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Baltimore's latest tourism campaign rekindles the city's ongoing branding issues

Prnewsfoto/Visit Baltimore, Diane Bondareff/Ap Images
More than 250 people set a new world record for the largest human smiley face in the Inner Harbor May 13 to help launch visit Baltimore's "Find Your Happy Place" campaign.

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 6/9/2010

Visit Baltimore, the city's recently renamed tourist promotional organization, announced its latest campaign early Monday morning May 10. For the next eight months, Baltimore visitors would be encouraged to "Find Your Happy Place." It's intended to be a routine marketing campaign, much like last year's "Waterfront Invasion." That same day, a story about the campaign by The Baltimore Sun's Edward Gunts led by referencing two of the city's more enduring slogans, "Charm City" and "The City That Reads," before announcing Visit Baltimore's $500,000 marketing campaign to make Baltimore a "Happy Place"--a slogan that feels like a cross between a yoga center and a McDonald's.

The "Happy Place" backlash was immediate and intense. The Sun, the Maryland Daily Record, and local blogs criticized it. The Sun's columnists were particularly hard on the campaign. Peter Hermann used it as another opportunity to talk about Baltimore's long, and deserved, reputation for violent crime, while Laura Vozzella called up animal-rights advocates to discuss Visit Baltimore's plan--later dropped--to release dozens of butterflies after the city successfully beat the world record for the largest human happy face.

By Wednesday, May 12, Visit Baltimore sent out a letter, signed by a half-dozen city tourism officials, noting that the campaign didn't cost the city extra money, that the campaign would only be shown to tourists, and that, in fact, all the funds used by the campaign were collected from tourists via the hotel tax and spent according to a state mandate requiring the city to advertise itself.

"Give me a tag line, and I bet in 30 seconds, someone can make fun of that, too," says Visit Baltimore's president and CEO Tom Noonan, who spent much of a phone interview defending the organization's mission and advertising expenditures. To kick off the campaign, Visit Baltimore planned to assemble more than 250 Baltimoreans May 13 to make the world's largest happy face, with hopes that the image would be circulated worldwide. It was supposed to be one of those silly/serious affairs; instead, it was clouded by doubts.

Although many of the city's more than 700 tourism ambassadors, professionals who work in the local tourism industry who have gone through a certification program run by Visit Baltimore, dutifully gathered to make the world's largest happy face, the cloudy weather, organizational difficulties (it took more than a half-hour to assemble enough people to break the record, which was only broken due to the participation of college students from Pennsylvania), and two butterfly-winged Baltimore hons made the event feel much darker than intended.

While the kerfuffle over the new campaign may sound like a minor incident in the city's long history of controversial marketing and branding campaigns, the event comes at a pivotal point in the city's transition from a post-industrial hollow spottily filled in by tourist attractions (Harborplace) and ready-made corporate retail/residential enclaves (Harbor East) to a more cohesive, fully redeveloped city (see: the zoning/redevelopment that has produced the Station North Arts District and the biotech campuses). And just as the city itself appears on its way to being redeveloped, the city's brand is becoming uncertain.

With The Wire over, there's no television show reminding people that Baltimore is a distinct place. The "Get In On It" slogan, which the city did pay $500,000 for in 2006, has been abandoned, and Noonan says his organization has given up on slogans entirely, preferring short-lived seasonal campaigns incorporating museum exhibitions, historical anniversaries, and major events. Prepare to spend the next two years hearings about the War of 1812.

At the same time, a Baltimore brand persists, even if its curators are many and diffuse. Although Noonan believes that Visit Baltimore is the agency that protects the brand of Baltimore, its campaigns target families living within a half-day's drive. Other city agencies look for different people to live, work, or visit the city. In late March, a transition team appointed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issued a report that recommended the city consolidate several offices that help build the city's brand, including Visit Baltimore, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the Baltimore Convention Center, and the 1st Mariner Arena, which would solidify the waterfront and convention focus of much of the city's tourism promotion.

