Cities turn to sloganeering

Eager to change their images, cities from Las Vegas to Dallas are trying new monikers.

Not many - outside Texas - confuse the Big Apple with Dallas, the Big D. But a new marketing campaign is designed to put a little more glitz and a lot more attitude into Cowtown USA.

Hoping to shed its boot-strapped image, Dallas has come up with a new city slogan: "Live Large, Think Big." The idea is to play up its entrepreneurial opportunities and maverick attitude - and it's not alone in seeking a new image. Recently, cities and states such as Columbia, S.C. ("Where friendliness flows"), Pennsylvania ("State of Independence"), and San Francisco ("Only in San Francisco") have come up with new slogans. Others, such as Denver, Kentucky, and Palm Springs, Calif., are still shopping around.

But do slogans really work? Do they draw visitors and business with a few snappy words? Not really, say experts. If people think of Dallas as the home of philandering J.R. Ewing and his brassy relatives, then no slogan will change their mind.

"It's a feel-good exercise that actually does little good," says Nick Wreden, author of "FusionBranding: How To Forge Your Brand For The Future."

Part of the problem, say experts, is that slogans try accomplish too much in too few words - drawing businesses, promoting civic pride, and encouraging tourism. "That's a lot for three or four words," says Mr. Wreden.

But get used to it. Remaking city slogans and logos is a growing trend as governments see themselves as businesses, and promote themselves as such. Also, after 9/11, tourism slowed - causing many cities to renew efforts to draw visitors. Florida, for example, promoted its cultural destinations, with the tag line "Culturally Florida," in addition to its beaches and theme-park advertising.

A recent survey found that half of all US visitors to the state said they'd visited cultural attractions or historical site in the past year - a 5 percent rise from the year before - indicating to tourism officials that the promotion works. Their latest campaign is "Downtowns and Small Towns." But who thinks of Florida as a cultural hotspot or quaint small-town destination? "You are who the customer says you are," says Vanessa Welter of the state tourism bureau.

Las Vegas is a perfect example. For much of the past decade, "Sin City" tried for a family friendly image. Casinos spent millions on rides, shows, and attractions for the younger sect - to no avail.

But with "What happens here, stays here," tourism took off. A USA Today survey named the campaign the most effective of 2003, and Advertising Age called it a "cultural phenomenon." "It shows that, for a slogan to work, it really has to reflect people's perception of the area," says Carl Winston, director of hospitality and tourism management at San Diego State University. "We are seeing a lot of cities using slogans to try to recraft their image, but that's very difficult. St. Louis has a beautiful downtown? Las Vegas is for families? You have to scratch your head."

So if Florida is known for Mickey Mouse and sandy beaches, and Dallas for big hair, stick with that, he says.

Another problem, say experts, is that cities change slogans too often. They point to two big, longtime successes: New York's "The Big Apple" and "Virginia is for Lovers." Some hard-to-define cities, like Houston and Denver, slogan-shop every few years. Houston, for one, has tried "The Bayou City," "Houston's Hot," "The Real Texas," and "SpaceCity." Denver has tried "Gateway to the Rockies," "Center for the New West," "Above the Rest," and its current "Mile High City" slogan, which is being changed.

"But cities shouldn't think this is going to be a magic pill," Wreden says. And "they should make sure they have the infrastructure to support the claim they are making. You can't sell a pig in a poke."

Some cities just outgrow their slogans. Atlantic City, for instance, can no longer be "America's Favorite Playground." As in Las Vegas, officials recently changed the slogan - it's now "Always turned on" - to reflect a more adult atmosphere. It's gotten mixed reviews.

But such slogans paint a one-sided image, says Michael Wixom, chair of Las Vegas's Main Street Billboard Committee, which fights sexually graphic promotions, including the new slogan. "It is detrimental to efforts to diversify the city's economy," he says. "I hear of people who don't want to do business here ... and it's completely unwarranted. We are deeper than that."

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