How do you sell a city? One marketing professional offers tips

Think Washington is a town only a bureaucrat could love?

“Get a room.”

That’s the racy tagline Destination D.C., the marketing arm of the District, has dreamed up to show that the city is more than monuments and museums.

In all, the organization is spending $350,000 on the month-long series of ads, billboards and radio spots to lure couples to romantic getaways in the nation’s capital — more than triple the $100,000 it spent on last year’s Date Night D.C. efforts. (The ads are also to appear in The Washington Post.)

“We wanted to announce Washington as a sexy place to be,” said Kate Gibbs, a spokeswoman for Destination D.C. “People might come here for the fireworks in the summer or for a weekend during the Cherry Blossom Festival, but we wanted to say, ‘Hey, you can come here for a romantic weekend, too.’”

Branding has become more and more important for communities big and small these days.

In Herndon, town officials are making similar strides on a smaller scale as the city prepares to welcome its first Metro stop in 2016.

“For us, living in the shadow of Washington, D.C., has been great,” said Lisa C. Merkel, the mayor of Herndon. “We love that we’re so close to an urban center. But at the same time, we have a small downtown, quaint streets. We wanted to make sure people out there knew that.”

So far, the town has spent $51,000 on brand consulting and has set aside another $100,000 to further its message, Merkel said.

District-based Trialogue Studio redesigned the city’s logo and created a marketing campaign that highlights the town’s weekly concerts, small boutiques and accessible bike trails.

The idea, said Michael Altman, a partner at Trialogue Studio, is to promote Herndon as “a 21st century small town,” that might appeal to smaller businesses and a younger demographic interested in taking the Metro to work.

Trialogue Studio has created marketing campaigns for everything from neighborhoods (the District’s Mount Vernon Square) and cities (Sacramento, Raleigh, Calgary) to entire countries (the Republic of Armenia).

Here, Altman shares his three-step approach to finding a city’s brand — and selling it.

Define — The first step, he says, is to figure out exactly how people in the community and outside of it perceive a given neighborhood, city or country.

In Herndon, officials surveyed hundreds of residents as well as passersby in nearby Reston Town Center for their impressions of the town.

Then, Altman’s team sought out a group of local movers and shakers — representatives from economic development groups, local organizations and the like — for their views on the community’s strengths.

“No one person holds the key to an entire city,” Altman said. “The mayor holds a piece of it. The hotels hold a piece of it. It’s very disjointed — everybody has their own idea about what part of the story they want to tell and what part of the story they want to emphasize. So our job is to agree on, ‘What is that story?’”

Express — Once a message is agreed, Altman said the challenge is to figure out what the city can realistically promise to visitors and residents.

“Even Las Vegas, which has the most defined sense of who they are, even they struggle with this,” he said.

Year ago, Vegas tried to woo families, Altman said. “You know what families don’t do when they go to Vegas? They don’t gamble. The city failed miserably because people were disappointed — they had nothing to do when they got there with their kids.”

Launch — “Now that we have a clear strategy for who we are and how we want to get there, we start to figure out the plan that will make it happen,” Altman said. “Where are our feeder markets? Where are people most likely to come from? And then we advertise in those markets.”

For Washington, that means taking out ads throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, with an eye toward cities like Richmond and Philadelphia.

“Whether it’s a small neighborhood or an entire country, the process is very much the same,” he said. “Having a strong image can make a city very competitive.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
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