Urban branding is a multi-billion dollar per year industry with a straightforward goal: to help cities differentiate themselves from other cities. Because cities are in competition with one another for low-cost residents, new investors, and tourists, urban branding is used by local leaders as a political-economic tool to ensure that their city is an attractive destination for these target audiences. However, in practice cities tend to adopt a similar set of branding strategies that make them look not more distinct, but more alike. Although many studies recognize this phenomenon, most of them are purely descriptive and fail to provide an explanation for why cities adopt such similar approaches to urban branding. When an explanation is presented, it is usually couched in macro-structural terms, placing the majority of blame on political and economic forces that leave little room for the agency of groups or individual actors to influence branding decisions. I argue that such explanations are not only insufficient for explaining these similarities but are also hampered by the fact that they cannot account for changes to branding practices if and when they do occur.
This project, through detailed case studies of Las Vegas, Orlando, Houston, and Detroit, argues that the theory of institutional isomorphism provides a more comprehensive explanation for why these and so many other cities approach the practice of urban branding in such similar ways. By looking at the actors working within the organizational field of urban branding, I show that there are mimetic, coercive, and normative isomorphic forces that influence these actors to behave in similar ways, that put restrictions on the types of strategies deemed appropriate for use in branding efforts, and that also prevent actors from outside the organizational field from having any real decision-making power when it comes to shaping the direction of a branding campaign. Moreover, I also argue that this theory is superior to previous explanations because it also provides an avenue for organizational change to occur. For instance, the introduction of different mimetic, coercive, or normative forces, such as the citizen-led counter branding campaigns that emerged in Houston and Detroit, can help to breakdown the homogenizing and non-responsive tendencies of institutional isomorphism within the organizational field of urban branding, thus leading to the adoption of a wider range of inclusive and community-oriented branding strategies.