Northern Nevada Is Begging For A Brand


Today’s headline in the Reno-Gazette Journal was not surprising.  This blog has been discussing it for months, with a heated debate over factions of our local positioning that has produced interesting comment and suggestions from a variety of savvy marketing and advertising professionals in our community and beyond.

Northern Nevada has long focused its efforts on a wide variety of special events that have long been rooted in our community.  From the start of the season with this week’s Cinco de Mayo, through a summer jam-packed with great events like The Great Reno Balloon Race, The National Championship Air Races, Hot August Nights, and Artown – to name just a very few of the over 55 events we now host.  Our region produces amazing events that have helped bring locals and tourism out together for good reason.  But those days, along with a stable economy, are over, and we now find event producers “begging” from funding resources that can no longer afford to support them.  What’s worse is that those resources are dwindling in numbers and size – and there’s no short or long-term projection that it will reverse course soon.

But today’s public reckoning in our local paper is indicative of a much larger problem – and in my opinion, one that’s not entirely driven by today’s challenging economic climate.  As we jokingly say around our office – “It’s the brand, stupid!”.

None of us can pretend that getting our community leaders, businesses and general public around a single concept and positioning that embraces all that northern Nevada can be is a simple task.  In fact, it may be entirely impossible.  But without a community based effort to engage us all, we’ll continue to fall victim to yesterday’s thinking and efforts.  Add that to the confusion that brand positioning like “Reno Is Artown” delivers to the public, and we’re facing a stream of divergent messages about the same product that are not connected in any way or form.

I wholeheartedly agree with Councilman Dave Aiazzi’s assessment that special events increase our quality of life here.  Personally, I believe this is the “double edged sword” of beliefs.  Many of our residents attend special events throughout the year – and for very good reason.  Some of us actually plan our vacations around these same events to avoid the public crowds that develop during the dates in our our own neighborhoods.  I wonder what the real perception of special events is in our community as I’ve never experienced a survey as a lifetime resident.  We all love events – but many of them have become “tired and stale” to the local community, if not a general annoyance when going about daily life in the downtown core.

The RSVCA publicly states special events are our “top draw” for visitors – in combination with conventions and general tourism.  My question to them is, if special events leave our economy, can those conventions and “general tourists” maintain (and grow) our level of economy?  If not – what might?  And exactly WHAT are the “general tourists” coming here for to begin withDo they functionally believe we are  “America’s Adventure Place”?  Or was that simply a catchy advertising campaign slogan not rooted in reality?  One that we may never be able to attain in the public’s mind – the place where brands really exist.  Obviously, I believe we need to focus our collective efforts on the latter target (our audience’s beliefs), and quit seeking outside opinions about how we SHOULD be perceived.

Take a look at what the RSCVA promotes as “The Region” – it includes Truckee, California – certainly not part of our tax base, although it certainly may be the “gateway” to our area for visitors from California.  But I wonder – does Lake Tahoe deserve such a prominent positioning in our brand messaging?  Do we have the infrastructure to support the Reno-Tahoe area as “America’s Adventure Place”? While I do believe associating what is perceived as a negative brand view of Reno-Sparks with the more positive image of Lake Tahoe, I wonder if it confuses those more when our target marketing is not in alignment between the two agencies that represent these regions.  And in fact, if Tahoe isn’t a very different and unique brand from ours that is not a “siamese twin” in concept.

Perhaps the outcry over this is well founded, and long overdue.  Let’s get back to basics – promoting our locale to the world for its unique values and quit pandering to the dwindling 1-80 corridor tourist.  I realize that market sector represent a vast majority of “heads on pillows” in our community, but I also believe that, in part, this is the kind of “small thinking” that has positioned us where we are today – without a believable, engaging brand in the consumer’s mind.

Add this to the longstanding “feud” between Sparks and the RSVCA, and you have the disasterous new positioning suggestion for Sparks to be known as “Nevada’s Festival City”.  Here’s yet another unbelievable, unfounded brand position.  Unfortunately, this one cost $114,000 in funds to an outside agency who would, without doubt, help us all “earn” Sparks’ brand.  Ridiculous.  From our online surveys, this was not only not believable – but unfathomable that our own local government would waste such funds when the talent and ability to help position the city’s brand resides within its own borders.

Now comes the time when casinos can no longer deliver on their promise of supporting our economy.  This isn’t news to anyone, and smarter people than I could have shown you the exact rate of projected decline years ago during the beginnings of Native American gaming facilities throughout the nation.  The gaming well is dry – and we don’t have hope for rain in that sector of our economy.  It’s time we accepted that fact, and got to work on developing a message strategy for what we have that IS unique – and there’s plenty of supporting facts to give that message real meaning and life.

