Sparks, Nevada – Be The Brand

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This week, the sister city to Reno announced a new brand platform developed by Destination Development of Seattle, Washington.  Amid the excitement of potentially repositioning  “Rail City” into a more focused, engaging position comes a wave of public outcry at the $114,000 expense the effort encumbered.  Attached to this new positioning of “Nevada’s Festival City” comes the rather ingenuous tag line of “It’s Happening Here”.

There is no question that Destination Development has been successful in this specific type of community positioning – with an impressive list of creative applications displayed on their website.  While their work may be routinely successful – this particular effort fails to engage the target market in my opinion.

Although not a surveyed result, I would estimate that if the public were asked where “it is happening” in Nevada, the vast majority of respondents would not defer to Sparks, Nevada.  But rather point immediately to Las Vegas because of the many years of successful (and iconic) “What Happens Here Stays Here” campaigns.  To me, this is a classic example “never pick a fight with the reigning heavyweight champion if you’re in the welterweight division”.  Not only does this tag line invite comparison, it offers confusion – a fact that Sparks cannot afford to attach it’s future image to for very long.

One critical practice I have gained over the years is to be true to your brand, your brand must be truly you.  I can’t conceive of anyone that could make the mental leap to believe that Sparks Nevada has more power to position itself as the leader in Nevada’s festivals over Reno and Las Vegas.  A claim that cannot ring true in time.

Overall, the effort has fallen short of conveying what a true, believable, unique brand position is for our neighboring city.  I’ll point backward in time to a post I wrote late last year that not only questions our region’s brand positioning, but wondered why a more collaborative Reno/Sparks/Tahoe position was not being financially supported given these unprecedented economic times and shrinking visitor dollars.  To me, there is no ultimate purpose or unity in promoting varying brand positions within a geographically interlocked region that does not offer distinct differences between our boundaries.

If, in fact, “the image we are trying to portray is that Sparks is a must-visit destination”, I’m very skeptical that positioning Sparks as Nevada’s Festival City will create that kind of “must-visit” demand.  While festivals in themselves are exciting and engaging for a wide audience, the reality of today’s Sparks is that they are few and far between – with operational overhead that simply is not viable in today’s financial climate or in the near future.

What basic, unique values does Sparks truly offer that would keep visitors coming back for more without engaging the narrowly segmented demographics of festivals and their targeted attendees?  What were the real results of the many community meetings conducted around this effort?  Where is the feedback and recommendations from those who know the Sparks brand best – its residents and community partners?

While I applaud the City of Sparks for taking the initiative to reposition itself in preparation for better economic times, I am saddened by the unfortunately common practice of believing the out-of-town expert over local/regional brand development companies (some of whom are literally world renowned) who not only live the brand, but have a deep understanding of what it’s real values and realistic potential could be.

Those values, that uniqueness that is Sparks, is sorely missing from this newly proposed position – and for the money invested in today’s fiscally challenging times, I’m afraid it may have been money poorly spent.  Time will tell, and quite honestly, I hope I’m wrong.

What do you think about this new brand positioning and execution?

39 Responses to “Sparks, Nevada – Be The Brand”

  1. Roger Brooks Says:

    The challenge with blogs like this is that you are building assumptions based on a logo and tag line and totally out of context to the entire branding process. Here are a few key points you should consider:

    #1: You NEVER roll-out a brand. This brand is NOT being rolled out. It is a goal that Sparks hopes to achieve. It will take time since brands are perceptions, and must be built on product. Communities, including Sparks, must “earn” the brand.

    #2: Sparks has and is in no way trying to compete with Reno or Las Vegas. The “It’s happening here” is based on the brand as “Nevada’s Festival City.” Sparks is already known for hosting some of the biggest festivals in the state. The idea is to create, over time, 200 event days in Sparks a year so that “something is always happening in Sparks.” The city already hosts more than 60 event days. It will take some time before they can earn that title and you won’t see it being used for several years.

    #3: Sparks is NOT trying to compete with Reno or Las Vegas in attracting visitors. If you review the actual brand plan, you’ll see that the first goal is to attract people that live in Sparks and Reno to the many festivals being held and produced in Sparks. Once they are successful doing this, the goal is to have people living at Lake Tahoe, Carson City, Fallen, Carson Valley and other regional areas coming to Sparks for its festivals, events, and activities. Then thirdly they are hoping that some of the four million visitors to the area each year will spend some time in Sparks. It would be foolish for Sparks to compete with Las Vegas or Reno. In fact, the whole idea of this effort is to be a strong “partner” with Reno. After all, the more you have to offer collectively, the further people will come and the longer they will stay. Sparks is working hard to add to the total mix of what Reno and Lake Tahoe have to offer.

    #4: The goal is to make Sparks a “must visit” destination – but finish the sentence – for those people already coming into the area, and for the millions who pass through on Interstate 80 each year.

    #5: This blog noted the following: “to be true to your brand, your brand must be truly you.” Now you know exactly why Sparks’ brand is “Nevada’s Festival City.” It is already what they are known for and what most draws visitors to the community. Touche. That “uniqueness that is Sparks, is NOT sorely missing from this newly proposed position. In fact, it is what sets Sparks apart from every other community in Nevada.

