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Interview: Tim Calkins Studies How to Brand Chicago and Attract China's Attention

February 21, 2007 | by Stephen Anzaldi

Chinese executives consider Chicago among the best business cities in America. A recent survey also reveals, however, that local political and business officials must do more to promote Chicago's key attributes if they hope to capitalize on the growth of China, which could have the world's largest economy by 2013 given current growth rates.

Tim Calkins refers to it as a call to action. Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, coordinated the survey along with World Business Chicago and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to assess Chinese decision-makers' views of cities and investment opportunities in the North American market.

“General awareness of Chicago is higher than we initially thought,” Calkins says. “But specific knowledge, for instance that the city has North America's largest convention center and distribution capabilities, is sketchy.”

Calkins, who joined the Kellogg faculty in 1998 and received the 2006 Lawrence G. Lavengood Outstanding Professor of the Year award, also works with major corporations around the world on marketing strategy and branding issues. Here he discusses the study's findings and what they mean for Chicago's economic outlook.

Regarding the relationship between Chicago and China, what's at stake?

With 1.3 billion people, China has the world's largest population and the third-largest economy. In 2005 its gross domestic product grew by more than 9 percent. By comparison, the United States, the European Union and Japan all grew at less than 4 percent.

From an investment perspective, the story of China has always been about outside firms seeking to access the Chinese market. But forecasters see the flow reversing over the next decade. Chinese businesses are already expanding broadly across Asia, and now we'll begin to see the Chinese open American divisions. China's investment power could drive Chicago's economic growth for years to come. And we feel that Chicago can serve as a bridge to connect the two countries.

How did the study come to be?

It grew out of conversations that Kellogg Dean Dipak Jain had with the leaders of World Business Chicago and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The three organizations collaborated on the study. At Kellogg a team of students worked on it through most of last year as a kind of independent study project.

We began by asking, “How is Chicago perceived in China?” There was some initial concern that it was seen as a small, provincial place, notable only for gangsters, Michael Jordan and snow. But our research showed that's not the case. Chicago should be confident in all that it has to offer. It deserves a spot on the world stage.

What's the flip-side to that?

Chicago is a place of Midwestern values. It's modest - not a Donald Trump type of city. And that's a plus. But to a certain extent it needs to be assertive to leverage its enormous assets.

Did your findings prove this point?

Yes. On overall awareness, Chicago scored very high; virtually all of the Chinese executives we surveyed were aware of Chicago, New York and San Francisco. Other cities scored lower on awareness. But most respondents didn't know much about the city. They didn't know, for example, that Chicago has extensive nonstop flights to China, North America's largest convention center and the world's two leading business schools.

What are some other key selling points?

In O'Hare, Chicago has North America's largest airport. It has the second-highest number of large corporate headquarters, a broad diversity of companies overall and a great quality of life.

In terms of geography, how does Chicago compete with coastal cities?

Obviously Chicago isn't one of the big ports. Containers from China don't arrive here. But throughout its history, Chicago developed and grew as a point of connection. Whether by rail, air, ship or truck, the transportation system is definitely something the city can leverage. Its central location helps.

Can you explain the rankings?

When we asked which are the best cities for doing business in North America, 69 percent of respondents mentioned New York. Chicago came in second at 57 percent, and San Francisco was third, with 40 percent. Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles came next. Toronto and Vancouver were the only cities outside the United States to be named.

Among the top cities, Chicago ranked first in offering tax incentives and the support of local government.

Why is this significant?

To the Chinese, this is crucial because China's economy is so closely linked with the government. It makes them comfortable to know that local politicians support new business ventures.

This is where the efforts of Mayor Daley have been valuable. He's made several trips to China recently. He's a distinguished figure and a good ambassador for the city. He's put a high priority on positioning Chicago as the city through which to enter the American market. The new Chicago China Development Corporation in Shanghai - the city's first overseas development office - is a tangible embodiment of this idea.

How does this effort to woo business tie into the Olympic bid?

Our findings are very encouraging when you think about the 2016 Olympics. Remember this is just one study based on Chinese executives, so it is by no means a global read on Chicago. But it would suggest that the city is in a better position than many people think.

The Olympics would be the ultimate opportunity to really shape the Chicago brand, to fill in all the details. People know about the city, and they think favorably of it. The Olympics would really boost Chicago's place on the world stage.

Topics: People