What words and images come to mind when someone says, “Gig Harbor”?
How about “Lacey”? “Auburn”? “Orting”? “Tacoma”? Those words and images — for better or worse — make up the brand for those cities. And most places in the South Sound have brand troubles, especially when it comes to recruiting business or tourists.
For perspective and advice, I turned to the world’s preeminent place-branding guru, Andy Levine, chairman of New York City-based Development Counsellors International. His firm has developed and managed brands in more than 450 places around the world, including several cities from Barcelona to Banff.
Remember Tacoma’s once-powerful, award-winning but short-lived economic development brand from 2000: “America’s No. 1 Wired City”? Yeah, that was Levine.
“Usually 20 to 30 years is the lifespan of a brand,” Levine said. “‘No. 1 Wired City’ had a shortened life because things went wireless so very fast, and wireless just wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen at the time.”
For economic growth, Tacoma hasn’t had a tagline since then — nor has it had a coherent business-attraction brand.
“Every community in the world has an existing brand. It’s just that some brands are managed, and some aren’t,” Levine said. For most any place that wants to grow business or tourism, you need a managed brand campaign, he added.
Levine describes business recruitment as a “game of elimination.” If a company wants to expand in the Northwest and has 10 potential locations, including Olympia, Tacoma, and Portland — and the CEO has a positive mental image of Portland — that factor will outweigh all the maps and data Olympia and Tacoma can pack into a portfolio.
Attracting tourists, meanwhile, is about “catching people’s attention,” Levine said. So in the early 2000s, when Tacoma began opening or reimagining museum after museum, Levine helped craft “The Art of Northwest Living” as a tourism tagline and cultivated regional and national media coverage around that theme to draw people to the new attractions.
But enough reminiscing. What about the South Sound today? Are any of our cities knocking it out of the park when it comes to their brand? On the whole, not so much, Levine said. I sent Levine a list of our cities with slogans — old and current — to see whether anything resonated.
“I hate to slam a community I don’t know anything about,” Levine said. “But for most of these, you could put other communities’ names in front of them, and they’d be true. Like Yelm: ‘Pride of the Prairie.’ Or Auburn: ‘More Than You Imagined.’ Gig Harbor: ‘The Maritime City.’ They’re just too generic for my taste,” Levine said.
How about Shelton, which has two prominent slogans: “Home of the Evergreen Forest,” and “Christmas Tree Capital”?
“That’s a no-no,” Levine said. If you have two slogans — unless you have one exclusively for economic investment and a distinct one for tourism — you don’t have a coherent brand.
Finally, though, Levine found something to love in the South Sound. “I don’t know how to pronounce it, but Enumclaw: ‘Gateway to Mount Rainier.’ That immediately associates the community with Washington’s No. 1 tourist attraction. That’s pretty smart,” he said.
And Levine heaped his highest praise on an upstart. “I (once) saw an article about Sumner and rhubarb pie. They call themselves ‘The Rhubarb Pie Capital.’ From a tourism perspective, that’s like gold. If you’re going to be in the Pacific Northwest, and you happen to like rhubarb, that’s going to draw tourists. That’s powerful,” Levine said. “It’s a quirky, bold, unusual claim that could speak well to potential visitors. I want to go there, and I don’t even like rhubarb pie.”
Listen to Levine. Tacoma, Olympia, and most of our other South Sound cities have gone too long with unmanaged business brands. With the current anti-business climate rising in the Seattle market, it’s time to act. Rhubarb pie, anyone?