So we’re fractioned.  And in that void comes the culturally popular national appeal of Reno 911 – which at first was literally applauded by many locals when it first aired as helping “put Reno on the map”.  And so it did.  It added to our quirkyness – our uniqueness…and it stuck in the minds of consumers, many of whom were actually convinced the series was produced locally.

We no longer can rely on an gaming economic base that we have known for the history of this region, and now find that lack of stability causing our leaders to debate over the need for new brand positioning slogans and citywide attempts.  This must end.  To that point, Councilman Aiazzi put it best:

“We should all get together and say, ‘Here’s what we are going to do as a community,’ and not just let the RSCVA do their own events and us do ours and Sparks do theirs,” Aiazzi said. “We would get a lot more bang for our buck if we pooled our money and not just point fingers and say this is the RSCVA’s fault or this is Reno’s fault.”

Music to my ears.  I’ve longed to hear a public servant speak-out in such a way, and risk the political backing of so many constituents and agencies.

We have incredibly talented people in our region – and not just at the stakeholder agencies.  We have the insight and understanding to help position our area to old and new audiences in a way that is honest and engaging.  And most importantly, we have the product to back our claims.

Is it time to think anew about positioning Reno with Tahoe?  Should Sparks be mentioned in our brand message?  What is unique about northern Nevada that will engage the public and visitors alike now, and for years to come?  Can we finally spend some time and invest in the great minds that reside here instead of calling on the “out-of-town expert” to tell us what we value and who we are?

And most importantly in all this dialogue is the question that very few have asked:

What do YOU think should be done now?

14 Responses to “Northern Nevada Is Begging For A Brand”

  1. myrnatheminx Says:

    Really nice post Larry. Particularly pertinent with the Reno White Water Festival next weekend–another hallmark even that was a huge catalyst in downtown development. Kayakers have been arrive in town for more than a week already–and nicely connects with the (almost finished) West Street Market. There is no question that the jurisdictions and institutions should be working together. Is there not a way to tie the river festival in with Art Town for instance? Lots of potential but splitting up resources among entities that have different priorities will not resolve the branding issue.

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  3. DowntownMakeoverDude Says:

    Well you called it…I remember you writing about this some time ago.
    The best events in my opinion are the ones where both locals AND visitors participate, like the river festival, tour de nez, ArtTown, etc.
    There’s a certain authenticity to an event where the locals participate. Maybe I am in the minority, but when scouting out events in other cities, I look for ones where the locals don’t completely hate and despise it. The internet has reached the point where an average user can research an event and see what locals are saying about it.
    The RSCVA is going about it all wrong. What good is stuffing rooms full of tourists when there is a total disregard and detachment from residents?
    Maybe this doesn’t matter with larger events like ArtTown. I tend to avoid tourist-centered events when in other cities, and go for the local thing.

  4. Says:

    Every area in Northern Nevada has it’s uniqueness and should be promoted as such. Forget the feuds and get over it. The times have changed.

    Businesses and events for the area need to get off the ‘me’ thinking and work to blend and network their efforts. Every resident and potential area visitor will have their own idea of what is fun for them. The more the area can offer the better for tourism as a whole. This area has plenty to offer, but where can it be seen besides in the normal local newspaper, TV, radio ad promotions?

    The newspapers and media as a whole are so used to negative news and gotcha headlines they inadvertently hurt the area by producing such coverage and lack in accentuating the positive the area has to offer. Granted, the news needs to be covered, but it’s all in the presentation. Being well rounded with positive offsets will offer more to those seeking information and entertainment venues.

    Print is declining and the internet presence of these entities is minimal at best. Internet users expect ease of use, interactivity, coverage on things to do an places to go before the event – not after the fact. They want to see how fun it is, not just read a two line blurb of an event without an explanation of what it is. Readers demand more information these days that include audio and visual. Without changing the same old marketing ideas and same old day to day operations the area as a whole will suffer.

    As to the question at hand of what to do, in my opinion, the area has to be marketed as a whole to start and then subdivided into like venues and areas. After that it can be broken down to individual businesses and activities accentuating the niche that makes it special. Creating a sense of urgency and excitement along with the process will not only bring out area residents, if marketed properly, will bring folks in from out of the area.

