcements in between sets, but that 1967 rendition of Fire changed the face of rock and roll forever and left an indelible mark on modern culture. There’s no reason why brands and their agencies shouldn’t aspire to influence the global zeitgeist in the same way.
Of course, it’s all very well for industry and culture – for builders and creatives – to work hand in hand, but the rate of technological change means it’s impossible to stand out in the crowded media marketplace unless you’re comfortable making it up as you go along. With technology opening new doors every day, there has never been more opportunity for smart businesses. However, much like the prospectors that flooded in to Seattle 150 years ago you’ve got to be comfortable charging headlong into the unknown with little idea if you’re on the right track.
In a world of unicorns and super angels, a healthy dose of pioneer spirit seems to be the best way for brands and their agencies to discover gold.
Gareth Jones is managing director of Possible Seattle. He tweets @GJ