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Branding Fort Wayne

How a Nashville-based consulting firm is trying to determine Fort Wayne’s personality, and why “a great place to live, work, and play” no longer cuts it in the modern marketplace

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


300 – 400 people in Allen County received something in mail during the first week of January that probably provoked discussion and quite a few laughs.

Under the title “The Destination Brand Initiative Strategy Vision Survey,” recipients were asked questions about Fort Wayne such as…

When you first think of Fort Wayne, what three adjectives come to mind?
What is Fort Wayne’s greatest asset?
If you could add something to Fort Wayne, what would you add?

So far, so good. Thought-provoking, challenging… But then, roughly about halfway through, it gets really interesting:

If Fort Wayne was a person, who would this person be?
What kind of clothes does this person wear? Why?
What issues are facing this person? Why?

By the time the survey gets to the last page, with the question "If Fort Wayne were a famous person, who would it be? Why?" the temptation to treat the survey like the final exam for Sarcasm 101 might prove overwhelming for the cynics among us. They’ll be red in the face and spluttering at this point, knocking over coffee cups and pen holders in their eagerness to find the perfect character-type, celebrity, car or clothing style that captures the city of Fort Wayne in its perpetual state of “almost-there-ness.”

But when it got right down to their final responses, the majority of people who took the survey gave serious answers. Not that people didn’t have some fun. A few responses garnered from people who talked on condition of anonymity had Fort Wayne represented best as a white lawyer or banker in his early 50s on his second wife and first lake house; or alternately as a blue-collar white male wondering what happened to those high-wage manufacturing jobs.

For celebrities, we had Shelly Long (“she’s a native,” says the respondent. “Also, she’s someone who showed a lot of promise but just fizzled out after making a few bad career moves”); Fred MacMurray (presumably in his My Three Sons persona rather than Double Indemnity); and, believe it or not, Elvis Presley (“the weight, the bad fashion sense, the fact that he did his best work in the 50s and now he’s dead…”).

Yet having at least a little fun with a few of the questions was part of the point. “A dozen or so people have called me and said ‘you know, this is really interesting,’” says Dan O’Connell, President of the Fort Wayne/Allen County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “Like marketing and creative work does, it makes you think of something from a different perspective.”

Thinking about Fort Wayne from a different perspective is something the Fort Wayne Convention and Visitors Bureau — along with other local business organizations including the Fort Wayne/Allen County Economic Development Alliance — has been doing for several months now as part of a massive Destination Brand Development Initiative for Fort Wayne. The Vision Survey (and an internet-based version which will soon be available to any Fort Wayne or Allen County citizen with web access) is just one small part of this enormous effort.

Essentially, the goal of this project is to brand Fort Wayne as a desirable destination for business and tourism, and the CVB and their partners have brought in some heavy guns to help them do this — North Star Destination Strategies, a firm based in Nashville that focuses solely on branding small and mid-sized cities and communities.

And before you can say, “oh great! Another study!” it might be helpful to hear what North Star isn’t. It is not a marketing or advertising agency. They go through an extensive, 15-step research and data collection process. They talk to people in Fort Wayne but more importantly, they talk to people outside Fort Wayne, the kind of businesses and tourism the city is hoping to attract. In the end, they help develop a strategy, and turn it over to the community, which uses its own resources to implement the findings.

“Destination branding” is basically communities taking a page from the private sector, and positioning themselves as any other commodity trying to gain a consumer’s attention in a crowded marketplace. The consumer — in this case, businesses and tourists — is bombarded with thousands of messages daily. They’re not anxiously awaiting the next message from Fort Wayne. Communities need to say something that is going to get their attention, make them think differently, and inquire further. “Like other products, we as communities are competing in the marketplace,” O’Connell explains. “People have choices of where they want to spend their leisure time; people have choices of where they’re going to put their businesses; students have choices of where they want to live for four or five years. We need to convey to them what makes Fort Wayne special in a very noisy marketplace.”