    Right now, the general population needs to hear, read and see more positive stories and coverage of what the area has to offer. They not only want it, they need it and they will gravitate toward it. Providing this will be prove beneficial for generating growth for the area.
    However, to extend the reach, main stream media, businesses, cities, and event coordinators need to turn their attention to the internet, get creative, find the niches, network with each other and make it work to everyone’s advantage.

  5. Greg Crawford Says:

    Hi Larry-
    A few thoughts on the fractured nature of the regional marketing and branding.
    As you know, I grew up in the Bay Area, but spent 15 years away from the area, in Minnesota, Boston and New York City. As I started to think about returning west (Reno), I started to listen to people’s perceptions out east a little more carefully. One of the more amazing things about Reno is that 90% of the people out east (well-traveled, educated people, mind you, on Wall Street) think it is a suburb of Las Vegas. Frankly, if you are going to jump on a plane with the intention of gaming, you are likely not going to think of Northern Nevada. Local gaming options have exploded around the country, putting our region in the bind it is in now.
    So here are a few thoughts:
    In my mind, Reno and Sparks are just a little too far away (and on the far side of the typical I-80 approach) to get people to stay in the Truckee Meadows and actually visit Tahoe each day. I would target a portion of the visitor’s trips as a compliment to visiting Tahoe, rather than implying we are closer to the Lake than we actually are. That does a disservice to the area over time. I have meet several groups people over the years that have traveled to the region thinking Reno and Tahoe were 15 minutes or less apart. Obvious, we are not, and one they were here they were disappointed.
    More importantly, the Northern Nevada region needs to have a better unified effort.
    Reno and Sparks (and toss in Virginia City) should market all activities together, and perhaps these combined activities would qualify as some sort of festival region?. I am not sure if this is the right campaign message itself, but there is no question in my mind any campaign needs to emphasize the entire region.
    Remember, the people outside of the West have barely heard of Reno (suburb of Vegas?), and have never heard of Sparks. Leave the Truckee Meadows and people could care less about this little rivalry, and catering an outside branding or advertising campaign around this local distinction would be a fatal flaw in a campaigns’ effectiveness.
    I’ll leave the content decisions up to the experts, but the message in my mind has to be unified to make any kind of impression at all.

  6. Paul Kiser Says:

    I completely agree. The economic concept of tourism is great, namely people in other communities earning money then bringing that money to our community to spend it. I was raised in a small town where most of the year no outside money came into the town and the economy remained stagnant.

    However, not all tourism is equal. As Dorothy might have said, “Are you a good tourist, or a bad tourist?” A good tourist has spendable income and expects to spend it on a vacation. Unfortunately, we have been chasing after the bad tourists. No offense, but ask any waiter or waitress about the spending (and tipping) habits of bowlers, bikers, and vintage car enthusiasts and you will get a Jack Benny portrait of the Reno tourist.

    In contrast look at Ashland, OR and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Affluent, educated tourists who have spendable incomes. Remember, Ashland has it’s location as a major obstacle to success. It is impossible to get to Ashland. You have to drive five or more hours from any major airport and it is not close to any major city. Still, they bring in over 350,000 people (2002 figures I believe) who travel 150 miles or more. Why does it work? 1) Beautiful area, not unlike the Reno/Tahoe region, 2) it has one solid identity/brand as a mecca for quality theatre, 3) you can go for a week and see as many shows as you like, 4) they have been doing the same thing for over 50 years, but they have kept trying to improve it, not keep it the same.

    We have been hamstrung by mindless bickering by the old guard in Sparks (pride in your history is okay, but the railroad is dead and Governor Sparks was owned by the railroads…there is nothing of which to be proud). Trying to be a “separate, but equal” city is pointless. Note that the JA Nugget does not agree with the “poor, little picked on sibling”. Any major convention would laugh at the issues raised by the old guard in Sparks and simply take their convention to someplace that works together.

    The other problem we have been dealing with is the deliberate acts of the casinos to squash anything that might take a tourist out of their gaming floor. The attitude has changed in recent years, but for many years efforts to attract tourists who may only want lodging, not gaming was verboten.

    Gaming has become too easy to replicate elsewhere and it is a market that will continue to be on the decline. There are other models of tourism, but to adopt those models will mean that many “can’t be done” paradigms will have to be dissolved, and the people who maintain them will have to retire.