    It’s a shame when “professionals” don’t dig deep to find the “real story” before offering opinions based solely on a logo and a tag line, neither of which are brands. They make up 1% of the brand but typically get 99% of the attention as is the case here. Brands are built on product, not logos and tag lines. Do you buy a Chevy over a Ford because you like their logo better?

    Sparks has a lot of work to do before it can “earn” the brand as Nevada’s Festival City, but it has a solid foundation to build on, and private investors have and continue to spend millions to make Sparks a great destination.

  2. Adam Mayberry Says:

    I appreciate the comments on the DRAFT Branding, Development, and Marketing Action Plan. The plan is available on-line the city’s website at http://www.cityofsparks.us, and I would encourage all to take a look and review, and many will come away with a different perspective. The City Council will utimately take action on all or some of the recommendations and move forward, providing the brand is adopted.

    While I whole heartedly agree that there is enough talent in the Reno-Sparks area to undertake this effort, and in fact many of the individuals are close friends who I admire and respect, the city’s Tourism & Marketing Committee felt compelled to bring in a firm with a completely new outlook and fresh perspective, and one that has had a strong success rating.

    I encourage you to take a comprehensive look at the report until you draw a hard conclusion.

  3. Sterling Doak Says:

    Great post man. I am just really tired of all the negativity that is going around regarding the economy and our line of work and there’s no snow and, and, and. It is difficult to remain positive some days and I look for things that point to the way out of this darkening forest. And then some shit like this happens! This whole Sparks thing is a total fiasco. While I think it was a dumb move to go out of market for this work, it is understandable – using an agency that brands cities. Ya, cool, get that. Don’t like it, but get it. But when you are staring at one of the worst economies of all time and you come back with… Celebration Lake! WTFISTS? And Festival? So where’s the festival guys? Are the collective special events supposed to equal one festival or is Sparks supposed to create one Gotham sized hap hap happy production? Larry, I think you sharply eluded to the fact that events can very easily go away. If someone paid enough for the rights to the Best in the West Rob Cook Off as a branded event, I am sure J.A. Nugget would receive the check.

    Welcome to your new brand Sparks. Giddy up and start thinking about all the little festivals you’ll be having. Festivals mean you are inviting more people from out of town, so be sure to have all sorts of friendly tourist traps around. Oh, and you’ll need to be carting the Mayor and City Council down the Main Street of Happy Town on the hour, waving, smiling, waiving, smiling. Hey, build that confetti factory to save on logistics. Let’s have a cannon fire the confetti into Celebration Lake! On the hour. Mach Shau, Beatles.

    Listen people, you can take all this celebration and adventure (yeah, you Reno-Tahoe) and have a LONG, HARD LOOK at the foundation upon which you’re building this house of cards. We’re Battle Born. Or did you forget? Never thought I’d say that Vegas had it figured out all along, but they did. We drink, gamble, work hard and play harder. So…

    Play Harder. There’s your friggin’ brand. And that one’s on the house, care of 89502.

  4. Sterling Doak Says:

    Roger, for the record, it’s impolite to be condescending to someone on their own blog. Take your “shoes” off, please.

  5. smartblog Says:

    Roger and Adam,

    I’m impressed with the quick response to my post – thank you both!

    Mr. Brooks,

    #1) It would appear to me (and the public) that the brand has been “rolled-out” officially. If that was not your intention, I do not see where you made that clear in your presentation or any of the media reports. I do not believe you “earn” a brand, but are one, and must communicate your unique value(s) clearly and creatively.

    #2) Is increasing that number of festivals fiscally responsible given our economy today and for the undeterminable future to come? How will Sparks earn the money to support that goal while simultaneously earning its brand position? Honestly, I don’t think there are enough regional dollars to support that kind of festival target increase – but again, I hope I’m wrong.

    #3) I would disagree that Sparks is not in competition with Reno or Las Vegas. Partners in regional marketing, yes. Not in competition for limited tourism dollars? No.

    #4) Point taken. The target market are local/ close regional residents then. Again, this was not made clear in the roll-out.

    #5) As a lifetime resident of this valley, I can assure you, Sparks is not “famous” for its festivals. Reno is more renowned for it’s events – or festivals – call them what you like. Perhaps I’m ignorant in not fully understanding the difference between festivals and events – but I would suggest the public may well be as ignorant as I am.

    While I’d take offense to your use of “professionals” in your response, and my lack of understanding of the “real story”, I’d invite you to be more clear, and less condescending in your response if you wish to garner my (or my reader’s) support.

    If Sparks’ brand is built on product, and you think the city’s unique product are its renowned festivals, then I think you’re dead wrong. But I’m sure you have the survey data to prove me wrong, or you wouldn’t have based your recommendations on the assumption.

    And I think, given by the overwhelming public response, the target market (regional locals) may agree with my assessment.

    The tone of your comments was defensively rude, and I would welcome the opportunity to debate your specific points in public.

    And thanks Adam…for the link to the plan. I think that would have been most helpful to the public in understanding the context of the DRAFT roll-out.

    I’ll certainly take the time to review it, and welcome your thoughts and comments.

