Branding for a city or a district gains the most traction when it has a strong ring of authenticity across a wide group of stakeholders.
A great example of this kind of traction was the incredibly effective “Don’t Mess with Texas” anti-litter campaign. This slogan, which was designed to motivate young males to stop throwing trash out of their cars on highways, became so much more (literally, a state motto) because it resonated with one commonality found in the heart of nearly every Texan, and that is a fanatically strong sense of pride in their state.
When a city and its marketing efforts veer from the authentic, then it no longer resonates with stakeholders. A muddled, mixed-message identity is an all too common characteristic of a struggling place.
An example of this struggle is well illustrated by Las Vegas’ twists and turns over the last few decades. This was a city founded by the Mafia to provide illicit entertainment for adults—gambling, the lounge scene, and vice. It thrived for quite some time. But, by the late 1980s, the entire gaming/hospitality industry was suffering, with one hotel/casino performing above all others, Circus Circus. Because of its success, the Strip began implementing a kid-centric business model and, however improbable it may seem now, looked to families as the growth market for the future. Roller coasters, arcades, and elaborate pools abounded, but Las Vegas foundered even more through a large part of the 90s.
The next reinvention of Sin City was really a return to its roots: adult entertainment. This time though, they expanded options for visitors beyond the illicit, adding classy, big name singing acts, Broadway shows, Cirque de Soleil, and actual nightclubs (after the death of the lounge scene) for younger and hipper tourists. After returning to its beginnings, a brilliant tag line was developed: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” This resonates because it is edgy, authentic and true to both the past and present of the city.
Notice too, there is tension with both of these tag lines. It’s important to remember that all good stories contain some conflict. “Don’t Mess with Texas” implies you might get a beat down if you throw that beer can out the window! And, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” has boatloads of tension…there is a strong implication that not all that happens may be good, which is what makes it interesting and compelling.
As a city, or a commercial corridor, or a main street spending money on creative services for marketing, you want to remember that generally, no matter who you are targeting for your collateral, the health of your district is dependent upon support from the people who live there. So all branding has to be real, feel real, and ultimately resonate with citizens across very diverse groups of stakeholders to be effective.