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May 11, 2023 // Wesley Chan  //       //  Opinion

Portland, Brand and the Stories We Tell

I moved to Portland, Oregon, during a rainy spring nearly 10 years ago. Many things have changed since I moved here, not the least of which is the reputation – the brand – of Portland itself.  

Before I moved, any mention of Portland to friends was met with the question, “Have you seen Portlandia?” which demonstrated the outsized role in popular culture Portland had relative to the size of the city. I remember reading articles about how many mid-sized cities – think Cleveland, Kansas City, etc. – wanted to be the next Portland. Portland was a destination. It was cool. It was the embodiment of “hipster.” It was where young people went to retire 

I could – and still can! – walk through shop after shop of local boutiques selling shirts with some manifestation of “Portland” and not in the cheesy, tourist-trap way. Local people, my friends and I, wore Portland gear. It was not unusual for people to wear it around the city. The Portland airport’s carpet had its own wildly popular Instagram page, and you can still find carpet themed apparel years after it has been replaced. People loved Portland and all its quirkiness. The city had perhaps accidentally the best branding of any in America. People moved to Portland to be in Portland. How many other cities of this size could claim that? If brand is in part the cumulation of stories we tell, every story about Portland painted it as a young person’s dream city. 

And then the stories started to change – casting a shadow on Portland’s reputation. Slowly at first, then seemingly all at once. For some people, Portland became a poster child for everything wrong in America. Portland was discussed on the nightly news by people living in faraway cities. Everyone wanted to criticize something and somebody. Pundits said the city was dying. Many people thought they were right.  

Portland did and still does have many issues. I live right in the city, so I have a firsthand look at everything happening. The recovery from the past few years has been slow as office buildings remain underoccupied, but at the same time there are signs of life. New businesses are opening, and new restaurants are popping up. It isn’t enough to replace all the ones that have closed, but there are positives when you look.  

When we think about Portland’s brand, there are more stories to tell than the negatives that dominate headlines. Portland had its issues even when its brand value was highest – just ask the minority communities who lived here or couldn’t live here – but there are also a lot of positives worth highlighting. To be clear, this highlights the work of many people with way more sweat equity than I have, but that is why these stories need to be told.

Here are just two I’ve come across: 

In 2015, Christina Ha Luu and William Vuong opened Rose VL, sister restaurant to Ha VL. Though it has appeared on numerous Portland essential restaurants lists and Christina has been nominated for several James Beard awards, every time we go it still feels like a small neighborhood joint. The entire premise of the restaurant is Vietnamese soups and noodles, and they have so many that go beyond the more common pho that you’ll find at many other restaurants throughout the city. Their menu consists of only two to three rotating soups each day. If you want to try them all, you need to go every day of the week. Friday has a personal favorite: a very clean-tasting and light fermented fish soup. The owner once told us that she sources the special fermented fish ingredient on yearly trips back to Vietnam as there is no substitute available here, and I can attest that the result is truly worth the effort. Rose VL is a testament to what Portland can offer: the chance to be quirky, unique, but also incredibly delicious.  

EcoVibe is a Black-owned sustainable plant and home goods store opened in 2019 with two locations. To walk into its original Northeast shop is to walk straight into your favorite aspirational Instagram page. Full of plants, home goods, and light and airy apparel, every item is tastefully chosen, and it feels like there are unique and interesting pieces on every shelf. Husband-and-wife founders, Len and Dre, have long roots in Portland – six generations for Len – and source every item for their environmental, ethical and social impact and donate a portion of each sale to local nonprofits. It feels like all the best parts of Portland are wrapped up in this one store: small business, values driven, but also great vibes.  

There are still many more stories to tell: businesses, restaurants and just plain cool people doing really interesting things. Portland may never fully recapture the fantastical, magical brand it once had (though it doesn’t hurt to try!), but it doesn’t need to. There are many great stories in Portland and many new stories that haven’t been told yet. Together we can rebuild Portland’s reputation and reshape its brand into something that continues to be meaningful and lasting. I am proud to call Portland my adopted home and am honored to share a small slice of it with you.  

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Wesley is a senior strategist on the Brand and Engagement Strategy Team (BEST). He is focused on helping companies and brands solve customer-facing problems, such as refreshing brand identity, understanding consumer journey and everything in-between.   

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