Changing Reno’s Brand Perception

Those of you who read this blog from time to time know that I’m fanatical about Reno’s brand perception problems and challenges.  I’ve had more than my share of rants and conversations about the topic, and have tried to keep it light when it seemed that there literally was no hope of ever having Reno thought of again as “fun and contemporary“.

Our old gaming perception had come home to roost, our messaging really wasn’t connecting with our audience, and we were coupled with one of the worst economic recessions on record.  The Reno brand has been last to rebound economically for a number of reasons (which is an entirely different range of discussions).

Since December of 2010, I have been working closely on a project that I believed could help start a new conversation about what downtown Reno is now…and what it could be very quickly. Having worked with this same developer on the Montage, I knew his visions could quickly turn into reality .   Just by chance, the property in the developer’s eye was attached to the one iconic symbol of Reno that most people know well – The Reno Arch.  “Location, location, location” – I thought.  Here is ground zero for change.

And now, after several months of planning, I’m happy to announce a project that I believe will help to change Reno’s perception as a destination: CommRow.

Formerly the Fitzgerald Hotel Casino, CommRow will be an entirely different, and complimentary brand to gaming.  We’re positioning this new property as an “urban adventure resort”… featuring an impressive indoor rock climbing facility, and (wait for it….) – the world’s tallest climbing wall.  Quite a billing for Reno – and a new market to talk to our tourists both new and old.

Key to a development of this size and scope, parking and accessibility are issues that are paramount to long-term success.  And so the resolution of a long-standing problem with the garage once a part of the Fitzgerald became a cornerstone issue to finalize our path.  As of this week, that resolution has taken place, and CommRow is on its way to a truly monumental grand opening this year.

More important than tourism (can you imagine!?), is how CommRow will be perceived (and hopefully adopted) by our local community.  How we treat each guest will far outweigh the return on the millions of dollars going into renovations and additions.  How CommRow connects to our community will determine its short and long-term success.  I’m a little giddy over the opportunity to help create those connections and watch them grow.

There’s much work to do in a very short timeframe to open this facility on Labor Day of 2011 – and I have faith that it will be done.  Beyond the obvious marketing and advertising needs to launch a property of this size and type, making lasting relationships with vendors and community organizations is key to establishing CommRow as a truly passionate community brand.

Stay tuned for details via Facebook and Twitter as we roll-out products and details between now and the end of this summer!

And of course connect with CommRow on Facebook if you want to stay up to date on this project.

Living Montage: Reno’s Newest Urban Residents

Reno has more than its share of bad luck and press lately.  Consider the City’s unemployment rate, one of the highest in the nation, officially hovering at 13.6% with no dramatic trending upward in site.  Casino gaming revenue has taken a continuous nose dive during a losing streak of 11 years of continual decline in tourism.  Even our own local paper has proclaimed the possibility of  Reno being on track to becoming the “Detroit of the West”.

With all this negative news piling on our collective psyches on a daily basis, one has to wonder why anyone in their right mind would want to live here – let alone vacation or own a second home in the Reno-Tahoe region.

I’m here to tell you – there are more reasons than you can easily count, and the proof is in those who are taking residence in our downtown’s currently troubled economic core.

One of Reno’s newest, and brightest projects is without question The Montage.  In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that the project was a client of mine until its transfer back to the bank.  The vision of one man, Fernando Leal, built the Montage from a shell of an empty casino into Reno’s crown jewel of condominium developments.  Today it stands on the skyline, a proud reminder of the potential of Reno to become a gentrified urban center, and not just a “second-rate Vegas” tourism attraction.

Like all clients, I feel a vested interest in seeing them to long-term success – and the Montage is certainly on top of that list.  Built during the worst financial climate imaginable, the project barely had the opportunity to begin reaching into the market before its untimely return to funding sources.  And yet… that has not stopped new residents from securing their new home with a cash payment, and turning the building into a living, thriving community of new owners and neighbors.