    Thanks for reading!

  6. Mike Says:

    Do You honestly believe that people buy a ford over a chevy for anything other than 1) one looks better, and 2) their daddy owned that one. I certainly don’t. Though many a heated debate has been launched over which is better and how many engine blocks you went though and what a torque curve should look like…

    Sters has a good point about the rib cook-off being one big bid away from becoming Elk Grove’s signature event. But Roger is right that it takes time to develop things like that, and i’d add that it’s the local buy in that really leaves the best impression on outsiders. And without the right local connection that buy in won’t happen.

    I agree that the hometown knowledge and familiarity is what is missing. There’s plenty of ourofthebox thinking right here. Hell. Run a committee with all of us. we’ll spew ideas all day and night for a week and i bet festival and celebration won’t be heard. I still hear Helm’s Pit as much as Sparks Marina! What about festival and celebration speaks to Sparks? Northern Nevada? #weststreetmarket

    I ride my bike down the river from Reno to Victorian square dozens of times a year to go to movies, shows and the Great Basin Brewery. There’s lots of cool stuff about that trip. Did Roger make that trip? Does he know what Fisherman’s Park is like @ midnight? Can he describe the sights and businesses on the Lincoln Highway, i mean 4th St., between Reno and Sparks?

    Victorian Square is RAD! Aesthetically the best outdoor public space in the area. And it has been underutilized. That’s the “looks better” part. The other part is history, a connection to heritage which is HUGE in Nevada, and that don’t cotton to a bunch of big city name changes.

    Either way, thanks Larry for the good post!

    -M

  7. Clint Jolly Says:

    First off- I am not a bradning specialist in any way. I know my business and understand it’s brand. I hire others to help build that brand…thanks guys.

    I am curious to know if any local businesses had an opportunity to bid on this project. After all, we are all supposed to be BUYING LOCAL right. And I can understand if there were no local businesses that fit the bill, or couldn’t compete on price, I just hope they got a chance at it.

    Maybe our local chambers got involved, promoted the big “box store” branding company from Seattle since they paid up the ~$400 to get listed in the book. From my little chair on the patio it looks like we just sent $114,000 to Washington. Maybe they can pitch in a little towards the struggling budget when more local businesses close their doors.

    In the end, I do hope that this plan works better than expected. But based on my short lived history of the area, the energy behind this plan will fizzle. After all interest is lost we can launch another branding campaign- maybe “Happy Time Lake” in “Nevada’s Non- Denominational Party City”. (Like I said, not a branding guy- but I am sure that someone LOCAL could come up with something great!!)

    Cheers to Sparks!! I will send in my hundred bucks to register my business this year, so the cops you laid off won’t have time to show up when a hungry unemployed vagrant breaks the window to make a sandwich. Please put it to good use…..

  8. Roger Brooks Says:

    This is a great dialogue and here are some answers for you:

    #1: The brand was not “rolled-out.” You never roll-out a brand until you can “deliver on the promise.” Because the City of Sparks was the lead agency in this effort (using lodging tax money, by the way, not local taxpayer funds) the process has been a public one. When the plan was presented it was made very clear that the brand would be developed over the next several years, and then gradually implemented.

    #2: The idea is not just to create and host major festivals in Sparks. The idea is to always have something going on. That can include paddle boat rentals at the Sparks Marina, events at the Wild Island Water Park, events already being developed around The Legends project in Sparks, which will open this summer. It includes sporting and golf events already being developed and promoted in Sparks. And finally, the idea is not to have Sparks produce all 200 event days, but to invite other clubs and organizations to hold their events in Sparks. Car club shows, motorcycle shows, artists in action, bicycling shows and rallies, sporting events, golf tournaments, etc.

    #3: We don’t see Sparks as competition at all to Reno. Reno has a completely different “brand” and focus than Sparks. The same with Lake Tahoe. We look at it like you might look at Chevrolet. They have an umbrella brand (buy American), with the tag line “Heartbeat of America.” But, they market the Corvette to its audience and the Suburban to its own audience and the Impala to yet another audience. I don’t think Chevrolet considers the Corvette as a competitor to people looking at an Impala. However, the Corvette certainly brings people to the showroom. In essence, that’s how we see Sparks and Reno. In fact, the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority (RSCVA) is a part of the Sparks brand-development team. Once again, the more you have to offer collectively, the further people will come and the longer they will stay. Additionally, they will be far more effective as one loud voice than as a number of smaller single voices.

    #4: Sparks, locally, is best known for its festivals and events. It’s Thursday night markets host an average of 10,000 attendees. And please remember that this is the “goal” not where Sparks is today. This effort simply builds on a foundation that is already in Sparks. The city has some terrific venues in The Legends project, the Sparks Marina, and Victorian Square, not to say anything of the new sports complex and some outstanding golf courses, and a host of events at the Nugget.

    You are absolutely right that people might be confused about the Festivals tag. The idea is to host 200 event days, but that could mean creating a permanent home for an open-air market and expanding it to 60 days a year. The idea is to have a number of smaller events hosted in Sparks as opposed to huge festivals that gridlock the city. Wouldn’t it be great if Victorian Square had just 500 people a day in it? Perhaps that would provide some incentive to get it developed – with additional shops and restaurants.

