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Room for Dreams?

The long and winding road to Fort Wayne’s new brand

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


“Room for Dreams.”

That phrase — just three simple words — is what the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Fort Wayne/Allen County Economic Development Alliance, and a host of interested organizations and business is banking on to sell Fort Wayne to the rest of the world.

The slogan, its logo and a proposed marketing campaign were just rolled out the second week of January, and as you might expect, the criticism — both positive and negative — followed pretty quickly.

On the positive side, it’s a flexible, versatile slogan that neither overstates our case nor underplays a very real benefit of this area — a community that supports the entrepreneurial spirit and makes it easy and affordable to raise a family or build a business here. The preliminary marketing materials for the campaign not only address economic development, but focus on the area’s low cost of living.

Also, advertising campaigns can play with the phrase itself. The “room” in “Room for Dreams” can be a literal room (a room of one’s own in that big house you’ve always dreamed about, or a conference room where the next big project is hatched). Or it can be metaphorical, something that tells a business, “if you’ve got an idea, bring it here. We have the space and the resources to help it grow.”

There’s a lot of… well, room for interpretation. Many business leaders, like Sweetwater founder Chuck Surack (who is featured on one of the marketing posters) and Karan Ford of the Association of Realtors, pledged their support to the initiative during the roll out event on January 9 at the Grand Wayne Center. They’re just two among many who feel the “Room for Dreams” brand will prove an effective means of putting Fort Wayne on the map.

On the negative side, “Room for Dreams” and its attendant logo — an image of Indiana with a sort of starburst in the general Fort Wayne area, along with three “waves” underneath — is the end result of a complicated process that took over a year, cost over $70,000, and involved thousands of hours of interviews, surveys, and data collection. After all that, some feel “Room for Dreams” is anti-climactic, missing that “Eureka!” reaction one might have hoped for after such a long, involved gestation period.

Furthermore, the logo and the phrase aren’t exactly what North Star Destinations, the branding strategists out of Memphis, TN that conducted the research, brought to the table at the end of the whole process. The final polish came from a local marketing firm — LaBov. Critics wonder why the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, the Fort Wayne/Allen County Economic Development Alliance, and the various stakeholders who were charged with branding Fort Wayne and Allen County as a desirable destination for business and tourism, didn’t just start with a local marketing firm if that’s where they were going to wind up in the end anyway.

Dan O’Connell, Executive Director of the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, says that this isn’t the first time Fort Wayne has tried to “brand” itself. He’s been involved in no less than three major campaigns in search of a marketing strategy for Fort Wayne. So when he’s asked again why an out-of-state firm needed to be used for this project, why he couldn’t just go with an ad agency in town, or why he couldn’t have held, say, a local competition to come up with a tagline or slogan, he responds with all the enthusiasm you might expect. “We have sat down in the past — I’ve been here 15 years — and worked with the Bicentennial commission; one time the Chamber of Commerce did it; and the third time it was done during a Three Rivers Festival contest,” he says. “And every one of those times they had this room full of suggestions from people — slogan stuff, gimmicky things… it just didn’t work. It doesn’t work. I’ll show you a list of a hundred descriptions of Fort Wayne. We didn’t want to go down that road again.”

The appeal of North Star Destinations was that they specialize in working with communities at developing a brand strategy. The idea behind “community branding” is to essentially treat a community or region as any other product in a crowded marketplace. With so many cities or towns or counties competing for jobs and tourism, “community branding” would ideally help your area find those unique, positive qualities that distinguish it from all the others.

North Star Destinations is one of the most widely respected branding strategists in the field. They’ve created some impressive — and effective — brands for clients such as Augusta, GA, Lansing, MI. and more than two dozen other communities that no one but a life long resident could have picked out of a line-up. If they could turn Lansing into a sort of regional “creative class” hotspot by capitalizing on nearby Michigan State, think what they might be able to do for Fort Wayne.

They’ve also been able to come up with solutions that work for multiple organizations, whether it’s economic development or tourism. “That was of interest to us because people (in Fort Wayne) told us they wanted the community marketing agencies to work closer together,” says O’Connell.

But North Star Destinations isn’t an advertising firm, and they don’t do extreme make-overs for communities. What they primarily do is an unbelievable amount of research. For Fort Wayne, they went through a15-step research process that began in the later part of 2005, talking to thousands of people both inside Fort Wayne and in places like Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Cleveland about their impressions and perceptions of the area.

O’Connell says it was the research the Fort Wayne stakeholders were interested in, not whatever marketing campaign North Star could come up with, and that was always the plan. “We said to North Star, ‘bring us to a point with a strategy, a direction, a design directive, but you’re not going to be our agency of record; we’re not going to continue working with you;,” says O’Connell. “And they said ‘that what we always do. We’re not here to be your ad agency.’”

