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Image Makeover

By Jonathan Friedman
Lookout Staff

November 30, 2009 -- New York City in the 1970s was a dark, crime-ridden place with an economy in the toilet -- a far different destination than the vibrant, envied capital of the world that it is today.

How did New York City make that comeback? By creating a New York City brand that could appeal both to residents and tourists, changing the perception of the public to think of it as a place where people would want to be. The makeover was embodied in the famous slogan "I love NY."

“New York City is the master of that in terms of constantly reinventing itself," says Kevin Kelley, a principal of Shook Kelley, a branding firm recently hired by the Bayside District to give the Downtown an image makeover.

"It just seems to find a way to constantly say, ‘We’re going to raise ourselves up, and take on new ideas.'”

Shook Kelley is facing a far different challenge in Santa Monica than it did in New York City because the Promenade is hardly a disaster. One of the most famous outdoor venues in the world, it attracts an estimated 12 million visitors a year and $420 million in sales.

But even a successful place needs a periodic checkup to make sure it remains vibrant, especially in the face of growing competition, Kelley says.

“Whether we realize it or not, places compete with each other all the time for our attention,” Kelley says. “They compete as places to live, places to play, places to invest, places to avoid. Every place, just like every human, has an identity and an image, a reputation and a soul.”

Shook Kelley has been poring over demographic data and user surveys, conducting street interviews and meeting with Downtown stakeholders.

When the branding process ends, at least the initial phase (the process, Kelley says, is always changing), it will establish an image and vision for the Downtown to make it an even stronger destination.

Liverpool, Edinburgh and Paris are considered successfully branded cities, and Sydney took advantage of the 2000 Olympics to develop a profile for the whole city, according to marketing experts.

The keys to successful branding, experts say, is to start by working on reality, not image -- cleaning the streets, for instance, or getting the residents to feel proud to be brand ambassadors.


"When citizens are proud, visitors are encouraged to find out what the fuss is all about and then tell the world," Jonathan Gabay, founder, Brand Forensics, told the Guardian last year.

The key is to take a feature of the city and make it tangible, whether to a tourist seeking a vacation spot, a company looking to relocate or a student searching for a place to go to school, experts say.

The Promenade branding comes only a few years after the Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau embarked on a “destination branding” to discover how the beachside city is perceived as a destination, and how it could be improved to become even more attractive to potential visitors.

Through extensive research, focus groups and interviews, the bureau came up with the BrandPromise -- “Santa Monica … the best way to discover L.A.; an unforgettable beach city experience filled with eye-catching people, cutting-edge culture and bold innovations. It is the essence of the California lifestyle.”

Kim Baker, the Bureau’s director of marketing says the BrandPromise is not supposed to be a marketing tagline, but rather “what the entire community needs to embrace and deliver on.”

Two programs came out of that branding effort. One is “I am Santa Monica,” which involves city employees, officials and other stakeholders taking a three-hour training workshop and one-hour bus tour of the city so they can learn about everything Santa Monica has to offer. More than 1,500 people have taken part in the program since it was launched last year.

“We are giving them all the tools and information to deliver the experience to the visitor,” Baker says.

The other program is the Beach Summit, an annual event that brings together city and community leaders in a forum that works as a brainstorming session on how to improve Santa Monica’s greatest asset, the beach.

“It is an opportunity to discuss how the beach experience can be improved on different levels,” Baker says. “How can we make sure we’re getting everything out of it that we can.”

Much of the information and ideas that came out of the Bureau’s branding process will be helpful as the Promenade implements its image makeover. And what comes out of the Promenade’s branding can be used for the update of the Bureau’s branding, since both work toward the same goal -- to improve on the Santa Monica brand.

The keys to successful branding is working on reality and getting the residents to feel proud to be brand ambassadors.

...take a feature of the city and make it tangible,

“Whether we realize it or not, places compete with each other all the time for our attention,” Kevin Kelley

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