  7. Ira Gostin Says:

    Greg and Paul make some great points. It is very true that Reno is looked at as a suburb of LV. Here’s something else I found that I just can’t believe. None of the events work with a travel agent to build a package. For instance, if you want to take your family to Cheyenne Frontier Days, you can call an 800 #, book hotel, air, car, rodeo tickets etc, all in one call. Nothing like that here that I have seen. The success here will be found in a unified, collaborative brand, with all of the entities promoting Reno-Tahoe. Enough with the politics already.

  8. Don Vetter Says:

    Larry and friends:
    Due to my longevity (old age) I’ve been a long-time participant/observer of this puzzle. I wrote this paragraph as part of an opinion piece published by Nevada Hospitality Magazine back in 2000….

    “RSCVA’s marketing role is considered critical by the hospitality industry to attract people to the tourism-dependent economy. Yet the message the agency has sent in recent years has been an under-funded mish-mash that could not capture the traveler’s imagination. While northern Nevada can boast some of the world’s greatest natural outdoor wonders and adventure lands, the RSCVA has failed to tell this story to the traveling and convention-booking public. The city on the doorstep of Lake Tahoe with the beautiful trout stream running though downtown needs to take a page from the efforts of Utah, Colorado and New Mexico who have made the outdoor recreation connection.
    Hampering these marketing efforts is the RSCVA’s role as facilities manager. We don’t know of any tourism agency in America that not only owns and operates a convention facility, but also operates and maintains a livestock event center, two golf courses, a massive bowling stadium and an IMAX theater. The debt service on these facilities account for a third of the agency’s proposed $37.8 million budget.”

    I don’t know what the RSCVA budget is any more but our whole tourism promotion effort continues to qualify as a mish-mash. Picking up luggage yesterday at RTIA shows you a great example…check out the HD videos…RSCVA is pushing the things to do (with too much talking head, not enough action) while Sparks’ message to tourists is Live Play Work…a stolen real estate come on. Ira’s point is dead on — we lag behind in the simple, yet highly effective tactic of making the “adventure” package as easy as possible for the tourist. In the mid 1990s, DRGM pitched an on-the ground concierge service that would provide adventure travelers a one-stop shop for fun — an experience that could have easily evolved into a web-based program…(DRGM lost the pitch…don’t tell me how good the idea is, but tell me how many votes you have)

    The RSCVA’s roots are from the promotion of one event — the Rodeo as the County Fair Board…perhaps a return to a more singular focus would do the agency, and us, good.

    I don’t think negative news coverage is an issue here. How many travelers determine destination based on local political coverage and such? (Flu pandemics/suicide bombings the exception)

    The Reno brand effort has to come from the tourism/marketing/hospitality community (which I’m a part of ) and must consist not just of the sizzle, but also the steak — delivering on the promised experience. I will admit we have consistently come up short.

    I will ponder some solutions as this blog evolves…

  9. johnlyle Says:

    The key to any revised place brand is without doubt the process of getting there. When we have done these jobs before, the act of getting ALL of the interested parties – from police forces to councils – around the table and discussing (and hopefully agreeing) what is best about the place and what will drive in visitors.

    We have a great case study here on the branding for Nottingham that you may like to read over.

  10. Tee Says:

    Paul’s comment is spot-on. Producing a solid brand means having a solid audience that’s in a position to absorb and carry it out (image begets image, and what a brand draws to itself becomes part of it). That aside, Reno/Tahoe’s brand, while exciting (who doesn’t like to ski in the morning, golf in the afternoon and ogle showgirls at night?), has always tried to do too many things and ends up as buckshot in the wind.

    Despite that it flies in the face of traditional branding principles, I’d love to see Reno tone down its national catch-all initiatives and get bold and experimental with well-targeted mini-brands.

  11. Kevin Knutson Says:


    An outsiders take on Reno:

    Interesting juxtaposition of ideas we’d rather steer away from with those we want to embrace.


    • Larry DeVincenzi Says:

      Interesting article Kevin. To me, this represents the need to establish (or refresh) our brand positioning publicly – so that we can help those understand our community is not entirely gaming centric. Add to that the popularity of “Reno 911” positioning, and we have an opportunity to take what people believe, and migrate it to what we want them to think about.

      If only we can get the stakeholders to understand it’s a process, and not an act (ie “new campaign”) that will be the long-term success for our community.

  12. Bill Kern Says:

    Have you set up a meeting in Reno for this weekend!

    Bill Kern

  13. Reno’s Flailing Brand « smartbrandblog Says:

    […] regionally, but also a failing infrastructure that has continually sought out-of-market expertise in ongoing attempts to reposition our City’s image via new slogans (“America’s Adventure Place”, “A Little West of Center”, “Far […]

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