On Saturday, the office of Mayor Lori Lightfoot released details of Chicago’s new branding campaign. Ready for the new slogan, the pithy phrase tasked with attracting new businesses, fresh residents and maybe some tourists to our great city on the lake?
“Chicago Not in Chicago.”
Not exactly, “I Love New York” or “Cleveland Rocks!” or “Keep Austin Weird” or even Las Vegas’ “What Happens Here, Stays Here” is it? Do you feel your civic pride being bolstered?
We don’t claim to be branding experts on this page (this slogan is the pro bono work of Energy BBDO). But we’ll venture the opinion that, all else being equal, the inclusion of a negative word like “not” in a four-word promotional slogan does not exactly make your work pulse with positivity. That slogan is enough to make you cancel your plans to come here all on its own.
Why does Chicago have such trouble with self-marketing? “Second to None,” a previous effort, seemed to wear this city’s insecurity vis a vis New York right on its sleeve. “Make No Little Plans” might have been a sly reference to Daniel Burnham, but it also suggested to the reader that any move or trip to Chicago was maybe just a “little” trip and the big bucks should be saved for somewhere more exciting.
But compared with “Chicago Not in Chicago,” those prior endeavors are marketing poetry incarnate.
The idea, according to the mayor’s office, is that people need to know Chicago’s influence on the rest of the world: No Ferris wheel in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., without the Chicago-based invention. No iconic San Francisco skyscrapers without the development of such technologies you-know-where. No coffee for thirsty Gothamites without Chicago first having invented the coffeemaker.
Those achievements are certainly worthy of some civic pride, although none of them are surprising given that this huge town was built by inventive industrialists and quickly became the hub of retailing innovation. But why knowing that makes you more likely to visit here, or move here to live, or bring your business here, remains a mystery to us.
And it gets worse.
The campaign is accompanied by a series of videos, the first of which features a tour by double-decker bus of New York City. The first image you see is the Statue of Liberty.
The idea is that you see all of the stuff in New York that actually was invented in Chicago and then you think maybe you’d like to come work or live here. This is intended to be a locally focused campaign, so perhaps there is some merit in positioning this city in terms of places others call home.
But let this sink in: Chicago has come up with a promotional video that involves a trip around that city out east. It’s like the University of Michigan offering a tour of Ohio Stadium to prospective students. The video could say whatever it wanted about Ann Arbor, but the viewers still would be staring at the home of the Buckeyes. Think that would fly in the town of the Big House?
Coming soon: a video tour of London. And no, that is not our joke. That really is the next video in what is intended to be a global campaign of “national advertisements in newspapers and magazines.” Berlin, Sao Paulo and Mexico City are coming soon. All are part of the latest “activation” under the city’s marketing “master brand” of “Chicago. City of Stories,” which is not a great slogan either but one heck of a lot better than “Chicago Not in Chicago.”
You might think city marketing campaigns are trivial matters. You would be wrong. Downtown is suffering from empty headquarters buildings. Some neighborhoods are losing population. International tourism has fallen off a cliff due to COVID-19. Domestic tourism has been drastically reduced. Major conventions, which are vital to the retail, restaurant and live entertainment industries, have vanished like a Zoom participant with lousy Wi-Fi. All those things crucial to the economic well-being of Chicagoans have to be reigned in a hyper-competitive environment.
Make no mistake: pent-up demand for in-person meetings, fresh work environments and leisure travel will be a real thing, post-omicron, and cities around the globe will be fighting for their share of the market.
Worse yet, Chicago gets bashed day in and day out with media coverage of our terrible problem with violent crime, now well known to be infected areas where tourists like to spend time. When corporations consider moving here, they weigh the impact of all that on the talented employees they need to be able to attract and retain.
You can’t blame city marketers or World Business Chicago for those issues, of course, and this relentless negative coverage is unfair to this city in many ways, since many of these depressing trends are also true of peer cities across the nation. Much of it is politically motivated, dating back to right-wing attacks on Rahm Emanuel, a longtime Democratic Party attack dog. But good marketers are paid to overcome these objections, to recast the perception, to change the focus and make the best argument possible. And Chicago has a fantastic case to make.
Two decades ago, Chicago attracted new businesses, residents and tourists with its beauty: our flowers, our festivals, our parks, our blue water and, of course, our spectacular cultural scene with celebrity chefs, world-class museums, soaring theater companies . We told of how jazz and blues oozed from the city’s pores. We showed it to them and they ate it up.
Now we’re reduced to “Chicago Not in Chicago.” Or, to put that more precisely, this negative represents how we have reduced ourselves.
This campaign is a general branding effort, but it’s still worth noting that the tourism agency Choose Chicago remains without a permanent leader. If ever there was a moment when that needs to change, it’s right now. Mayor Lightfoot should make that a top priority, just as she should be trying to attract new business and talented folks of all stripes.
Right after she sinks this slogan to the bottom of Lake Michigan.
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