    I apologize about being condescending, but I have a somewhat thin skin and am automatically defensive after putting heart and soul and 30 years of experience on the line. When those who didn’t attend the presentation (not a roll out) and didn’t see or hear the full story start drawing conclusions I shoot back – so I apologize. I have been a fan of this blog for some time, so perhaps I took it too personally. Nut I like this forum, although I won’t be able to continue the great debate.

    Thank you for providing the opportunity. We hope people will keep an open mind. Branding is never an easy sport and is the most misunderstood industry in the world.

  9. Mike Says:

    Roger,

    “Festival” is what you want people to think of when they think of Sparks.

    I’d rather see the brand collateral illustrate the fact that sparks IS that festival city and have people walk away thinking festival so that when they’re on their way to San Francisco from Cedar City and need a place to stay, they stop in sparks instead of Reno, cause “hay there’s something going on, you know I read about it in Spirit Mag last month…”

    Or “Mike let’s just ride over to Victorian and see what’s going on. If it’s chill, we chill, if not, on to the Lincoln Lounge…”

    Show me, don’t tell me…

    -M

  10. Ryan Jerz Says:

    “I do not believe you “earn” a brand, but are one, and must communicate your unique value(s) clearly and creatively. ”

    If that is indeed the case, why does one need any Brand Strategist? “Strategist” makes me think of “coming up with something.” If what you say is correct, Larry, then I think all efforts like this are wasted.

    I think if what Roger says about grabbing hold of visitors who are already in the area and otherwise passing through is genuine, it’s a decent idea for Sparks. There is so much that goes into any tourist’s (for lack of a better word) visit and intention to spend money. Where Sparks nails it is that many of its events are in a place with decent surroundings. Sure, Victorian Square could be improved when it comes to individual shops or something like that, but for the most part, it’s a good area for festivals, parties, farmers markets, whatever. That amounts to Sparks being able to be a place to spend your money.

    I actually think Sparks is better thought of for its events than Reno, for instance. Part of that is the importance the city places on them. It looks to me like they WANT the Hot August Nights traffic more than Reno does, so they pull out all the stops. It’s all opinion, of course, but it’s how I see it.

    If you take those two paragraphs and put the ideas together, you get an idea of what Roger said. Tourist dollars aren’t necessarily coming from Sacramento or the bay. They can be coming from Reno, Carson City, and even Spanish Springs, considering that you’re offering something new that wouldn’t have otherwise brought that person downtown.

    All of that may not completely address your beef with “Nevada’s Festival City” but I think they grabbed what they could here. I question whether it was needed at all, but I would no matter who was doing it. I can say, though, that in all seriousness, I do think of things like Hot August Nights and the rib cook-off when I think of Sparks. If the plan is to run with that and take it even further, I think they can pull it off.

  11. Wolfy Says:

    When you need help promoting the festivals, ping us: http://www.tallcan.tv/tallcan-tv-the-brew-ha-ha/

    -M

  12. smartblog Says:

    Roger,

    Thanks for the apology – accepted.

    We may disagree on language and the meaning of branding, and I respect your investment in your views and understanding. I don’t think you have “the answers”, just a valid opinion.

    I just think this DRAFT of a brand missed the mark this time; and that’s just my opinion.

    That said – listen to the people. The community of Sparks. The people who may frequent, or may consider visiting Sparks. They will tell you what your brand is. And what they want it to be.

  13. smartblog Says:

    Ryan,

    Great points – I’d expect that of you. For me, “strategist” is similar to “director”, not an artist (although art is involved). We do “come up with stuff”, but often in stages. We’d NEVER present a brand visually without explaining the migration to it’s actuality with a timeline and tacticals.

    I don’t want to get into semantic wars here – there are way too many possible interpretations to defend.

    And while brands are built, they’re built of basic core values and attributes. That’s the strategy in “strategist” part is to me, moving the brand perception from one positioning to another – through a series of channeled campaigns.

    I think the problem for me was the presentation of this new, intendend, DRAFT brand direction. To say “Sparks is Nevada’s Festival City” today doesn’t ring true to me. But in time, it could – and I question whether that is a goal that will sustain the City for years without massive infrastructure investment. That, and in my experience, festivals/events have a natural cycle of interest – and are labor and logistically intensive. I’m not sure Sparks is ready for that – but again, I hope I’m wrong.

    I just know that the positioning and tagline don’t ring true or inspirational to me – and so I blog online about it. Because that what us bloggers do.

    Sparks has a brand – and it may well be festivals. I’d love to see data to support that perception as fact, and not conjecture. But as a native of Reno, that’s never been my perception of Sparks, which may be my shortcoming in this discussion overall.

  14. Roger Brooks Says:

    I rarely get involved in these, but this has been a great discussion. A couple other points:

    #1: When we started this process we asked the folks of Sparks what they thought the brand should be. It was on the local news, in every paper and we got dozens of ideas and responses. As is usually the case, the brand direction, even the tag line came from people in Sparks, not from the outsiders.

