The City of Self-Deprecation
Monday, December 5, 2005
BALTIMORE -- In the brutally competitive business of hosting conventions, cities everywhere are rolling out slogans.
For many, the right pitch is easy to come by. Washington touts patriotism: "The American Experience." Las Vegas promises naughty fun: "What happens here stays here." San Diego figures it can't go wrong with the weather: "Come for the convention. Stay for the vacation."
And then there's Baltimore.
To search for just the right words, the city has formed a Repositioning Task Force and hired a San Francisco agency that specializes in "branding" products. No doubt there's plenty to work with, including national-caliber museums, an immensely popular waterfront and charming old neighborhoods. The challenge is to tout the city's assets without ignoring its gritty, self-deprecating character. If it's too hyped up, officials worry, the promotion may become a punch line.
Years ago, for example, residents disposed of one motto, "The City That Reads," by making it "The City That Bleeds." Even before the new catchphrase is unveiled, locals are forming ideas of their own:
"Baltimore: Duck!" a shopkeeper said.
"Baltimore: We're Not Gary," an executive security consultant offered.
"Baltimore: Coming Right Along," a man atop a Fells Point barstool said.
Those three authors were quick to say they liked living in Baltimore. It's a mind-set hardly lost on Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum and chairman of the task force.
"This is a town of Elvis fan clubs," Vikan said.
"I think the city will recognize itself in this."
Tourism officials have committed a half-million dollars to the effort, including fees to consultant Landor Associates, whose clients include Altoids, the hip breath mints, and oil giant BP, which sought to be positioned as a friend of the environment .