brand experience brief: downtown project

Downtown Project, the movement to revitalize downtown Las Vegas originally funded by Tony Hsieh the CEO of Zappos, has been in the news a lot lately.  On the downside, many articles (including this one) Monday-morning-quarterbacked the collection of businesses and organizations when it laid off 30 staffers.  But in the plus column, it was praised by others (see this write-up) for opening a Whole-Foods-inspired grocery store in what has historically been a food desert.  What I am interested in is Downtown Project as a brand, so I did this Brand Experience Brief (video audit and analysis) to share my perspectives.  Take a look:

DLYohn Brand Experience Brief: Downtown Project in Las Vegas from Denise Lee Yohn on Vimeo.

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Today’s brand experience brief looks at a slightly different kind of experience from the new and interesting retail and restaurant concepts that I usually cover.  I’m going to be talking about Downtown Project, the movement to revitalize downtown Las Vegas originally funded by Tony Hsieh the CEO of Zappos.

A lot has already been written and said about Downtown Project, especially in recent weeks after some big news items hit, so the unique perspective I want to share today is of Downtown Project as a brand – what works and what doesn’t when your brand experience is a based on place, not a product or service.

Let’s start with the facts.  Downtown Project is a collection of over 300 businesses in the Fremont East section of downtown Las Vegas including restaurants, bars, retail stores, theaters, and other entities.

I participated in a tour of the project led by a guide whose title is “Superman of Tours” and that’s a good segue to talk about the language of the Downtown Project brand.  It says “Our goal and purpose is to help make downtown Vegas a place of Inspiration, Entrepreneurial Energy, Creativity, Innovation, Upward Mobility, and Discovery, through the 3 C’s of Collisions, Co-learning, and Connectedness in a long-term, sustainable way.”  The buzzwords can seem a bit contrived and are overused at times, but they do reflect a very specific point of view.  This brand has clear beliefs and values – for example, every business that participates must promote collisions somehow, so that has led to retail stores such as the Coterie which sells funky apparel and accessories in the front and has a co-working space in the back.

In terms of brand personality, Downtown Project projects some randomness.  On the one hand, there are some playful, somewhat juvenile aspects – such as the backyard at Gold Spike which feels like a university quad in part because of the giant Jenga and Connect Four games and in another area a 40’ tall replica of a praying mantis imported from Burning Man – but there are more serious, geeky aspects – such as a speaker series held in the Inspire Theater including talks by science professors and business leaders.  And most of the rhetoric produced by Downtown Project is about job creation, economic growth, and ROI.

The centerpiece of the Downtown Project experience is the Downtown Container Park which incubates local small businesses in a sort of mall comprised of converted containers.  On the perimeter, niche-y stores that sell items like cupcakes and handmade jewelry apply to set up shop to test their concepts – in the center there is a Treehouse play area for kids and a stage that hosts performances by indie artists.  Downtown Container Park seems to represent all the aspects of the Downtown Project brand – business, community, and entertainment — but it seems a little manufactured and disconnected from the actual downtown.

As a brand experience, Downtown Project is a work in progress.  And that’s understandable given it’s only in year 3 of an initial 5 year plan to achieve a very bold vision.  Going forward, it will need to get clearer about what’s on-brand and what’s not – what’s going to drive sustainable change and what are just fun things that the leaders want to do.  If you’re defining or redefining a destination brand, I recommend you check it out – you’ll come away with lots of ideas.

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