    That often leads to the comment “why do we need someone from the outside to come in and tell us what we already know?” Because if you ask 20 people in Sparks what the brand should be, you will probably get 20 different answers. And when you pick one, then you just alienated the other 19. If the folks at the Nugget would have said “we think we should be known as the Rib Cook off city” then locally people would be saying, “of course you’d say that. It’s self serving. You host the event and Victorian Square is right outside your doors.” By the way, this brand did NOT come from the folks at the Nugget.

    But the point is that by using an “outside facilitator” you get rid of the politics. When we develop community brands the direction is decided on feasibility, not just local sentiment. Every idea is run through a ten point feasibility test.

    To really boil it down the whole branding process is simply a means to an end. It’s a tool to import more cash into Sparks – it’s tax base.

    In fact, that’s the whole benefit of tourism. To increase spending locally. If you live in Sparks, earn your money in Sparks and, heaven forbid, spend any of that money in Reno or Tahoe that’s “leakage.” The most successful communities import more cash than they export. This is a means to an end.

    So, if the people living in Reno, Tahoe, Carson City, Fallon and other surrounding communities spend a little time and money in Sparks, the city will have more to work with – providing services to their citizens. This is also why this is being done now in a recessionary economy. Now is the time to get more cash flowing into the community. Cities are being forced to fend for themselves.

    Of all the brand ideas, this one was a given: Sparks is known for its events and its farmers market. It has great “venues” including Victorian Square, the Marina, The Legends, the new sports complex, outstanding golf courses, Wild Island…

    It is the one brand that would cost the least to implement and bring the greatest return on investment the quickest. These facilities are already in place. Yes, they can use some work, but if you bring in the people and their wallets, then we’ve just created incentives to see Victorian Square finally get built out – something that’s been “in the works” for darn near 20 years.

    Don’t get hung up on the logo and tag line. At the end of the day they are just marketing messages that reinforce what we want Sparks to be known for. A great place to hang out. A place where something is always happening. We want people to always ask themselves “I wonder what’s happening in Sparks this weekend.” Wouldn’t that be cool?

    Thanks so much for all your input – a great discussion.

  15. DowntownMakeoverDude Says:

    To me it would depend on what you call an event. I know Sparks is famous for its Rib Cookoff, and fireworks on 4th of July, and the farmer’s market.

    Reno has Art Town, the Italian Festival, the Celtic Festival, Street Vibrations, National Bowling Tournaments, waaay more concerts, with Lawlor and Downtown Events Center, the Nevada State Fair, Reno Rodeo, Reno Tahoe Odyssey (which starts in Reno), The Reno River Festival, the fast-growing Chicken Wing Festival, Great Reno Balloon Races, the Blues and Brews Festival, 2 farmers markets during the summer (Cal Ave and downtown), the Cal Ave Christmas Festival, on and on and on. There’s about 23 events a year in downtown Reno, not including recurring events like the farmers market. We’re about to get a 10,000-capacity stadium to have event more events too in the off season of baseball.

    Sparks has a long way to go, in a really crummy economy, to measure up to that. My prediction is in 5 years, just when they start having a chance to live up to their brand, they’ll decide it isn’t working and change it again. Ala America’s Adventure Place, CanDo, Reno Rules, etc.

  16. Sterling Doak Says:

    Larry, Roger, et al, great debate here. I would like to ask for defense of one point and that is “Festival”. I think we all agree Sparks has some very good touchpoints to deliver this brand. But why festival? This is just my own opinion, but that is a weak position. Festival is “antiquated” technology. It rubs as hokey, not inspirational. If Destination is taking the approach that Sparks needs to aspire to the brand position, why not give them something that has legs? Why not help them transform the culture and aspire to something completely unique to the area? For instance, Sparks is, in my opinion, a great place to do business and raise a family. The special events held really make living there pleasurable. Possibly the city is doing some things in the realm of sustainabilty that could drive position. The world is changing and looking for communities to give them something to really sink their teeth into. To create a better life. These things are done from the inside out. Being a festival driven city is none of these things because it relies so heavy on the perception of non-residents. I do not envy what you do Roger. You hold sway over the future of a community and it’s future. From my perch, you gave simply glorified the most visible aspect of Sparks. This is where I feel the mark was missed. Festivals are expensive, antiquated and not what a future society should aspire to hang their hat on. Further, your defensiveness initially leads me to belive that maybe you realize this direction could be, well, not sustainable and not inspirational for the citizens and future citizens of Sparks.

    Again, I applaud you for debating here. More than you know, this kind of transparency and forum selection with your peers is absolutely necessary. Thanks.

  17. Roger Brooks Says:

    Good comments Sterling. There are two tag lines for this brand that would be used in the marketing effort: “It’s happening here!” and “I’m in Sparks. Where are you?” When it comes to “It’s happening here!” that could be the grand opening of The Legends. A little league baseball tournament. A Wild Island event. A beach party at the marina. The Thursday night market. Saturday afternoon concerts on the Square. A fishing tournament at the marina…

    The idea is to make Sparks the place to hang out. The place where there is always something going on. We want people to think “I wonder what’s happening in Sparks this weekend.” The whole festival and events thing is a means to an end. It’s simply taking what Sparks already has (ok, glorifying it) and building on it. We are hoping that it won’t just be about events or festivals. It will be about renting the paddle boats in the marina. Renting a Segway to following a great route between Victorian Square to The Legends. A permanent open-air market that might be open every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday for six months of the year. Concerts on the Square every Saturday – a real hub of activity. A great place to hang out. Something always going on.

