Turning city's image inside out

Ad experts advise `branding' to make assets of negatives


As it seeks a new "brand" to sum up its peculiar charms, maybe Baltimore need look no farther than its own backyard for inspiration.

Eleven years ago, the Baltimore Opera faced a seemingly impossible task: make that most rarefied of arts, one that appealed largely to a small, aging population, sexy to younger, hipper audiences.

Its solution was a slogan: "Opera: It's better than you think. It has to be."

Funny, self-deprecating, intriguing - a winning phrase. So as the city itself seeks an image makeover, courtesy of a $500,000 branding campaign, maybe it should heed the advice of the man behind that slogan.

"How'd we do it? We acknowledged what the [negative] perceptions of opera were, but we also dispelled them," says Jeff Millman, chief creative officer of ad firm Gray Kirk Van Sant. "Find what's good in your product. Talk about that. But be sure to change the rules of engagement."

Advertising is as old as the theory of the USP - "unique selling proposition" - a concept that dates to the 1920s. For every Coca-Cola Co. that has spent millions developing a can't-miss brand ("Have a Coke and a smile") over the years, another firm has ridden a new name to better success, such as when AirTran airlines rose from the ashes of ValuJet, ruined in the wake of a fiery crash in the Everglades.

Even individuals get into the act: After spending seven months in prison, ex-Baltimore Police Commissioner Ed Norris has used a spiffy motto to help launch a career as a radio talk-show host.

"I did my time," goes the slogan for his weekday show on WHFS-FM. "Now give me some of yours."

And Baltimore is hardly the first city to embrace the rebranding approach. New York struck gold in the late 1970s with its "I New York" slogan. Atlanta; Toronto; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Spartanburg, S.C., all have either just begun or just completed rebranding projects. Most spectacularly in recent times, Las Vegas hit the jackpot with a 2003 slogan that has become part of the American vernacular.

"`What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas' perfectly captures the experience people expect to have in our city," says Erika Yowell of the Las Vegas Convention Visitors and Convention Authority. "It's impossible to measure how much [the campaign] has been worth to us."

The gambling mecca's new motto could be simply "Ka-ching!" Vegas trounced its old record for tourism in 2004, drawing more than 37 million visitors.

Both Millman and the Vegas boosters had the nerve to admit up front what consumers already knew - there was something "wrong" with the product. To some, opera is intimidating or a bore; who's proud of a vice like gambling? But one person's shortcoming is another's magnet.

Millman and the opera had the confidence to go with the counterintuitive. In brochures, he spoofed opera's hoary tendency toward, um, interesting plot lines.

"Decadence and Immorality the Whole Family Can Enjoy," screamed one.

He never met a soul, he insists, who found the irreverence offensive, and younger customers nearly felt they were in on the joke. Within a year, subscription rates showed improvement.

In the early 1990s, Vegas had downplayed its reputation as America's sin city, but ad campaigns that went after family travelers with images of water parks and carnival rides muddied its message.

"Families with 4-year-olds walking down the street were liable to trip on fliers for strippers and call girls," says Karen Mallia, a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. "That didn't work."

In the end, the Vegas bureau worked with a local ad firm, R&R Partners, to learn what customers liked about Vegas.

"It wasn't even on our radar screen, but group after group told us that people who came here went home with stories, the kind they never had anyplace else," Yowell says. "You have no idea how that resonated."

Millman challenges Baltimore's planners to look for a similar way to "extract brand value" from its own situation. A lifelong resident, he loves being able to work downtown and live in a leafy suburb just a half-hour away. A campaign might play up the idea of "the biggest small town in America," he says, or another theme that turns a potential negative inside-out.

That can call for boldness, a quality sometimes lacking in government bureaucrats. And a half-million dollars isn't much of a budget for such a project, says USC's Mallia, when you factor in the costs of research, focus groups and television spots that can cost thousands per minute, let alone the follow-up assessments a private firm would do.

But planners shouldn't cut corners by exaggerating. Calling Baltimore "The Greatest City in America," for instance, is such a vast overstatement it can draw attention to the city's shortcomings.

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