By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Seattle has a new tag line: "metronatural." And Little Rock has recently begun calling itself "The Rock."
Now the District is looking for its own catchy way to describe and define the city and lure more tourists to town. Tourism officials are hiring marketers, conducting surveys and convening focus groups in search of a few words or images that capture Washington's essence.
The current slogan, used for nearly a decade, never electrified anybody. It appears in every D.C. taxicab and on the sleeve of every D.C. police officer, but even longtime residents are hard-pressed to recall it: "Washington, D.C.: The American Experience." Another catchphrase, "Celebrate and Discover," which appeared for a time on D.C. license plates, also was a snoozer.
Civic leaders say they are looking for more than just a snappy line. Tourism accounts for $5 billion in direct spending each year (and $550 million a year into the city's general fund.) The District needs a new brand, as they call it, as distinctive as that of Nike or Apple, that will get to the heart of what's appealing about the area.
"What we're trying to uncover are the emotional connections and motivators for our visitors," said Victoria Isley, senior vice president of marketing for the Washington Convention & Tourism Corp., the organization leading the effort.
Isley's Brand Marketing Task Force, which began meeting in January, includes officials from the Washington Convention Center, Marriott International, the Greater Washington Initiative and the National Gallery of Art.
Feedback is rolling in from a variety of sources -- an online survey of 1,800 people across the country; interviews with 35 stakeholders such as the D.C. government; and meetings with 10 local focus groups. In a survey running through April, a new Web site, http://www.shareyourdc.com, asks local residents what they think. (Sample factoid: 70 percent say they call their home "D.C." None calls it "the Capital.")
Two firms have been hired to research and develop the slogan, which will be launched in early fall, Isley said. The project is expected to cost about $150,000, she said.
Task force members say the timing is right -- the District has improved dramatically in recent years, and people who live elsewhere need to know that.
"What we're talking about is the way we communicate about ourselves, and I think from time to time, we have to check: What is the story we're telling? Is it a different story?" said Richard Bradley, executive director of the Downtown DC Business Improvement District and a task force member. "Washington for a long time was the nation's capital, which was one-dimensional. Then it was the crime capital."
In 2000, then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) added still another slogan to the mix, "Taxation Without Representation," which appears on license plates.
The District is definitely in on a trend, as many states and other cities are busy rethinking their public images -- and spending plenty of time and money on it.
"Washington, like any destination, is in a [market] share fight for attention with Orlando, San Francisco, Boston, New York, L.A. and a host of other cities," said Keith Bellows, editor in chief of National Geographic Traveler, who advises the task force. "What's really important to recognize is that people have more choices than ever . . . so just like a toothpaste manufacturer or an automobile dealer, you have to market who you are in a very special way."
Baltimore recently spent 18 months and about $500,000 on a campaign that resulted in, among other things, a new logo (a sailboat) and a new tag line, "Get in on It" -- as in "get in on a city that has a lot going for it," said Nancy Hinds of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.
A single word can sometimes speak volumes to marketers, and Seattle has high hopes for "metronatural." Painted on the city's famous Space Needle in October, the word conjures up "the combination of attributes -- urban and outdoorsy, metro and natural -- that fit Seattle's dual nature," said David Blandford of Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau.
But it has drawn a bit of criticism. Some residents say they still are not sure what it means.
"It was not immediately embraced here in Seattle, which is what we expect," Blandford said. "If you look at brand launches across the country, a lot are not initially accepted locally. Definitely, outsiders liked it more. And that's who it was planned for."
Branding is sometimes a risky venture. The State of Washington's tourism office recently scuttled its "Say WA?" campaign because it failed to catch fire. And for every Las Vegas, with its wildly successful "What Happens Here, Stays Here" tag line, there is a State of New Jersey, which recently embraced -- and just as quickly abandoned -- two new slogans: "We'll Win You Over" and "Come See for Yourself."
Las Vegas, which attracts 39 million visitors a year compared with the District's 15 million, also has a financial advantage over most other places: an annual advertising and marketing budget of more than $80 million, including enough for all those television commercials. The District has about $1.2 million annually to get its message out, Isley said.
"Virginia Is for Lovers" remains the wise old granddaddy of such campaigns -- proving the wisdom of the adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Launched in 1969, it has outlived many administrations and is still used today. It was developed by what is now the Martin Agency of Richmond, the firm that created today's popular gecko and cave man ads for Geico insurance.
"When you have a message that is recognizable as well as appealing, then you're really in the catbird seat," said Alisa Bailey, president of the Virginia Tourism Corp. "Our research has never said people are tired of it."
Others opt for the serviceable standard. For the past eight years, Maryland has been using the tag line "Maryland Welcome," along with an image of a crown.
"We believe that a consistent measure over time constitutes branding," said Hannah Byron, assistant secretary for the Maryland Division of Tourism, Film and the Arts. "It's flexible."
But some are looking for a possible change. The City of Alexandria has been swimming along happily for the past 10 years with "The Fun Side of the Potomac," a phrase that takes a merry swipe at Washington's workaholic image. But now the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association has launched a research project to "see if we need to freshen things up," said President Jo Anne Mitchell.
"What we have to do is look at our existing image, our brand, our marketing programs and see how all that fits in the changing world," she said.