The Biggest Little Brand In The World

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I have a deep passion and regard for Reno, and I know that’s not an wildly common or popular value.  True, I’m a native of this city, and my views can only be seen through rose-colored glasses, partly tinted by the years I’ve spent growing up in the parks and communities in my hometown.  But lately, I’ve become more and more frustrated with our fair region’s brand statement, and the ongoing misperceptions that are not only fostered by media – but by our own regional repositioning as “America’s Adventure Place”.

Many visitors to our area are somewhat surprised that Reno proper blurs directly into its sister city – Sparks.  The only way you may know this is by driving over one of the many bridges spanning the Truckee River, and a sign that notes “Welcome to Sparks”.  Beyond civic lines – we are one community, in one beautiful valley tucked against the eastern side of the magnificent Sierra.  More importantly, our crown jewel must be Lake Tahoe – a mere 45 minute drive from nearly every point in Reno.  Lake Tahoe needs no introduction – or brand positioning (although there have been wonderful campaigns) – because Lake Tahoe speaks for itself.  And as Mark Twain aptly called it in 1861 – “…the fairest picture the whole world affords”. Twain was known for his thought-provoking insights, and  chose his words well; and Tahoe’s brand position remains as it has always been – a natural wonder.

And so, the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority has long struggled with an inherent brand image problem – in part fueled by popular culture such as “Reno 911”, and more difficult to wrangle – the obvious disparity of representing two cities (Reno + Sparks, and in part Lake Tahoe) to a public that has a much better brand perception of “The Big Blue” (Lake Tahoe).  Much like Las Vegas’ Convention & Visitors Authority,  the RSVCA’s main focus is to “put visitor’s heads on pillows” here in our community, and help keep our brand image thriving in today’s ever-more-difficult economy.  This is, by no means, a task for the weak or faint hearted, as you can imagine.  Given what the RSVCA is faced with today, I think they’re doing a great job.

BUT…

As a brand marketing strategist with a passion for my hometown, I can’t understand why our collective cities and regional advocates cannot simply convene to collaborate on, and develop a singular brand image and positioning that the entire world can embrace and clearly understand.  No…we are not “America’s Adventure Place” – although we have great adventures of many types awaiting our visitors.  But really…does anyone think “America’s Adventure Place” when they think of Reno, Sparks or Tahoe?  Are there not other places that honestly provide “adventure” equal to our own (brothels aside)?  Do the recognize or care that we have a sister city and the west’s greatest natural wonder attached to us like a Siamese Twin?  Are they even aware that Tahoe is quite literally our backyard?  Most people I’ve encountered think of Reno as an “ugly-sister” to the fabulous Las Vegas – who’s positioning of “Only Vegas“, and “What Happens In Vegas, Stays In Vegas” are nothing short of cultural icons.  True…cultural icons may require huge budgets to administer – but they often come from a great idea or perception, and not necessarily constant advertising repetition.  A truly great brand position can sell itself – no matter how many times you’ve broadcast it.  Brand positioning is communicating honest brand values that are rooted in reality.  Anything else is simply advertising.  We’re still playing the old ad game, and not working toward an inbound strategy of brand positioning regionally.

This brings me to my fellow blogger-in-arms, Downtownmakeover.com.  Here is a viewpoint at the core values of our city – one that has been an advocate of Reno, Sparks, Lake Tahoe and the surrounding area for years.  A view that is at times controversial, while soothing to many (like me).  The blog’s author loves this city as much as I do – and we often collaborate on projects beyond our blogs.  More importantly, we find ourselves defending our town on other venues too public and many to mention.  We’ve had a discussion about this very topic, and collectively decided it was time to say something publically about our feelings to our town, and how it’s being positioned and percieved versus how we’re positioning it to the public.

Both of our viewpoints are different – yet they are united.  I feel that a need to revisit and redefine Reno’s well known brand positioning of “The Biggest Little City In The World” is long overdue.  There’s  real brand value in the statement that appears on our city’s icon – the Reno arch.  There is history, and positive meaning in that positioning.  Most importantly – it’s honest and timeless.  Let’s stop manufacturing brand positions for our town, and abandoning our historical value for some ad agency’s “slogan-of-the-day”.  Let’s return to being unique – and showing that although our town may be small in size – it’s huge in adventure, excitement, and culture.  Let’s take a step back – so we can move forward.

Granted, noone has ever asked me for this opinion, and in fact, the City of Sparks just undertook a $126,000 branding initiative of its own.  And like many local clients, they sought “the out-of-town-expert” to help them reposition our sister city.  My concern is further fractioning that local and regional brand at a time when unity and cohesive messaging is more important to attract the ever shrinking visitor dollar.  We have to get together on this, or risk fractioning our messaging to the point of oblivion.  We can’t risk that today – or tomorrow.  We can’t leave our image to the public to define for us – we have to develop messaging that’s based in reality, by locals that know our brand well and can clearly communicate it.

But that would take a miracle of putting egos and agendas aside – in order to put our region first.

14 Responses to “The Biggest Little Brand In The World”

  1. Kevin Knutson Says:

    Larry:

    Thanks for the great post, you’ve raised some good points and I think it’s a conversation that’s long overdue. You’ll be happy to know that the Regional Communications Group, about four dozen professional communicators representing government, agencies, and nonprofits in the community are starting to have that conversation.

    We’re in the middle of a regional communications assessment that will set the baseline for the discussion and provide a framework for inter-agency cooperation.

    In the end, we want to start having a consistent and cohesive message about the community that we all contribute to, each in our own way. It’s not about taglines or positioning statements, but rather how we plan to tell our own story.

    As we start to get our plan together, I hope you’ll be available to give input and guidance.

