Baltimore: The city in search of a slogan


Charm City. The City that Reads. The Greatest City in America.

None of the above, say would-be tourists of Baltimore's three decades worth of slogans.

Instead, they see Baltimore through the critically acclaimed crime dramas produced here - painting the city as a haven for drugs, poverty and homicides. Needless to say, that image doesn't sell a lot of hotel rooms or lure visitors to the Inner Harbor.

The answer, according to high-powered image consultants, is a new brand for Baltimore - what's known in the tourism industry as "destination re-positioning."

"The perception [of Baltimore] is very bad," Susan Palombo, director of brand strategy for Landor Associates, told Mayor Martin O'Malley and the City Council at a luncheon meeting yesterday. "Changing perceptions is what we've been hired to do."

The $500,000 branding strategy aims to create a positive perception that attracts tourists and conventions which, in turn, can boost the local economy. For example, Las Vegas tourism lagged after the city marketed its gambling-fueled nightlife as family friendly. The city bounced back by repositioning itself with a slogan - "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" - that emphasized its long-held reputation as Sin City.

The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association has picked a formidable partner in Landor Associates, which has built brands for such locations as Madrid, Spain; the state of Florida; and Hong Kong - as well as brands that include Gatorade, Altoids and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The company is expected to come up with a half dozen branding concepts for Baltimore by next month, and a decision on the brand is expected to be reached by April, said BACVA's president, Leslie R. Doggett.

"It's obviously important to have the right and best brand because the competition [for conventions] is ferocious," said Clarence Bishop, BACVA chairman and O'Malley's chief of staff. "We have to differentiate ourselves from Washington D.C., [National Harbor on the Potomac River in Prince George's County] ... and other competitors."

Bishop said the effort is specifically tailored to branding the city's image as a destination for tourists and convention planners. What it will not be, he said, is a broader citywide branding effort, noting past attempts have not been "very successful."

In 2001, the Greater Baltimore Alliance hired international trend forecaster Faith Popcorn for what it called a "branding initiative" to "reposition Baltimore" in the American mind. Her brand featured a string of B's - "Be ... Become ... Begin ... In Baltimore" - intended to attract younger people to the city. The campaign did not succeed.

There have been a string of other nicknames along the way: Digital Harbor, Mobtown and Crab City. Then there are the less image-friendly labels: The Heroin Capital and The Murder Capital.

Palombo said Baltimore will have to avoid comparing itself to other cities like Washington, Boston and New York that have an "established place in the hearts and minds of travelers."

The city, the report stated, shouldn't try to "out-Disney" Orlando, "out-monument" Washington or "out-Broadway" New York.

Instead, the brand must build on Baltimore's unique character. The city's most prominent positive attribute, according to Landor's research, is its Inner Harbor. The waterfront's proximity to professional sporting events at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium add to downtown's allure.

"The waterfront is the critical point of difference for Baltimore," states the report delivered to city officials yesterday.

The consultants also found that the city's history, including its African-American heritage, provide important attractions. In addition, Landor found that Baltimore residents are proud of their neighborhoods and their provincial, "genuine" character - what the report called "the Hon factor."

"Baltimore is a `little big city' with all of the assets and attractions of a larger city but the charm, accessibility and convenience of a small town environment," the report states.

The report showed that city residents believe they are "quirky," "funky," "off-kilter," "hilarious," "bizarre" and "a little off-center."

"The people are genuine, not impressed or surprised by much," the report states. "People tend to stay in place ... not as transient ... people have roots and family here - it's a community."

The branding effort has been assisted recently by positive press highlighting Baltimore for many of the same attributes detailed in the Landor research. In May, Frommer's, the travel guide company, ranked Baltimore as a top-10 summer destination. And last year Forbes recommended Baltimore as a city for young and single professionals.

But Landor found that long-held perceptions of crime and drugs continue to hamper the city's image. A page in the report labeled "City of Skeptics" states that "Baltimore is plagued by negative press and harmful characterizations by the media, resulting in an inferiority complex."

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