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The Anatomy of a Disastrous State Branding Campaign

After Rhode Island’s epic screw-up, a five-step guide to doing better.

A view of Newport, Rhode Island. (Flickr/Artur Staszewski)

“Cooler & Warmer.” It took me roughly 30 minutes of reading about Rhode Island’s new tourism catchphrase to realize that “cool” is a double entendre—as in, the occasional temperature of the Ocean State, but also “hip and awesome.” And I still didn’t quite get it? This was not a good sign. I may be dense, but lordy, was I not alone.

Rhode Island's new state logo, released last week. The Rhode Island Commerce Corporation has since nixed the "Cooler & Warmer" tagline. (Rhode Island Commerce Corporation)

“My first impression was like ‘what?’” a Providence-based marketing executive told the Boston Globe on Wednesday, two days after the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation’s nearly $3 million tourism campaign went live. “I didn't get it and, actually, I found out afterwards that a lot of people didn't get it,” a local real estate agent told NPR.

And then came the Twitter jokesters.

The pain began to rain. The catchphrase got axed, leaving just the tri-color sail motif and the words “Rhode Island.” And on Friday evening, the commerce commission’s chief marketing officer announced her resignation.

Place branding—the process of bundling a large and varied destination’s attributes and people and attractions into a catchy website, slogan, or image—is a thankless task. Often, the mark of a successful campaign is broad and echoing silence—no objections, no foul. But when things go wrong, oh boy, do they go wrong. People start hating America’s Sweetheart, Taylor Swift. An entire state weathers charges of sexism (and all but abandons a $380,000 marketing push). A city ends up with a “particularly crap origami Pope hat.”

Are place branding campaigns ever worth it? It’s hard to figure out, because campaigns are difficult to divorce from the actual city. Is that spike in jobs due to that sweet ad your commerce board put out two years ago, or because Large Company X liked the cut of your (empty office park’s) jib? Are tourists abandoning your boardwalk because your logo deeply offended their aesthetic sensibilities, or because the best funnel cake place closed last year? Still, as the state of Rhode Island points out, there’s definitely a bad way to do it. CityLab talked to marketing experts to figure out what went wrong—and what cities, states, and regions can do better next time.  

1) Keep it quiet

You don’t need a fancy campaign launch. The team responsible for “Cooler & Warmer” did not heed this advice. They held a press conference and also made a big deal of their TV spot release, below. Then Iceland happened.

Did you see it? At 00:10? That’s not an iconic Rhode Island tower of glass—it’s Reykjavik’s Harpa concert hall. And Rhode Islanders definitely noticed the mix-up. The commerce board ended up publicly apologizing.

Maybe if the commerce board had just started running the ad, the fallout might have been less gruesome, posits Andy Levine, the president of the economic development and travel branding firm DCI. This plays against many marketing offices’ instincts, he says, which are, “‘We did all this this stuff, so we have to make an announcement.’ But that sometimes blows up in the face of the organization. Why create that sort of problem for yourself?”

Levine also says the slogan, advertisement, and logo should only be the tip of the branding iceberg. The most important marketing work happens behind the scenes, as marketing people work with print and digital media organizations, bloggers, and social media influencers (ugh, this is a thing) to promote exactly the parts of the city/state that they want to highlight.

2) Keep it local

The demise of “Cooler & Warmer” is all the more tragic for the design talent behind it. The logo is actually the work of superstar Milton Glaser, the man responsible for the iconic “I Love New York” campaign, but also that very famous poster of Bob Dylan and (most importantly!) Brooklyn Brewery’s label. But Rhode Islanders were not amused. They wanted to know why the state spent an estimated $550,000 on designers, and why a New York communications firm won the right to head PR for the rollout.

It’s very possible that these companies had the best (and cheapest) proposals when Rhode Island came looking for contractors. But it’s at least worth considering local firms—if only to cover one’s butt.

3) Remember who you’re working for

One of the stranger elements of place branding is that it’s a taxpayer-funded venture that’s not quite for the taxpayers. States and cities aren’t trying to sell states and cities to the people who already work, live, and travel there. They’re trying to reach out to new folks, who might need a new message to be persuaded to fork over their cash. In Rhode Island, there’s “certainly a very vocal minority who have negative things to say about about the campaign—there are negative comments online, there negative newspaper articles,” says Levine. But he cautions not to let the angry voices drown out the quieter, more understanding ones. Putting a phrase or a color to a place is controversial work, and a tourism board is never going to make everyone happy.

4) The Internet can be your friend

For Susie Pryor, a marketing professor at Creighton University, the answer to place branding woes comes from the angry objectors themselves. “Place branding tends to be an organic process,” she says. “A good brander is going to try to capture notes from the entire chorus of individuals and entities that are in the place.” And where better to find the voice of the people than the Internet, exactly the thing that doomed Rhode Island in the first place?

Crowdsourcing is an especially nice fit for destinations because residents feel they have a stake in the outcome. They want to be represented right. At the very least, they might have ideas that spark better ones. Case in point:

5) Make it sellable in the first place

Finally, the secret sauce to place branding: the place. “If the community doesn’t have infrastructure, doesn’t have enough beds to attract new tourists, or it doesn’t have a qualified workforce to offer, then from a business perspective and marketing perspective, your money should go toward improving the community,” says Pryor. It ain’t worth advertising if there’s nothing worth selling.

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