    Oh, and you have to read Alicia Barber’s new book, Reno’s Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City. I’m in the middle of it and it’s absolutely fascinating.

  2. Bob Conrad Says:

    Good post. And it could be worse: http://tr.im/24t2.

  3. Jim_S Says:

    One aspect of the America’s Adventure Place branding effort that warrants further discussion is the underwhelming delivery on the brand promise from players on all sides. America’s Adventure Place was designed, in part, to be a central rallying point for government/hospitality marketing departments as well as civic planners. Things started well with projects like the whitewater park, events like the River Festival and PR to niche publications like Outside, but rebranding something as ubiquitous as the Biggest Little City takes more than a short-term investment. Perhaps if the momentum continued — if more whitewater park-like projects were built, more non-gaming advertising investment was made by our casinos and there was more community buy-in, we’d have a different view of the brand.
    But branding has to be, if nothing else, honest. That will be one of the challenges marketing the region moving forward.

  4. Michael Jabara Says:

    Very interesting comments, Larry. You may clearly on to something by revisiting the past…

    As you know, I lived in Northern Nevada for 7 years (Lake Tahoe), chaired in the 1990s NV Hosptitality Int’l, a group of Reno/Sparks/Lake Tahoe casino, ski and hotel owners trying to jointly build the tourism base, and now for the past 10 years reside and work in that “cultural icon” called Las Vegas.

    The lessons of Las Vegas are quite relevant to the Northern Nevada/Lake Tahoe region. It is not often understood that my town has three distinct identities that co-exist and reinforce each other: the frontier and mob-drenched history, its present worldwide branding as the entertainment capital of the world , and more recently, as a wonderful place with new, quality homes for families to move to, live and work in. (For those sceptical Northerners, this is not a joke. Summerlin, Green Valley and Southern Highlands are all considered among the finest and most amenity-rich master-planned communities in the world!)

    Reno needs an identity that can encompass and overcome the great schsm that exists between its gaming, hospitality, and downtown businesses on the one hand and the large portion of its community on the other that do not want to see growth or change at all.

    I like the historic “Biggest Little City” brand. Although it is Reno-centric, nobody at the LVCVA worries about branding Henderson, North Las Vegas or Boulder City. It has the potential to bridge the aforementioned schism and is timeless. It’s biggest drawback is that it doesn’t evoke an activity or a call to action like the “What happens” brand does for Las Vegas, so it will need some work – the perfect job for SmartBrand!

  5. smartblog Says:

    Kevin, Jim & Mike,

    One thing I truly love about blogging is this insightful responses I get to my rantings. Thanks to each of you for pointing out some excellent flaws in my position and thinking on this particular (and somewhat personal) topic.

    I certainly understand that the City’s old brand position won’t work on a regional basis – and I’m excited to learn that the effort has been underway – leave it to Kevin to be ontop of that issue. Count me in if I can help in any way.

    Jim is dead on – it’s more importantly about the lack of delivery on the brand promise that was made several years ago. With a bit more participation from our constituents, we might have made that a clearer reality – and more believable. I think my rash suggestion to return to our old slogan was emotionally based on selling what we DO have, rather than what we really could become – and we do need to set our sights on how we want to be perceived as well.

    Thirdly, Mike is right (as usual, dammit). Not sure it’s the right job for us – but we sure want to be part of the conversation.

    Thanks all…. I’ll keep my mind and ears open, and I appreciate your thoughtful (and kind) perspectives!

  6. whitewaterman Says:

    Love the blog! some great information, its one of the greatest loves of my life. I’ve bookmarked your blog so will be back. Thanks

  7. Don Vetter Says:

    All good posts…all raising questions that have simmered throughout Reno’s marketing history and I think boil down to delivery on the promise — whatever that promise might be.
    Adventure Place is the essence of non-delivery. I would ask you to visit Moab, Ogden and SLC in Utah — Boulder and Grand Junction…better delviery. Gosh, I can take public transit to a ski resort in Ogden/SLC…and they promote the same starting at the airport.
    I had this coversation many years ago with RSCVA…when i get out of the plane, train or automobile get me the goods I want the adventure to start now….and our web interfaces — both RSCVA’s and Nevada Div of Tourism are no better than a brochure…we have never delviered on the Adventure promise.
    Good delivery (don’t laugh) the bowling stadium
    Tahoe is iconic yes,, but its sense of place has been eroded through the types of development that have sprawled along the shores throughout the years. The one take back from this sprawl has been the rim trail…that public lands effort alone should be a key amenity/component of the “outdoors” branding. Peavine( mt. biking/atv/proximity) is another jewel that is a missing opportunity as is Pyramid Lake.
    On Sparks ..I’m curious to see what you get for a $125,000 in “marketing”
    In my long ago past as Washoe PIO I would often field the press query regarding reno…and back then the out-of-town media angles were usually gambling/prostitution/ how’s it like in Vegas…I ask you guys how much has that really changed…and can it be changed?
    That was a bit of a ramble…but I think Larry’s post should foster more serious discussions from all -fronts, particulry the public information folks

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  11. Ed Burghard Says:

    This is exactly the kind of discussion that should be occurring in all American cities on an ongoing basis. “The Biggest Little City In The World” has emotional associations established over years and after significant investment. Consequently, it has natural appeal over other options. The exercise that should be considered is to clearly define the Reno areas current image. Assess this image against the assets available in the area. Determine what the Reno area identity should be (relevant, authentic, competitive). Then create an action plan to move the Reno area from the current image to the desired identity. These are tough strategic discussions and decisions. However, once the hard work is done the question of tagline becomes much easier.

    For more on effective place branding visit StrengtheningBrandAmerica.com

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