For loyal followers of this blog, you are undoubtedly aware of my ongoing rants about the fact that our region has suffered from a lack of a credible brand position for over a decade. While our team has had the opportunity to execute several campaigns for our region in the past, none seemed as exciting or engaging as what had been abandoned. (Who could forget the insipid “Reno Reno, Twice As Friendly”?) Clearly, the city’s claim of “The Biggest Little City In The World” still rings out at the most recognizable brand statement we’ve had, as it was adopted in 1929.
Seven years ago, the Reno Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority placed its bet on a positioning that I personally could never embrace – “America’s Adventure Place”. At the time, the agency was under entirely different management, and to those who actively adopted the positioning, it may have seemed natural to turn our attention away from the region’s underlying perception to promote the natural beauty and varying types of activities that can be found here.
While we might have wanted to be seen as “America’s Adventure Place” – the claim was not only aspirational, but without partnered funding and a coordinated infrastructure to support it – unattainable. True, we have many forms of adventure here regionally. From outdoor recreation to indoor entertainment (and I sense your referencing brothels here), the brand positioning was something we all hoped might change the perception of Reno as a “second rate gambling town” to something a little more honorable and positive.
But as any marketing or advertising professional worth their fees will tell you – you can’t change the perception of a brand with a creative position that isn’t factual. The public at large, who may have been initially intrigued by the campaign, clearly did not adopt it. Lake Tahoe (which the RSCVA partially serves) may be thought of in that adventurous light – but certainly not Reno-Sparks. As much as Lake Tahoe carries a positive image associated with its incredible beauty, it will always be a 45 minute drive from Reno-Sparks. Tourists from northern California, our main drive-in market, understood this fact. They’d been to Tahoe without ever visiting Reno-Sparks, and vice versa. They are, for all intensive purposes, completely different destinations.
Lake Tahoe maintains its own destination brand, which has been perceived as an entirely separate than our valley. We were, for lack of a better term, “adopting” brand equity from our region without communicating the real values we all know exist here in other forms. “Reno-Tahoe” works for our airport because it serves that region. But as the core of a campaign to promote tourism, it was obvious we were borrowing on Tahoe’s positive brand association by associating it (and it’s unique benefits) to our city’s image.
And so…for the past 11 years, our tourism economy has been on a steadily downward spiral; with little hope that we could ever achieve the kind of brand recognition Las Vegas has iconically adopted (“What Happens Here, Stays Here”). In the recent economic downturn, this was a problem none of us could afford as a residents or businesses to continue promoting.
When the RSCVA began to investigate this positioning – a collective sigh of relief (for many of us) was replaced with a gasp and (almost literally) holding of our breath. We knew instinctively that getting it wrong again could well be the death knell to our rapidly failing casino/gaming based economy. SmartBrand’s team discussed and debated this frequently, before and after the process began; and did our best to stay hopeful they would uncover a suitable solution. With the proliferation of Indian gaming across the nation – we were no longer unique in our offering, and certainly not as convenient for those who enjoyed betting against the house.
We knew we were…to put it politely…uniquely odd. We also knew that the general public had a perception of our region that wasn’t in-line with reality. We were not, as many might think, the ugly sister to Las Vegas (a mere 480 miles away). Nor were we so aligned with our own internal operations that we could claim to be “America’s Adventure Place”. In a word – Reno is “quirky”.
With new RSCVA management came increasing expectations for greater results – yet they were saddled with a brand position that couldn’t be sold with confidence. And so they embarked nearly a year ago to simply conduct an assessment of that positioning, which we all hoped might result in today’s announcement – the adoption of a campaign that was believable, and hopefully – unique enough to reflect our existing traits and assets.
Our sister city, Sparks Nevada, recently undertook a similar campaign repositioning… but with disasterous results. Would The RSCVA fall victim to the same rehashed, unbelievable recommendations from the “big city agency”? Would Reno find a path to the truths behind our region that could be marketable? I personally didn’t have a great deal of hope – and I’m glad to report…I was wrong.
Although we were not invited to participate in the proposal process, the RSCVA wisely chose a very capable team in Mortar – a San Francisco based brand firm. Finally – an agency that honestly understands the process of developing brands without preconditions and ego-centric recommendations. With Mortar’s guidance, the RSCVA embarked on an aggressive effort to discover current perception in the target drive-in marketplace, then address those current perceptions with a strategy to leverage current thinking to a new reality – one based in fact and not catchy creativity.
While more than $111,000 was invested into the marketing study, the results of their research and creative has resulted in today’s annnounced and adopted positioning… “A Little West Of Center”. The development of this position is just the tip of the budget iceberg, as the campaign is projected to cost between $4 and $5 million when it is launched early next year. This is a substantial investment by all the stakeholders in our region, and is certainly one we cannot afford to squander without both public and private support.
Results will not be immediately apparent. Add that to what could be an expected public outcry that our city’s brand may not be entirely “pretty”, and the road ahead will be a tough one to navigate. Residents will not easily adopt this change, nor will they understand that the campaign need not be the usual lovely golf course and ski resort images of days past. There may be a great debate ahead about the appropriateness of the imagery and creative direction. Eventually, I hope they come to see this new effort as a reflection of our region’s true benefits, and not a personal statement about their singular lifestyle here.
And so, here is our chance to promote our region in a believable way. And that, for me, is long overdue.
What do you think about this new campaign for our region? Before you answer, try to think like the target drive-in market of northern California – not a resident. Do you think this will work to benefit our region?