Downtown Knoxville's brand is about to change thanks to focus group study

The Central Business Improvement District spent two years working with the state of Tennessee to capture quantitative data about the retail and restaurant growth in downtown Knoxville.

Those numbers revealed the revenues of those businesses grew to $133.5 million in 2017 — a 10.71 percent increase over 2016.

But that’s just half the story of downtown.

The CBID began exploring a new brand strategy for downtown Knoxville and decided to gather qualitative data as well.

Robin Easter Design won the bid to update the brand and subcontracted with consultant Penny Kemp to conduct focus groups to find out how the people who live, work and play there feel about downtown.

“This is about going deep in terms of understanding what downtown means to (focus group participants) and what makes it unique,” Kemp said.

The results will be used to inform the CBID’s new downtown Knoxville brand, logo design and key messaging, all of which will be revealed in spring 2019, CBID marketing coordinator Robin Thomas said.

Sense of community

Kemp interviewed 34 downtown business people and residents in small groups.

The groups expressed downtown had a strong sense of community — and that feedback came even from individuals who did not live in the district.

Participants described downtown as likable, kind, warm, genuine. One said it was comfortable and felt like home. Another described it as a place to be oneself.

“That’s really unique when you think about a downtown, urban environment, for someone to describe it as home who doesn’t live here,” Kemp said.

Diversity is a priority

There was a great deal of discussion around diversity downtown. Overall, participants had a strong desire to be an open community and foster greater inclusion.

“What we heard was it’s diverse in that downtown is accepting of different people, different cultures, different backgrounds, different types of businesses,” Kemp said. “But we’re not as diverse as we would like to be ethnically."


One of the recurring themes was downtown Knoxville is “right-sized,” in the sense that it’s both walkable and charming.

Participants were quick to mention the architecture and historic preservation as a notable downtown element, but that development is hip and exciting.

“We’re not Williamsburg, we’re not this stodgy, historic preservation,” Kemp summarized. “No, it’s like we’re taking these old buildings and we’re putting them to new use and there’s an energy and a vitality associated with that that really came through.”

Unfinished and offbeat

The study pointed to several other major themes: Downtown Knoxville is unfinished and evolving. Downtown is unpredictable in a good way, a little offbeat, high quality and requires some savvy to navigate.

“In context of that sophistication and that discerning taste, at the same time it is a very real, comfortable, relaxed persona,” Kemp said. “We’re not uppity, we’re not pretentious. It’s not glamorous or overly fancy.”

It also pointed to what downtown isn't: boring, corporate or finished. Its best years are ahead, one participant said.

Kemp found the focus group’s passion so convincing she moved downtown.

“This whole sense of belonging, and community and home, it was palpable,” she said.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Breanna McDermott

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Published December 28, 2018