In a timely effort to counteract President Trump’s anti-Washington rhetoric, a local business and civic coalition wants to raise $3 million to $5 million for an unusual marketing campaign to “rebrand” the region to improve its reputation and self-image.
The fundraising drive, which is to begin Thursday at a downtown conference, is the latest step in an initiative to expand greater Washington’s identity beyond being just the “federal city.”
The endeavor began more than a year ago but has acquired greater urgency since Trump’s election. During the campaign, he repeatedly belittled Washington with calls to “drain the swamp.” His initial budget proposed sharp cuts in federal spending projected to cost the region at least 15,000 jobs in the first year.
“It’s become a little tricky lately” to recraft Washington’s image, said Barry Silverman, a brand consultant hired to assist in the project. “Given the current climate, it’s certainly challenging for the area.”
The principal quandary is finding the right approach to the federal government itself.
On one hand, the region wants to distance itself from official Washington’s ugly reputation for corruption, bureaucracy and partisan gridlock. It wants to emphasize its assets: a growing private sector, racial and cultural diversity, a highly educated workforce, a hip urban scene and rich cultural offerings.
“The short game is to try and deal with the misrepresentation or at least misunderstanding of the many fine qualities of this region, which are more than just the federal government and ‘drain the swamp,’ ” said Matt Klein, president of the Akridge commercial real estate company and a member of the Branding Greater Washington Task Force.
But the region can’t reject the federal government altogether. It’s still the area’s largest employer, as well as a magnet for people seeking proximity to power.
“That was the double-edged sword we were working with,” said Silverman, of the New York firm Interbrand.
The branding task force includes representatives of Akridge, the 2030 Group, the Urban Land Institute and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
It is part of a broader project called the Roadmap for Washington Region’s Economic Future. The Roadmap promotes greater regional cooperation on issues including transportation and housing.
About 150 business executives and other local leaders were expected to attend a Roadmap conference Thursday morning, hosted by the 2030 Group, where the fundraising campaign was to launch.
They were set to see a video emphasizing positive things about the region that people seem to forget when they see Washington portrayed as a hotbed of crime and political sleaze on the TV series “House of Cards.”
Since Interbrand was hired in May, it has helped oversee a research effort that has included an attitude survey, three workshops with Washington-area leaders, and interviews with business executives.
Silverman said a “genuine uniqueness” about the Washington area is the degree to which people here are driven by a sense of purpose.
“They were people who are committed to something, who are mission-driven. You don’t really find that in other places,” he said.
Interbrand boiled down that idea to what it calls a “positioning statement” for the marketing campaign. It reads: “Greater Washington is a diverse community of purpose-driven people who, together, forge a better future through their commitment to ideas and action.”
The challenge is to find a way to package that abstraction in an appealing way in advertisements on television, radio, print and social media. It doesn’t necessarily have to lead to a slogan such as “Virginia is for lovers” or “Keep Austin weird,” Silverman said.
“Taglines are nice, they’re helpful, but they’re not necessarily critical,” he said.
Washington’s effort is different from most because it aims to build an identity among people from two states and a federal district. Most campaigns of this sort are done on behalf of a single state or city.
In addition, the region wants to do more than attract tourists or business investment. It wants to promote pride in the area and attract talented people to come live here.
Cary Hatch, project manager of the task force, noted that Upstate New York and Florida have launched well-funded marketing campaigns aimed at luring qualified workers, especially millennials.
“We’re in kind of an arms race for people we’re trying to attract,” said Hatch, who also is chief executive of MDB Communications. “Your vibe attracts your tribe.”
Especially with Trump in the White House, Washington desires a different vibe.