Elliott Ferguson was possibly the only person in Washington not surprised when Forbes named D.C. “America’s coolest city” last week.
After all, he’s been saying that for almost a year now.
Since last December, Ferguson, who is president and chief executive of Destination D.C., has overseen the tourism bureau’s “D.C. Cool” campaign, a $5.4 million marketing effort to demonstrate that buttoned-down Washington can be hip.
And last week, while the entirety of the Internet rushed to compose snarky tweets reacting to the Forbes ranking, Ferguson and his staff simply enjoyed the validation.
“I think I got more congratulations e-mails in that one day than . . . ” Destination D.C.’s Vice President of Marketing Robin McClain cuts herself off, unable to think of an event sufficiently momentous to compare with the ranking. “People kept finding it and sending it as though we hadn’t seen it yet.”
The tourism bureau has tried a number of marketing strategies for the District over the years — “Power D.C.,” “Paris on the Potomac” — but McClain says this one has been the most compelling. A native to the area, she gets visibly excited talking about ways to show off the “overlooked” sides of Washington (like most of the Destination D.C. staff, McClain projects more earnestness than cool).
The idea for the rebranding arose back in 2012, when the National Portrait Gallery contacted McClain about pegging a campaign to the museum’s “American Cool” exhibit. It occurred to her that no one ever seemed to use that term to describe Washington.
And why not? D.C. has nightlife, trendy restaurants, outdoor movie screenings. Not to mention, Ferguson often point outs, the second-most theater seats in the country after New York.
As for the monuments, the Segway tours, the legions of teenagers on class trips? Sure, maybe they’re not as cool.
“But we’re more than just those things,” Ferguson says.
Ferguson, McClain and their team designed the year-long “D.C. Cool” campaign to prove it. They built up a Web site, bought full page ads in travel magazines and interviewed District natives about what they think makes the city cool. And rather than promoting the features D.C. is already known for — walks on the Mall and tours of the White House — the campaign urges visitors to explore the “other side of Washington.”
To see that side, tourists need look no further than the 2-minute promotional video released last August. It’s a montage of images of “cool” D.C. — a woman drinking a martini, steamed milk being swirled into coffee, a line forming outside Ben’s Chili Bowl — set to a slow jazz soundtrack. Meanwhile, a husky voice-over extols the city’s virtues in rhyming couplets reminiscent of “Twas The Night Before Christmas”: “Salsa and jazz and rock all night, from twilight’s last gleaming until dawn’s early light.”
The staff at Destination D.C. knew they were fighting an uphill battle as soon as the effort launched. If there’s anything less cool than being home to Congress, it’s having an entire ad campaign dedicated to fighting that image. As political consultant and NBC4 columnist Chuck Thies tweeted last August, “If you have to say that it’s ‘cool,’ it’s not.”
So Ferguson is quick to couch his claims of hipness in other people’s terms.
“We think that we’re a cool destination, but we think that because that’s what we hear from visitors,” he says.
Ever the salesman, he adds, “But come to the city and explore Washington and form your own conclusion.”
It may not be cool try so hard. Destination D.C. is a private, member-based nonprofit — restaurants and attractions must pay a fee to be included in campaign materials — so getting tourists to venture away from the mall and into D.C.’s restaurants and concert venues is the ultimate goal. Aloof sophistication looks great on marketing materials, but it’s not going to pay the bills.
Ferguson acknowledges that the Forbes ranking, too, probably isn’t very cool — it’s a “very respectable magazine,” he says, but not quite cutting edge.
Still, along with the numerous other rankings that have mentioned D.C. (most caffeinated, most literate, most bikeable), it’s a good marketing tool.
And since the “D.C. Cool” campaign has been extended into 2015, there’s plenty of time for another, less “respectable” magazine, to affirm D.C.’s coolness. Ferguson won’t be surprised when it happens.