Besides, it was felt the concepts North Star came up with as sort of guideposts missed the mark. In fact, it went over, in the words of one stakeholder, like a lead balloon. “Their concept ads didn’t meet the approval of the majority of stakeholders around the table,” says Rob Young, President of the Fort Wayne/Allen County Economic Development Alliance. “Either it was a matter of the design was not clear enough… there were lots of different reasons why, but at the end of the day, the design didn’t fit the good research they had done.”

O’Connell is more specific. “They came back with a theme that had tandem role: ‘Room for Dreams, Room for Growth’; or ‘Room for Dreams, Room for Small Business/Your Family’ stuff like that,” he says. “Plus, the graphics were just too busy. They were trying to depict people in their youth before they grew up, and it just didn’t work. We preferred the adult version. Instead of showing (Vera Bradley founder) Pat Miller as a young girl playing with fabric, we preferred conveying to the national audience that we have this company that’s become a national leader in women’s accessories. So we tightened it up.”

But the research North Star had done proved very valuable, and eye-opening to some of the people involved. “I’ve been looking for a single iconic image (for Fort Wayne) but haven’t found it,” says Rob Young. “North Star went a long way to say, based on their professional experience, it’s okay not to have a singular iconic image for your community. What is important is what is unique to your community, what are the true assets (of your community) that are not common across the country? What do you have to put in the store window?”

Young adds that some of the findings of the research didn’t necessarily surprise him, but they did confirm a few things. “What was impressed upon me more than anything else was how deep the family roots run, how easy it is to get acclimated here and become part of the community,” he says. “Lots of communities across the country want to and do say the same thing, but I honestly have never seen it to the level that the research confirmed for us.”

The other thing that came through loud and clear, Young says, was the pride that Fort Wayne takes in the entrepreneurial spirit that exists here, and the resources we continue to compile to help that activity along.

O’Connell says that for his part, the research delivered a few findings that were a pleasant surprise to him. The research included an interview with the president of a company outside Fort Wayne. “One of the things he reported back to us was: ‘tell Fort Wayne to relax. They’ve got a lot of good things going for them. It’s a great destination.’”

“Fort Wayne, to a degree, suffers from a little bit of an inferiority complex,” O’Connell continues. “We don’t think we’re good enough. We are good enough. We’ve learned we’re really good and competitive in the marketplace both for tourism and economic development, and then the quality of life we have to offer here. So, quit thrashing ourselves, get going.”

Overall, the brand strategy seems to place a bit more emphasis on attracting businesses to the area than, say, tourism. Two of the five concept images unveiled during the rollout event featured Fort Wayne/Allen County entrepreneurial success stories — Sweetwater and Vera Bradley — while another focused on Fort Wayne’s suitability as a convention site for business. But both Young and O’Connell say the appeal of the brand is its flexibility. “There’s a very strong economic development tone to it, no doubt about it,” O’Connell says. “But there are many venues where this could be tweaked for our tourism messages as well.”

“Remember what our initial assignment was. We were asked to work more together. We were asked to find a brand that was true to Fort Wayne. And that’s what we’ve realized, that at many times in our past, dreamers, independent thinkers have realized their goal. That’s what Fort Wayne is about. The tourism side will play in to that as people see less of a need to see us as a permanent destination and more as a visitor destination.”

The next step is to sell the concept to all the organizations and businesses in the area who might be able to use the brand for their own purposes. Young says they will be working on this pretty heavily for the first half of 2007, and expects things to really hit their stride next year. He stresses that what they initially offered at the January 9 rollout are concepts, and thinks they’ll probably be tweaked or polished a little in the next year or so. But he’s confident that the brand and the message are the right thing for Fort Wayne and Allen County. “What has been gratifying is the involvement and commitment of folks like Karan (Ford of the Realator’s Association) and Chuck (Surack of Sweetwater, Inc),” Young says. “That’s a powerful statement. There are significant folks who are stepping up and adopting this thing.”

O’Connell echoes his enthusiasm and confidence. “It isn’t slick, it isn’t sexy, it isn’t like… ‘oh, look, that’s funny.’” He says about “Room for Dreams.” “What we’ve found out is that those things are cute slogans that wear thin pretty quickly. We wanted a strategy that would help brand our community over the long haul, that has the versatility that many organizations are looking for. We believe we’re on the right track. What we’re conveying to the local citizens is, you’ve asked us to work together, you’ve asked us to find what’s special about Fort Wayne, and that’s what this brand will do.”

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