    We’re simply starting out with festivals to build awareness of the brand faster.

    While Sparks is a great place for business and to raise a family, that isn’t a real point of differentiation since Reno, Carson City, Carson Valley, and just about every town believes the same thing about their towns. Branding is the art of setting yourself apart from everyone else. What do you have that I can’t get or do closer to home? What makes you worth a special trip? Even if I’m staying next door in Reno.

    However, one thing we brought up in the brand presentation is that the focus of the festivals and events be family-centered to play up the beach at the Marina, Wild Island, the sports complex, the city’s fabulous parks, the fountain in Victorian Square, etc. Reno nor Las Vegas (or even Lake Tahoe) are seen, to the outside world, as family destinations, so this is a hole Sparks could fill – a point of differentiation.

    My defensiveness is not that we don’t believe it can be sustainable, but because we put six months of time into this and did exhaustive research, data collection, and testing across the U.S. to make sure it COULD be sustainable. We have worked in 740 communities in 42 states, most of the Canadian provinces and abroad and each one of these is like a child – you want it to succeed. We get hired for making things happen, not writing plans. We love building case histories and being able to say we got to play role in making something happen for Sparks. Yes, it’s personal – like having a child. It’s a tall order. If we were “take the money and run” people I wouldn’t be here communicating and working with you all to help “sell” the vision and to build awareness.

    By the way, when it came to branding the City we also looked at a number of possibilities: the city’s rail history, amateur sports, golf (there’s already the Divine Nine), shopping, events, water (Wild Island/the Marina), and recreation. While Sparks has all of these have you ever gone anywhere that had “something for everyone”? Branding is about being known for something specific. Something that sets you apart from everyone else, or that you do better than everyone else. Everyone in the 11 western states promotes outdoor recreation (the most overused brand in the world), and so when you look at what Sparks does better, or that’s different, it came down to the events.

    We wanted to build on something already in Sparks without creating something new where you’d have to start at ground zero. Those kinds of brands take decades to build.

    Good stuff here! Thanks for hosting this forum. I hope the papers and press pick up on this. It’s terrific dialogue. There is no such thing as branding by public consensus and there’s never been a successful brand that everyone agreed on. And that’s what makes it divisive and a hot topic.

    All the best.

    One last note: This is the age of “third places.” The first place is the place we live. Our home. The second place is the place we work. And the third place is where we hang out. The place we go after work or school. This is something missing in the entire Reno area, but Sparks has a terrific opportunity to be that Third Place with an expanded market, the marina and the other family-friendly places. The Great Basin Brewery is already that for the bar crowd, which is fine, but Victorian Square could really be that central gathering place. And THAT would attract visitors from all over the area as well as locals.

    In the end, if locals won’t hang out in downtown Sparks, neither will visitors. This is about locals first and visitors (and their money) will follow.

  18. smartblog Says:

    When and how can we see the actual data and input that substantiate these recommendations and directions elicited from the public?

    The excellent documentation of the brand platform (http://www.cityofsparks.us/about/news/?newsid=1085) does not contain any of the results or suggestions from the “dozens of ideas and responses” obtained from the public survey.

    As noted, “the brand direction, even the tag line” came from the public. So what were the actual results of public polling?

    I think that would truly help us understand the genesis of this recommended DRAFT positioning.

  19. Roger Brooks Says:

    The ideas came from a week long charrette process held in Sparks at several public meetings and from e-mails, phone calls, and followup meetings that the folks in Sparks were invited too. We held open houses as well at the Sparks Community Center.

    The process was widely publicized and the meetings were well attended. There were two meetings at City Hall and one meeting was held in the Nugget due to limitations on how many people could be housed in the City council chambers.

    All local feedback came from that process. We then performed a “competitive analysis,” and performed a “feasibility test” of the various brand ideas provided by the public.

    At the last meeting we held (at the Nugget) where we announced the brand direction, we provided all the responses, the feedback, and the results of the feasibility testing. You should have attended! Everyone had the opportunity to be a part of the process, which has been ongoing for nearly six months.

    We don’t fill our plans with data and research since at this point it’s about moving forward – making something happen for Sparks.

  20. Erik Flippo Says:

    Roger said, “Don’t get hung up on the logo and tag line.”

    Are you serious? The logo is the lynchpin. It is a visual distillation of everything you want the brand to be, and anything else to be designed derives from and reinforces it. It is most certainly not “1% of the brand.” I question your bona fides on the basis of that assertion alone.

    I am hung up on the logo because, if I may be blunt, it’s terrible. The typography is hackneyed, poorly kerned and of inappropriate vintage for a convincingly retro feel. “Nevada” is crammed in there as an afterthought. The whole thing is canted at an apparently random angle.

    Perhaps it, too, is just a draft.

  21. smartblog Says:

    In fact, I attended one of those meetings, but unfortunately was not available to attend the last in the series.