In other words, “a great place to live, work, and play” just doesn’t cut it in the modern marketplace.

So, how can North Star Destination Strategies distinguish Fort Wayne, a city that is so darn average there’s almost something triumphant about it? Have they ever worked with a city like ours? “That is the question we get a lot in the interview process,” says Don McEachern, North Star’s CEO and an award-winning marketing expert who co-founded North Star with David Bohan in 2000. “There are obviously similarities (between similarly-sized communities), but the reply is ‘we’ve never worked with anyone that’s exactly like your city.’ That’s what makes this interesting for us, that every community really is different. That’s what gives us the ground to fashion a brand that going to be distinctive and interesting.”

While this is a reassuring reply from a consulting firm that’s getting $70,000 for its services (more on that later), North Star’s track record of success is very impressive. They’ve worked with around 30 communities, with a client list including Plano, Texas; Augusta, Georgia… and Lansing, Michigan, a community which, according to North Star, suffered from low self-esteem and a tepid economy due to a loss of manufacturing jobs (sound familiar?). North Star Destination Strategies helped the community promote an already existent “creative class” culture flourishing around Michigan State.

“A lot of people simply see your brand as your logo or your tagline,” McEachern says. “That’s not the way we approach it. Our definition of a brand is what people say about you when you’re not around.” According to North Star, a community’s brand should be more integrated than a slogan or marketing phrase. It should project an image of the community that sets your city apart from other similarly-sized communities (your competition), and can be enthusiastically (or at least comfortably) embraced by the organizations, business and services that make up your city’s marketing wing.

In looking at the case studies on North Star’s website, what is interesting is that in many cases, the company seems to have helped some communities tap into an already existing resource or a quality that the community wasn’t aware of. The client did not have to embark on a huge facelift or image-switch; they just had to focus on what was already there. This isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s nowhere near as costly or risky as a complete reinvention. Success for this type of endeavor is hard to measure in the short term, but several of the communities report a significant jump in RevPAR — that’s “revenue per available room” in the hotel industry, and a standard indicator of how many people are coming through your city and how often.

O’Connell concedes that he encountered a little resistance to the idea of hiring an outside firm to come in and do the job, as well as the $70,000 price tag. “That was a bone of contention with some people, because it’s like, ‘well, can’t you put a dozen people in a room and do this yourself?’”

The answer to that is no. Not if you want to have something effective. Residents may remember several other attempts by Fort Wayne to market itself. While “Find It In Fort Wayne” still pops up occasionally, most of those ideas fizzled after a while. “If we’re trying to attract consumers, impress the business community out there about a destination to come to for business or permanently, we have to get their input,” O’Connell says. “That’s where ‘put everybody in a room and come up with a cute slogan’ falls short.”

“The challenge with branding communities is that there are so many people with an interest in the community,” adds Don McEachern of North Star. “But to have a good strategy you have to go in one direction, and going in one direction means you give up 359 other degrees of direction. It’s hard for people to do that, and that’s why so many cities wind up with ‘a great place to live, work, and play’, which can reach out to everybody, but it doesn’t really distinguish the city in the marketplace.”

The Convention and Visitor’s Bureau expects to roll out North Star’s findings in the fall of 2006. The next step is to somehow incorporate that data into a coherent marketing strategy, and a part of this strategy may indeed include “a cute slogan and a t-shirt.” But the focus and concentration that North Star’s branding initiative brings to the process might make all the difference in the effectiveness of the message. “If you’ve got a theme that develops around a particular angle, there are associations you can use to bring conventions in, there are some businesses that might be recruited related to it,” O’Connell says. “Everybody has to promote Fort Wayne to some degree. We work with the hospitals, the hotels, real estate agents, industrial parks… We’re hopeful this tool will be available not only for us agency types, but also for the general community to use in their assignment for promoting themselves and the city they’re in.”

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