The secret of selling Baltimore


There was a moment when Gary Vikan was sitting on the 12th floor of the Legg Mason building last fall looking at a dizzying array of charts and numbers.

The charts were designed to convey the feelings and attitudes outsiders had of the great city where he lived and worked.

But he was dumbstruck. Apparently all the people who lived within 250 miles of Baltimore and had never been here weren't particularly impressed. Those who had, however, were quick to give Baltimore top marks.

The divergence of opinions was such that even officials of Longwoods International, the tourism research firm presenting the data, said they had rarely seen such a stark divide.

"The disparity between the two was enormous," said Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum, who served as chairman of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association's repositioning task force.

And then it clicked. Baltimore was a well-kept secret. It needed a new image. A makeover, so to speak.

"Get in on it," he would think months later when the taglines were presented. "Get in on our great secret."

And so began the $500,000 process that involved thousand of surveys inside and outside Baltimore, interviews with all the top officials in Baltimore, and a series of focus groups in the Philadelphia, Washington and northern New Jersey areas.

In marketing-speak, it's called "branding" or "repositioning."

The product was unveiled Wednesday.

"Baltimore - get in on it" is the slogan, accompanied by a logo with Baltimore-themed objects. Think crabs and baseball, beer and birds.

The "brand identity," to be used in all marketing and tourism-related materials, is meant to highlight the city's laid-back, spontaneous sense of fun that is also easy and convenient.

The process was time-consuming and thorough, and even somewhat silly at times, say participants, who recall an early brainstorming meeting.

Landor Associates, a New York-based consultant, held the brainstorming, free-association-type workshop at the Marriott Inner Harbor.

It was a half-day session in October at which most of the repositioning task force convened. The task force was made up of an array of the city's movers and shakers that included Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, and Donald Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Questions and ideas were tossed around.

"If Baltimore were a car, what would it be?"

"If Baltimore were a food, what would it be?"

"Are we a martini, or are we a beer?"

After dividing into small groups, members came up with their own visual ideas of Baltimore by using a matrix of images, said Bill Pencek, director of Baltimore City Heritage Area.

For his group it was crabs, microbeer, stadium seating at Camden Yards and an updated VW.

Fowler remembers picking a Jack Russell terrier as a dog, "something sort of spunky and fun."

A month later, some members of the task force were called together to review the research that highlighted the disparity between perceptions of Baltimore.

"That was one of our big `aha' moments," said Michael Erdman, senior vice president of Longwoods International in Toronto.

Erdman said his company has worked with 25 states and as many regional or city destinations, and it has never seen such a disparity in scores.

Survey respondents were asked to rank the city on 75 factors, including safety at tourist spots, kid-friendly atmosphere, exciting destination, and "this is a place I must see once in my lifetime."

Generally, there might be a 10 percent difference between those who have been to a location and those who haven't. But for Baltimore, the disparity was 50 percent in many cases.

"This was a real revelation for Baltimore," Erdman said, "which suggests that you don't have a problem with the product, it's the image and perception in the marketplace."

At a later meeting, Landor showed various images.

There was one that stuck out in Vikan's mind. It was a chubby boy with three tufts of hair sticking up and a bubble above his head representing his thoughts on where to go that weekend - New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, New York.

It was time to disrupt that thinking process, Vikan thought, and ensure that Baltimore is a player.

Focus groups, segments of which were played to members of the committee, followed.

The findings of the focus groups - during which the consultants fleshed out the city's strengths, areas that distinguish it from nearby cities - were similar.

"That was really insightful, because there really wasn't much talk about The Wire or Homicide or The Corner," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. "People who hadn't been here didn't have a negative impression or a positive impression. We just weren't on the screen."

The greatest differentiating strengths could be boiled down to two words: breeze and ease.

The breeze being the laid-back atmosphere and Inner Harbor. The ease being the convenience of getting to Baltimore and the access to sites within a 30-minute walk.

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