    I’m not suggesting you “fill your plans with data”, but simply provide the data that served as the basis for your decisions and recommendations.

    We all want to “make something happen” for Sparks. Just look at the response to this thread. However, moving forward without a verifiable foundation is the very problem I’m having with this entire process. If there is data that supports your positioning, I think it’s prudent for the public to be able to access it. What better information could you provide to prove your positioning in conjunction with the competitive analysis?

    Again, if the “the brand direction, even the tag line” were formulated from a competitive analysis and feasibility test, don’t you think it would be appropriate to attach those findings to your report to substantiate the validity of the directions?

    We may not be as capable or non-partisan as you here in northern Nevada, but when we conduct our Brand Charettes – that is exactly what we do. Even for this public DRAFT stage, I believe the data that supports the directives are essential to understanding the basis upon which the brand platform is constructed.

    Without it – it’s simply opinion and conjecture. And if that’s the case, then I think your process is seriously flawed.

  22. Roger Brooks Says:

    Logos and slogans are not brands. They are marketing messages used to support the brand. It’s not a brand, but a “brand mark.” They are not the lynchpin at all. Brands are perceptions – what people think of when you mention Sparks.

    Consider the following: Do you buy Nike shoes over Reebok because you like their logo better? Do you choose Pepsi over Coke because their logo is more attractive? Do you decide which make of car to buy based on the logo? Do you buy Snickers or Hershey because the logo appeals to you more? Would you go to Truckee or Sacramento because their logo is so much more appealing? Do you go to Disneyland because they have such a cool logo?

    People will visit Sparks because of the product – what there is to see and do. All successful brands are built on product. Marketing is used to cement your ownership position.

    It is impossible to do branding by public consent. And there’s virtually no way to do a logo that will please everyone. 85% of people (in a 1990s survey) dislike the Nike logo and think it has nothing to do with the product, yet that certainly hasn’t stopped people from buying Nike product and the logo is now a powerhouse identity.

    Additionally, you never judge a brand by a stand-alone identity. You need to look at in the context in which it’s being used. The identity would NEVER be used as a stand-alone element – as it is at the beginning of this blog, but in the context of a larger message. A billboard, an ad, on business cards, on brochures.

    This will be my last post hear, but I think it would be fun to hear from the people who don’t like the direction: What do you think Sparks’ brand should be? Before you post it, ask yourself these questions:

    #1. If this were in Fallon or even Truckee, would you make a special trip there for it then turn around and head back home?

    #2. Is it unique to Sparks? If it could fit any other community in the region, then it’s too generic.

    #3. Is it experiential. Not a “been there, done that” activity.

  23. smartblog Says:

    FYI to anyone joining this discussion at this stage. I have updated the brand image samples so that you may understand the context of the identity. Wouldn’t want that logo just floating around by itself – how confusing would that be!

  24. Roger Brooks Says:

    Thank you Larry. If you’d like others as well, just let me know. One note: These are just concepts – INCLUDING the logo, which is being refined and “updated” so it has more of a modern look to it. Always a challenge when using a script font. The idea was to incorporate a “spark” – Spark you Enthusiasm. Spark you passion. Light up your love life. The variations can be almost endless.

  25. Erik Flippo Says:

    Thanks, Larry, for posting the new images. Context is everything, isn’t it?

    This supporting collateral only bolsters my contention that everything is derived from the logo. So much of brand reinforcement is visual.

    Roger, the examples you gave are of well-known companies that have had decades to build brand reputation. Sparks is not in that enviable position.

    And do you honestly think that nobody has ever bought a pair of Nikes because of the swoosh, or a Mercedes because of the hood ornament, or an iPod because of the Apple logo? It’s about status and tribe, my friend.

  26. smartblog Says:

    This just in:

    “THE CONTROVERSY OVER BRANDING SPARKS”
    http://downtownmakeover.com/

  27. myrnatheminx Says:

    To me the most salient point in Larry’s post has been missed;

    “Overall, the effort has fallen short of conveying what a true, believable, unique brand position is for our neighboring city. I’ll point backward in time to a post I wrote late last year that not only questions our region’s brand positioning, but wondered why a more collaborative Reno/Sparks/Tahoe position was not being financially supported given these unprecedented economic times and shrinking visitor dollars. To me, there is no ultimate purpose or unity in promoting varying brand positions within a geographically interlocked region that does not offer distinct differences between our boundaries.”

    Nail on head. The power of the Reno/Tahoe region and Reno/Sparks is THE REGION. Cities and Counties should be pooling their resources to promote the region rather than trying to carve out individual (and tiny) niches.

  28. Wolfy Says:

    Visitors coming to sparks looking for the hottie with the 5 year old cellphone are going to be pissed when they get to sparks and find this:
    DSC_0024

    or this

    or this

    reno rib cook off / chateau d'chew

    But then again. I never see middle aged men running pissed out of the Eldorado when they don’t score two cougars for winning at the penny slots…

    -M

  29. Mike McDowell Says:

    Larry – thank you so much for providing this discussion forum, and “sparking” the conversation (har har). I got more out of reading this string than anything I’ve seen from local TV, radio or newspaper/magazines.

