Sparks Nevada Bets On “It’s Happening Here”

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For those of you who frequent this blog, you’ll recall a somewhat heated discussion about Reno’s “sister city” to the east, and its efforts to define it’s tourism message with a new brand platform.

With less “bang” and more “whisper”, The Sparks City Council adopted a campaign platform aimed at marketing their community based on their perceived unique value – special events.  When proposals were first announced in conjunction with Destination Development International’s (DDI) research and recommendations, the public outcry could be heard even here in Reno – several miles away.  Many could not believe that public funds (reportedly $114,000) were spent on such a campaign awarded to an out-of-state agency.  Some, like me, wondered how they would accomplish repositioning The Rail City as “Nevada’s Festival City”, expense aside.  I believe hiring an out-of-market agency is a smart move as they can provide perspective often difficult to find within the community itself.

Then came allegations that the concept was not entirely unique, while a debate ensued over why it would be necessary to rename several of the City’s landmarks and community centers, including the Sparks Marina and central Victorian Square.

Needless to say, the announced “Nevada’s Festival City” drew criticism from many community stakeholders, although the process itself included several key representatives to help participate (and guide) the new brand’s development.

This week, Sparks’ “Brand Leadership Team” (or “BLT” – which, I have to say, could use a new name itself), proposed and adopted part of the recommended campaign direction, the tag line – “It’s Happening Here”.

Currently, the City “famous” for its festivals and events hosts some 60 annual event days throughout the year – from the large Rib Cook Off to much smaller endeavors.  The goal, according to this new campaign, is to develop up to 200 event days by 2013.  Many have seen this an unattainable in today’s current economy, and certainly not within Sparks’ capacity as a City to achieve.  Many question the four to five year plan that is to provide the time and infrastructure development needed to achieve this events based goal.

I met very briefly with Sparks officials off record to review this initiative before it was presented to the Council for approval.  And in that short meeting, noted the same problem I’ve personally had with this approach since its very inception.  I simply don’t believe that brand positioning should be based on an aspiration – but rather a leveraging of the best assets to promote the unique values of the company or product – in this case, the City of Sparks.  Sparks, if you’ve ever been there, IS unique in so many ways, but yet they aspire to “build” their brand perception rather than leverage what they currently offer visitors.

In the presentation given to me, the Brand Leadership Team notes that “branding (is) what you want to be known for”, while “development (is) what you have to do to ‘own’ the brand”.  While I understand the intent of those statements, my concern is one of timing in this overall effort – and the urgency to create a believable brand message that can be readily adopted by stakeholders and the target audience.  Once again, I’m reminded by the presentation that “Brands are earned.  You NEVER ‘roll out’ a brand”.  Personally, I can’t agree with that, which was the basis of the controversy to begin with this past February during DDI’s initial release.  Once you begin announcing your brand position – even in an informal announcement to media – you’ve “rolled it out” for review.  It may not be the anticipated brand experience or perception, but you’ve let your audience know what you intend to be known for, and invite questions and comments to that projected brand platform.  You (including municipalities) ARE a brand – the key is to leverage your unique values to your advantage.  Quit trying to be percieved as something you’re not – or worse yet – may not be able to achieve before the “promise” rings untrue.

I believe Sparks officials understand (and accept) the limitations of the 26 recommendations produced by DDI.  The BLT used these recommendations and research as a “guidebook”, and “a starting point in creating a brand” for Sparks.  I question the validity of those recommendations if they did not result in a sound brand platform that could be readily adopted by City officials – and Sparks’ stakeholders; including business and residents.  After all, the research came from those key groups, so why were they so openly rejected when reported?  That may be “water under the bridge” at this point, and the work of positioning Sparks as a viable, enticing place to visit still remains.

While “It’s Happening Here” may seem (to some) like a lackluster attempt to position the community with any memorable value – it may also provide the ambiguous positioning needed if the campaign’s infrastructure to support it cannot be produced in time.  And time will tell.  Personally, I don’t think the campaign’s tag line invites interest or investigation – but that’s solely my opinion.

In the meantime, our regional tourism authority, the RSCVA works diligently on a similar branding effort – but with very different results to date.  I believe they’re on the right track in retaining the San Francisco agency, Mortar, to develop a unique brand platform and message that will resonate with our target tourism market, while providing the kind of creative energy and momentum to carry the campaign from its intended launch in early 2010 for many years to come.

Given the 11 year decline in tourism to our region, can Sparks afford to wait four or five years to achieve its brand promise?  And in the end, will Sparks be able to depend on 200 event days a year to provide businesses and residents with the kind of tourism dollars to reverse the past decade of trending?

What do you think about these latest developments for Sparks’ brand today…and tomorrow?

One Response to “Sparks Nevada Bets On “It’s Happening Here””

  1. Erik Flippo Says:

    From the RGJ’s story today:

    “The RSCVA has endorsed Sparks’ branding plan. Michael Thomas, RSCVA marketing director, is on the 16-person brand leadership team. He praised the plan, noting visitors don’t distinguish between city boundaries when the visit the Reno-Sparks area.

    ” ‘We think that the action being taken today, which the RSCVA fully supports, is just going to make us more competitive,’ Thomas said of the region.”

    Hmm. Is it not in the Authority’s best interests for Sparks to adopt a tepid strategy that won’t threaten the greater Reno-Tahoe marketing message the RSCVA has spent so much effort developing? I bet Thomas danced a happy little jig yesterday.


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