Why, you might ask, would anyone want to take a risk in this economy to live in a building in downtown Reno?  Just ask the residents, and be prepared for an answer as long as you have time to listen.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, my business partner Mike Van Houten (author of Reno’s #1 Guide and I took an hour of time to visit with two of Montage’s earliest residents – Scott Opperman and Vinnie Papa.  Both of these professionals are from the northern California area, a mere 3 hour drive from the Montage.  Both literally begin to shine when you ask them about their experience in Reno at The Montage.

“It’s the vibe”, Opperman enthusiastically confirms.  “The first year was a little strange at first with only 32 of us in the building, but we quickly became family.  Now I think there are more than 70 in the building.  We walk everywhere – to shows, restaurants, anything you want.  People don’t realize how much is going on here.  There’s always something happening.  It’s quiet – but not too quiet.  We’re surrounded by neighbors, but only hear them when we meet outside on the balcony.”  Opperman also noted his enthusiasm to relocate to Reno.  “If I didn’t have a stable job that I love in California, and I could find a position here in Reno, I’d consider moving here permanently.”

“The people are friendlier”, notes Papa.  “Even if you go for a burger, people talk to you.  You don’t get that in a city like San Francisco.  The Riverwalk, The Palladio – there are a lot of people living here now.  You don’t need parking – we can walk anywhere we want within 10 minutes of the front door.”  Papa continued to talk about his appreciation of Reno’s ongoing events calendar.   “You have everything right downtown, which is why we chose this building as opposed to Vegas or other properties. New Years last year was phenomenal.   You felt like you could touch the fireworks – literally.  Throughout the summer, you can open your balcony door and hear the music from any of the events that take place downtown – it’s just great.”

Both Montage residents support the casinos downtown.  “Reno’s casinos are so much better than any of the Indian Gaming developments in California.  Once you’re done gambling, there’s nothing really left to do but get in your car and drive back home” notes Papa.  “The properties here are so much nicer, and there are so many more choices, if you like to gamble, there’s really no comparison.”

On that perfectly upbeat note, we ended the interview.  On cue, the sun beginning to peak out of the rain clouds.  Downtown Reno looked renewed from the 21st floor of The Montage, with a back drop of mountain ranges framing the view.  And what a view it is.  To really understand the level of sophisticated, functional design at The Montage, take a few moments to review photos of some of the interiors designed by the talented team at Aspen Leaf Interiors.

There are other stories in downtown Reno now, new stories to be told from new residents.  The future of the City is definitely undergoing radical change – and from my perspective, change for the better.

Why write about this development now in downtown Reno?  Because Reno is changing for the better – and it’s time to get the message out through the residents who know it best, and appreciate it the most.  We’re diversifying our economic base, and we’re building new communities of urban dwellers in the core of our downtown. Reno’s negative perception will change in time; with the reality of Reno’s ideal lifestyle, living options, and vibe remains a story yet to be fully appreciated.

Google Places Enables Additional Profile Links

In case you missed the news, Google now allows custom links to be added to a business’s profile in Google Places. Until this recent change, you could only have one link to a web address in the profile.

Here’s where the new custom link appears on the profile:


If you click on “More details” you’ll get a link that looks like this:


If you have a Google Places listing (and you should)…be sure to update your profile to take advantage of this expansion.  You should increase your online visibility with just a few easy clicks of the mouse!

SmartBrand Launches theEXCHANGE February 17th

It all began in 2009 with a series of unstructured conference calls for our eco-networking group, Project ecoBrand.

We’d host monthly chats with members of that community as a means to have them connect with one another, while learning more about their companies and developments. The telephone conference events were well received, and many made business connections that carried them far beyond the simple phone networking we conducted.

As our firm became increasingly busier, the opportunities to develop additional meetings became less frequent – and the telephonic networking events came to a slow halt over the course of the summer.  The idea, however, was still in our minds.

At the end of 2009, we went into our annual planning session for the new year, and the idea of hosting online networking sessions came again from our team at SmartBrand.  As we often do, the plans were germinated online in our collaborative management system Basecamp.  Each member stepped up to take on a portion of the task – Michael Clawson developing the logo designs to choose from, with Patty Clawson working with the strategy team to position the product and develop the name.

