How to sell a city

Hits and misses of recent urban branding campaigns

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Las Vegas' "What happens here stays here" campaign is the benchmark for urban rebranding success stories.

(FORTUNE Small Business) -- What's in an urban brand? Civic leaders across the country ask that question as they strive to make their towns attractive to entrepreneurs and others in shaky economic times.

"For any city facing structural or economic change, marketing, branding, and selling your city's image is terribly important," said Robin Boyle, a professor of urban planning at Wayne State University who has studied city branding.

But it takes more than a catchy slogan to change a city's identity. As Detroit, Las Vegas and Pittsburgh have learned, brands only resonate if they reflect the location's true character.

Selling Motor City
Take Detroit, a once-mighty manufacturing city that has struggled to recruit and retain young workers in recent years. Detroit's economy has been taking a hit since foreign competition started scooping up a large share of the auto market in the 1980s, and advances in manufacturing technology reduced the number of jobs available for Detroit's blue-collar workers.

"The drumbeat of less-than-positive news that hits the airways periodically about Detroit really does stand as a barrier to a growing economy," said Jim Townsend, executive director of the Tourism Economic Development Council of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau (DMCVB). "There's also a really strong need to change local attitudes and to break down a certain amount of alienation that people have felt for their own community and their own central city."

In hopes of reinventing Detroit's tattered brand, the DMCVB spent $200,000 researching and developing a brand platform to support its newest regional marketing initiative, which debuted late last year. Not unlike Prince circa 1993, the city's new identity is embodied in a symbol, "The D."

A TV and online ad campaign highlights five key local attractions: cars, culture, gaming, music, and sports.

Townsend argues that the new image presents a more honest view of Detroit than previous marketing attempts. About ten years ago, the DMCVB, a nonprofit organization, unveiled a citywide branding campaign designed to shed a more flattering light on Detroit.

The slogan: "It's a great time in Detroit." But the campaign flopped.

"Ten years ago that was an overly ambitious claim to make about our community," Townsend said. "And it wasn't a very clear or differentiating slogan."

Detroit has already seen a 7% increase in visitation from markets that are running "The D" ads, which include Cleveland, Columbus, and Grand Rapids. But how long will it take for the city to fully shed its bad rep? The latest setback: Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, embroiled in a sex scandal, was indicted in March on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Reinventing Pittsburgh
Much of the steel industry retreated from Pittsburgh in the 1980s. Although steel manufacturing hasn't totally disappeared from the region, most of Pittsburgh's economy has been driven by the advanced manufacturing, life sciences and technology sectors in recent years - a fact city officials liked to play up in their marketing.

"Ten years ago, the sentiment seemed to be 'steel was then, information technology is now,'" said local entrepreneur Chris Mason, who has co-founded two companies in Pittsburgh, including a small marketing firm called Branding Brand. "It's really tough when part of a city's message is that you have to reject who you are."

However, Mason is more optimistic about the region's current marketing campaign, which aims to convey a more well-rounded image of Pittsburgh that honors its industrial past while promoting today's hot growth areas.

"In the 1990s it was impossible to have a conversation about what else was happening in Pittsburgh because of our rust belt image," said Bill Flanagan, an executive vice president for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development (CCD), a regional economic development organization. "We've found a way to talk about our history and our future without evoking the image of the rust belt."

The city's new tagline: "Pittsburgh - imagine what you can do here."

At first glance, the slogan seems to suffer from the same vagueness that doomed Detroit's marketing campaign years ago. But local boosters argue that in this case, broadness is a virtue.

"It's intentionally open to some degree of interpretation by an individual or by a business," says Michele Fabrizi, a marketing expert who heads the ad agency MARC USA and sits on the board of the Allegheny CCD.

While Detroit hopes its new brand will strengthen its economy and workforce, Pittsburgh's rebranding initiative was inspired by the desire to draw more attention to the city's recent increases in new business formation, spinoffs from university research projects, and venture capital investment. As Pittsburgh celebrates its 250th birthday this year, Fabrizi hopes that the "Imagine what you can do here" message will resonate strongly throughout 2008 and on into the future.

Loving Las Vegas
Vegas is one of the most successful urban branding case studies in recent U.S. history: "What happens here, stays here" has become ingrained in American culture since the marketing campaign launched in 2003.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), which worked with R & R Partners to come up with the innovative campaign, decided to embraced visitors' sentiments that Vegas is a playground.

"The way I've always looked at, [the slogan] wasn't a statement about what we wanted to be," says Terry Jicinsky, the LVCVA's senior vice president of marketing. "It was a statement about what we actually were. There's a degree of adult freedom here."

The city's newest marketing effort is another play on that mindset. While it aims to promote Vegas' non-gaming activities, the lead slogan, "Your Vegas is showing," has a provocative undertone that matches the city's naughty reputation.

Although the national housing crunch has hit Las Vegas hard, visitors are still coming in droves. Over the past 10 years, Las Vegas has grown in population and visitation and issued more than 2,000 new business licenses. The Strip alone is expected to generate 120,000 new jobs over the next three years, according to Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

Increasingly, those workers are recent college graduates who come to the Vegas area for its exciting nightlife and diverse leisure opportunities. The percentage of college-educated residents in Clark County has increased 20% since 2000. To top of page

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