By Cliff Peale
The Cincinnati Enquirer
"New York. New Orleans. New Cincinnati." It's the tagline to the latest ads promoting Greater Cincinnati to tourists and conventions around the country. They hope new attractions, including the Contemporary Arts Center and Great American Ball Park, will attract more visitors to the region.
The Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau is spending about $145,000 this year on the new campaign, mainly in convention trade publications and nearby cities.
But those marketing the region say that amount isn't nearly enough. They need millions to pay for a national image campaign and brand the Tristate in the minds not only of tourists, but of convention organizers and businesses looking for new homes.
New museums, riverfront festivals and sports stadiums make this the perfect time to launch a multi-year campaign, they say. But a lack of money has kept it from happening.
"The time is right to call for a national branding campaign for Cincinnati," bureau president Lisa Haller said. "To invest $2 billion in bricks and mortar, and invest nothing on the marketing side, can be a disaster. The two have to go hand-in-hand."
That kind of campaign would not only spread the word about what's new in Cincinnati, it would provide a "reservoir of goodwill" that the city could tap when bad news like the riots of 2001 surfaces, local marketing pros said.
"Then when negative things happen, you have this believe that this is a good, wonderful place, where something's gone wrong that will get fixed," said Dale Brown, retired president of the ad agency Sive/Young & Rubicam, who worked to develop such a regional image campaign here in 1997, using the tagline, "Get in on the Secret."
"But we have no base of residual goodwill here. ... An image campaign is an expensive proposition, and it does have to be sustained."
The problem is nothing new. At least twice in the last decade, civic leaders have commissioned a local ad agency to write an image campaign for the entire region.
But neither of those campaigns gained broad financial backing and both withered from lack of support. Meanwhile, the city's reputation has suffered from poor race relations and a highly publicized boycott, producing negative headlines around the country and leading some to brand Cincinnati as a backward, intolerant place.
The lack of funds has left those trying to sell Cincinnati attractions to the outside world to rely on creative programs that don't use up a lot of money.
For example, the bureau has used its public relations program to place stories in national trade publications. It also is promoting a "Cincinnati Goes Extreme" weekend in late May featuring events such as Taste of Cincinnati, the CAC opening, the Mobile Skatepark event and a home Reds series.
Haller spent part of last week in Washington, D.C., using a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concert at the Kennedy Center to entertain potential clients.
Last Friday, a group of two dozen representatives of local attractions and events met downtown to devise ways to combine their marketing resources.
"Considering how tight dollars are right now, everybody's trying to pool their resources," said Kathy DeLaura, project director of the Festival of the New, planned for this summer to capitalize on the new arts openings.
What is our image?
Marketing experts said any comprehensive campaign would promote more than specific attractions. It would establish a "brand" for the area - much like Procter & Gamble Co. brands its Tide detergent.
In the absence of such a campaign, news like the 2001 riots, the boycott or the controversial remarks of former Reds owner Marge Schott can be the dominant image of Cincinnati.
The bureau's theme for its 2003 marketing is the new developments in Cincinnati, a theme that will continue into 2004, Haller said.
Neil Hensley, senior director of economic development at the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and the region's chief voice in recruiting overseas companies, said the international view of this region is fractured.
"In Japan, oftentimes they'll associate it with the Reds," he said. "Sometimes they'll associate it with Cincinnati Milacron, because of the machine tools. Sometimes you'll even have a funny reference to the Cincinnati Kid, the movie."
"But many times, corporations don't really even know where Cincinnati is."
Hensley said not one company has asked him about the 2001 riots in more than a year. And a public-relations campaign overseas has helped convince three German companies to start operations in the Tristate this year, he said.
"It would be nice if we had millions of dollars to spend, because we're finding that the more we do and the more we get our name out there, the more interest there is," he said.
Otis White, who runs an Atlanta-based firm, Civic Strategies, that helps metropolitan areas plan their futures, said Cincinnati isn't known for a proactive image.
"I don't have any bad impressions of it, but I don't hear people talk about it a lot," said White. "And that may be the problem."
Exactly, said Mark Serrianne, chairman of the region's biggest ad agency, Northlich. His company helped develop a campaign in 2000 built around the slogan "Let the Spirit Move You," but it quickly died for lack of support.
"We need to vault the vitality of what happens here to the forefront," he said. "I guess every city faces that challenge, but we've got so much raw material here. ... But that requires a checkbook, and some people's jobs have to be at stake. That's when there will be progress."
'A young, hip place'
Until the last year or two, the main goal of most image marketing was to convince tourists, conventions and businesses to locate in a particular city. But the newest trend is going after workers, particularly younger workers in creative jobs like graphic arts or high-tech industries, consultant White said.
"This is the newest form of branding or marketing," he said. "Come live in our city, because we're a young, hip place."
Cincinnati has tried that before, with limited success. But even though the biggest assets remain two professional sports teams and venerable cultural institutions, there still is room for more warmth and vitality in the region's image, Serrianne said.
"People, and maybe even young people, need to be much more cornerstone participants," he said. "I think we need to help people know what's going on."
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