    In my experience, I agree that a brand is not a logo or a tagline. A brand is NOTHING MORE and NOTHING LESS than a set of promises. Your brand (often times represented by your logo or tag) must live up to the promise(s) it makes. The downfall is when brands try to make promises they can’t follow through on or that they don’t “own.”

    I think that every brand should have a “brand vision” – or where they WANT the brand to be. BUT, the vision can not be so far from the ACTUAL current perception of the brand, or there will be major dissonance – which is what I think we’re experiencing with the branding for Sparks.

    Part of “rolling out” a brand is getting buy-in from constituents. Some of those constituents are your clients, some are major stakeholders, some are the general public. I know for a fact that this is one of the most difficult steps in the branding process, but one of the more important. And yes, Roger, branding by consensus is dangerous territory. Any decision is. But, despite the effort to engage the community and gain community equity – it didn’t quite happen. And, based on what I’m hearing so far on our community, people aren’t buying the brand promises just yet.

    Like Larry, I hope for the very best for Sparks. But right now, it doesn’t appear that the brand promise is resonating in the hearts and minds of the community.

  30. Sterling Doak Says:

    A good article that puts a bit of this in context – http://www.brandingstrategyinsider.com/2008/09/the-case-for-pl.html#more – with place branding tips. Many of the points reinforce Destination’s position, but there are a few that seemingly didn’t happen and probably would have helped greatly in the process – particularly Tip #2. It appears this brand development effort is sorely lacking ambassadors and inviting detractors. A loose poll of my peers, family and friends has not returned favorable results for this effort.

  31. Don Vetter Says:

    Wow
    Good stuff…I’m not the brand expert but I want to go back to the process of developing the draft “brand plan” ( I have done these types of activities in the past — most recently as outreach/support for the Sparks Vision Planning Charette)
    In the opening day of the sessions — who were the “sparks stakeholders” How were they attracted/recruited? This goes a long way toward the ambassador concept. One technique in public affairs/issue management is to seek out patriarchs and matriarchs of certain network/ community/neighborhood and get them on board. I refer to this as “over the backyard fence” public relations (which in some ways has evolved into twitter and blogs). The first step is to educate, receive feedback, then illuminate that feedback by synthesizing it into the program or idea you are trying to promote. The reason I go back to the incubator is that some of the key stakeholders – some my clients — were never actively brought in to the process. And these are key people in the success or failure of this endeavor which is crucial to the survival of Sparks. Many of the ideas in the draft plan are fantastic, but will require solid and continuing buy-in from the private sector/business leaders either in time or money ( i.e. setting up businesses that cater to the folks enjoying Helms Pit/Sparks Marina/Celebration Lake).
    This plan is a start and this type of feedback that Larry is facilitating is something Sparks’ policy leaders should consider. The other consideration — and a pet peeve of mine during theses Adventure Place years — is delivering the goods. Reading the brand draft, Sparks will have to step up its resource allocations in the public safety, maintenance, transportation infrastructure, community relations, advertising and promotion arenas. To make this work will require a holistic view of government priorities and taxpayer allocations to determine what the return on those investments might bring to the local economy and the quality of life for those who call Sparks home.
    Don Vetter
    Vetter PR, Inc

  32. grs Says:

    Mr. Brooks may have many years of “branding” experience, and many of his general points about promoting events in Sparks may have merit, but in the end, changing the name of Sparks Marina to Celebration Lake is simply idiotic. Keep in mind that the name violates one of Mr. Brooks’s own criteria for branding in his post above: “#2. Is it unique to Sparks? If it could fit any other community in the region, then it’s too generic.” Festival Place is just as poor. It couldn’t be more generic. You might as well come up with “Event Location.” So the proposed name changes are bad, and the public is concerned that an extravagant amount of money was wasted to come up with these failed slogans.

    And by the way, just where is that girl kayaking? Doesn’t look like Sparks Marina . . .

  33. smartblog Says:

    Here’s an interesting update to this story, just released today by Dennis Meyers of the Reno News & Review:

    http://www.newsreview.com/reno/content?oid=932494

    This is getting more intriguing all the time!

  34. Erik Flippo Says:

    Now that’s a sticky wicket. Adding insult to injury, Dennis got Destination Development’s name wrong.

  35. Sterling Doak Says:

    Mr. Brooks contends that one must “earn the brand”, which I think is just patently wrong, but it does make more sense to me now. If DD contends that a location must earn their brand, instead of merely communicate the unique aspects of the one they already have, then the sky is the limit for DD to shuffle the same checks around the country. Which falls squarely in the jurisdiction of commercializing locations and not branding locations.

    I had a good friend and local Sparks businessman equate this with Snake Oil. I am beginning to wonder if he was right all along. Communities should look long and hard at… errrrreheeeem Reno… at this exchange. This blog post is a professional case study on what NOT to do. Larry, congrats on housing it.

    And Reno, if you think this can’t happen to you, no amount of cocktail meetings can subvert people’s thoughts and opinions about what Sparks is going through. Open up the forum and leave it open. Show us some transparency. Give the people some ownership. We are the brand advocates. We will decide.

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