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Yo, Philly – Build a Brand Already

August 15,2013

‘The City That Never Sleeps.’ ‘Sin City.’ ‘Tinseltown.’ ‘The Windy City.’ ‘City By The Bay.’ These phrases are not just notable for how deeply they are ingrained, but by the clarity of the images they conjure in the minds of people around the world.

A brand is not just a memorable appellation, but a consistent set of answers to ‘what are we known for?’ Beyond the cities above, a host of others have a stronger answer to that question than does Philadelphia – New Orleans, Boston, DC, Baltimore, Atlanta, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Dallas and on from there.

As the fifth largest city in the country and a very active contributor to the national life, Philadelphia branding does not pack a  punch to match its weight. We have our own phrases – ‘The City of Brotherly Love,’ ‘The Workshop of the World,’ ‘The Cradle of Liberty,’ etc., along with recognizable images – a delicious coronary of a sandwich, a charming yet fictional boxer, a certain cracked bell, angry fans throwing batteries – but if you were to ask 100 people what Philadelphia is known for, I’d wager that there would be far less consistency than for any of the cities listed above.

First of all, why does that matter? The lack of a widely understood sense of the soul of the city detracts from the ability to receive more than our share of everything from tourism dollars, convention bookings, business relocations and all that goes along with those precious interactions. And to win even our share, the lack of a cohesive brand idea forces city marketers to re-educate prospects every year on why they should consider Philadelphia – a long, expensive slog.

What has led to this condition? Some would trace it all the way back to the Quakers, this city’s Founding Mothers and Fathers, who sought the ‘inner light’ rather than any sort of civic engagement – sitting idly by as Philadelphia ‘lost’ dominion in commerce to New York, government to Washington DC, etc.

I’d prefer to examine it in a more contemporary way. Full disclaimer: while Finch Brands conducts much of its business outside our hometown, we have had occasion to work with many of the alphabet soup agencies tasked with marketing aspects of Philadelphia and have universally found them to be capable, honorable and passionate. So this is not personal, but it is a call to action.

The first and most important reason that we are ‘brandless’ is that the regional marketing ecosystem is organized in such an absurd manner as to make concerted brand development almost impossible. What other city has an agency responsible for domestic leisure tourism (GPTMC), another for conventions/group tour/international leisure tourism (PHLCVB) and several others for branding the Philadelphia business formation/relocation and commercial real estate opportunity?

Each of these agencies has its own budget, funding formula and key performance indicators – and they have a complicated history with one another that makes true collaboration extremely unlikely. The sad reality is that this navel-gazing obscures the buying impulses of the marketplace. People are people – the notion that we can succeed with such a bizarre division of labor and separate messages by target is incomprehensible.

Practically, every dollar one agency spends on putting forth a message counteracts rather than complements the messages other agencies may be trying to promote. Untangling this would seem to take an act of God or government (alas, to some these days, the same thing) or else work that is so objectively strong that others want to support it. Good luck with that.

The second reason is that these agencies haven’t really been brand-focused – it has long been more about portfolio or promotion. That statement would likely trigger an argument, so let’s look at the current campaigns run by GPTMC and PHLCVB.

First of all, GPTMC deserves a lot of credit for a lot of things. Their response after 9/11 (with a well-timed ‘overnight’ promotion) may have saved the city’s tourism industry. They were way ahead of the curve on the LGBT market. They do a tremendous amount of good to put ‘heads in beds’ in Philadelphia as well as enroll the local population in our common activity set. Yet they have largely abdicated the responsibility to be the city’s leading brand voice.

GPTMC would likely say that their ‘With Love, Philadelphia’ campaign has a brand message at its heart – that the core idea is to bottle up and convey the unique spirit of our people, that it’s a contemporary take on ‘The City of Brotherly Love.’ If that’s the objective, it is far too subtle and its execution is far too tactical for it to take hold as a brand rallying cry.

Even if we take the campaign’s possible branding objective at face value, ‘The City of Brotherly Love’ is a charming, rhythmic yet ultimately nonsensical anachronism. 1997’s ‘The Place That Loves You Back’ was the last big idea brand message put forth for the city and it hasn’t materially altered the market’s high-level perception of Philadelphia.

Does anybody really believe Philly’s differentiator is that we are more friendly than other cities? Our ‘passion’ is primarily used as a defense against the latest clip ESPN uses to try to embarrass local sports fans . So, while the ‘With Love’ campaign has an interesting look and clever copy, it is either (a) not a true branding campaign or (b) not an effective, long term one.

The other major brand communications initiative has recently been put into the market by the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau. This is another agency that deserves credit – as the convention sales organization of this city, maintaining ANY meaningful convention business given the labor-led disaster that is the Pennsylvania Convention Center is quite an achievement. So is the continued growth of the international tourism business.

So the organization has rebranded as PHLCVB and adopted a more contemporary look and feel. While using the airport code is derivative of Atlanta and may make one think of uncomfortable delays or long baggage waits, I have no quarrel with this – it is largely a sales message in any case.

They have also launched a new website and campaign promoting Philadelphia as a ‘modern Renaissance city’ and isolated six key supportive attributes of our town to further make the point. This is an interesting idea and some of the work is beautiful.

Yet how does it fare as a brand idea? I would argue that it is a compelling phrase but gives the marketplace nothing to hold onto. The Renaissance in Europe was a time of great artistic, cultural and scientific discovery, but I sense the authors mean the word as it is applied to a ‘Renaissance man,’ somebody who knows a lot, does a lot and has a lot to offer.

In that context, it is not really a brand idea at all, but rather more of a ‘portfolio’ approach – create buckets of assets and tie them together. The idea that binds, however, is too nebulous to have real meaning or staying power. The ‘completeness’ of Philadelphia – how it is as big city and small city as you want it to be – is a compelling idea, but does not seem to be where they are headed.

So are we to be known for our friendliness? As a modern day Florence in the midst of a Renaissance? Alas, the answer is neither. Philadelphia is a bundle of eccentricities and insecurities that is currently being poorly served by the inability or unwillingness of its political and marketing leadership to coalesce around and support a unified, powerful brand concept. Until we do, Philadelphia will not achieve its rightful place in the national consciousness – which, given all that is happening here, is a shame.

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Bill Gullan, President
Tweeting: @BillGullan

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