Each of us had a role in how we might best launch a new series – what the topics might be throughout the year, and working toward a common goal of providing our network with a new opportunity to help develop their businesses.

And so we launch theExchange on February 17th…a networking opportunity created by the diverse and talented team of working professionals at SmartBrand, who were interested in presenting a small group platform to share ideas and discuss the strategies that matter most.

This month, we’ll feature our Affiliate and Sales Coach Alice Heiman as she’ll present a short overview on “Networking Your Way To New Business”.  Alice normally charges a substantial fee for similar webinars, and so we are very lucky to have her presenting with our team to a new audience for free.

And so, in future months, you can expect theEXCHANGE to bring you:

• Featured monthly Guest Speakers

• Live Q & A

• Interesting Commentary

• Advise and Antidotes

• Valuable information on marketing, advertising, sales, social media and design strategies

• And of course, Networking

We hope you’ll join us, and provide us with some feedback so we can make these events truly beneficial for everyone who attends.  If you’d like more information, simply download the PDF from our website here.

Eco-Industrial Park Being Eyed for 4th Street – With Plasma Gasification

by SmartBrand Partner, Mike Van Houten author of

First, before I start, I’ll define what an eco-industrial park is. An eco-industrial park (EIP) is an industrial park in which businesses cooperate with each other and with the local community in an attempt to reduce waste and pollution, efficiently share resources (such as information, materials, water, energy, infrastructure, and natural resources), and help achieve sustainable development, with the intention of increasing economic gains and improving environmental quality. An EIP may also be planned, designed, and built in such a way that it makes it easier for businesses to co-operate, and that results in a more financially sound, environmentally friendly project for the developer.

So that brings us to east 4th Street. There is a Waste Management Transfer Station on Commercial Row just off East 4th Street. You have probably smelled it while biking on the bike path just east of the RGJ offices. The City of Reno, and Waste Management are exploring turning this area into what I described above. See the map below. Waste Management wants a 20-year contract with the city so they can make a capital investment in the project.

The process would involve building a reclamation facility, a possible plasma gasification plant, and a ‘forward processing’ of recycled materials.

I am most excited about the Plasma Gasification Facility. The first one opened in Ottawa in 2008. It’s an amazing technology that is practically non-existent in America right now. Basically the diagrams below explain it. You stick in waste, even toxic waste, and a high-temperature plasma chamber thing converts the garbage to electricity, ethanol, different metals, even distilled water. The electricity generated from this system would be fed into NV Energy’s grid. Because the temperature of the plasma arc is so hot, there no toxic materials produced in the combustion process. While there are more efficient means of producing energy from garbage, such as incinerators, it’s the fact that waste is completely neutralized without polluting the air that has so many eyebrows raised with this technology. Keep in mind, I am not a scientist-type and am explaining all this in the best terms I know, so I urge you to do more exploring on this technology.

And as a side benefit to all this, there’s a class of tourists called Eco-Tourists who would flock to Reno to see a waste reclamation system like this in action.

I don’t know all the details yet, like how much waste it could process or what percentage of Reno’s waste overall it could process, but according to mumbling in the RAAB meeting, it could result in a single stream recycling system, meaning we have one single bin for all our recyclables instead of the yellow and green ones. Waste Management is looking for a 20 year contract from the city so they can make a capital investment in the project.

There would be no kind of discharge into the river of any kind.

So the action plan is to amend the East 4th Street Transit Oriented Development Corridor to allow for this type of thing to be built. Then to transfer the ReTRAC properties involved to the RDA who could then sell the parcels to potential Ecoindustrial Park users (Materials Reclamation Facility and Plasma Gasification etc). Then work out a contract with Waste Management or Castaways who also seems to be a player in the project.


Sparks Nevada Bets On “It’s Happening Here”


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?


With SmartBrand’s thanks to:

Vance Fox Photography

Singingwood Creative (Jason Newmark)

Tanglewood Productions (Mike Eardley)

Dagmar Bohlman (copywriter)…and of course… Fernando Leal for making this spot possible.

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