Meanwhile, artists, residents, and community organizers build their vision of Baltimore. Although the city's half-century long trend of depopulation is finally abating, many of Baltimore's newest residents find a city that feels like a blank slate, ready to be made into what they imagine it could be. After the speculative boom of the past decade, Baltimore enters the next one with potentially greater economic prospects, but arguably a weaker sense of identity. Baltimoreans are constantly asked to love their city, but why they love it, and what they want it to become, is changing.

Tom Noonan moved to Baltimore from Dallas in 2007, where he worked for the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau for almost 20 years. While he initially supported the 2006 "Get In on It" campaign, he soon actively downplayed the city's last major attempt to brand itself.

"I'm not a real big destination tagline guy," he says during a telephone call that took place a week after the "happy face" stunt. "If you called 100 people in California and said, 'Charm City, who does it belong to?' I'd guess it'd be 10 percent [that would say Baltimore]. It only plays with locals."

Under Noonan's watch, the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association--changed to the more imperative Visit Baltimore in 2009, following the cue of other destination marketing organizations around the country--began producing marketing campaigns for the city's attractions. Last year alone saw "Nevermore 2009," a year-long celebration of Edgar Allan Poe; the "Waterfront Invasion," which promoted a jellyfish exhibit at the National Aquarium and Chinese dinosaur fossils at the Maryland Science Center; and "Heroes and Genius," which spotlighted an exhibit at the Walters Art Museum about images of Greek heroes and a Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit at the Maryland Science Center.

Noonan says this approach has worked. "If you look at our logo, it's 'Visit Baltimore,'" he says. "We're not looking for a tagline to go with that. If you're a family of four in Pittsburgh, I want you to know what's there to see and do. By taking more of a campaign approach, you change it on the fly."

None of these campaigns are designed for locals, even though residents may see a banner or two reminding visitors of ads seen on a Richmond television station or in AAA World, the American Automobile Association's magazine for Mid-Atlantic members. And because the campaigns were closely affiliated with specific events or exhibits in the city, residents were unlikely to see them as essential to the city's image.

The "Happy Place" campaign began in July 2009 like all the others, with a meeting of the Cultural Tourism Committee, which represents Baltimore's major tourist attractions. Rebecca Hoffberger, one of 18 institutional representatives on the standing committee and the founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum, said the campaign filled a hole in the city's marketing efforts. "Every year, the City of Baltimore picks one unifying theme," she says during a telephone interview. "They know in 2012 that they'll pick a bicentennial theme for the War of 1812. If you're at the zoo, it's hard to know how to jump into in the War of 1812. I'm working with Matt Groening this year [for an exhibit called] What Makes Us Smile?"

Hoffberger says that the "Find Your Happy Place" line emerged after Visit Baltimore consulted with Carton Donofrio, the Baltimore-based ad agency. "I thought it would be good for any time," she says. "It's a good and wide enough theme that people could figure out things to do. That morphed into them spending several months with their ad people, and that's when it came out as 'Find your happy place.'"

Carton Donofrio, who Visit Baltimore keeps on a monthly retainer, designed the campaign, and Visit Baltimore will spend a half-million dollars in advertising for the next nine months.

Hoffberger was more concerned about the response to "Find Your Happy Place" than the campaign itself. "It's always easier to be down than up," she says. "As [spiritualist] Alice Bailey put it, the difference between white magic and black magic is intention. We have some good things that could make you happy. I think they [Visit Baltimore] were trying to relate it to Baltimore as a place, as a joy. Which I'm sure is benign as can be. But there are so many people who are now, perhaps even rightfully, really experiencing some of the darker things right now.

"Because it's a city with many, many problems, if you say anything positive, there's this ricochet aspect," she continues. "There's not anything you can say that's positive."


When Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts Executive Director Bill Gilmore, a soft-spoken, middle-aged man who wears green jeans to work, describes the organization he heads, he doesn't think about the city's brand identity. "Our mission is quality of life," he says in an office cluttered with signs and memorabilia from past events. "Our primary audience is people that live and work in the city. A lot of our events appeal to the region from outside. People want to drive here to go to our farmers market, or spend a weekend enjoying Artscape. Visit Baltimore and the state tourism office do use our events, and we help them out."

The city-sanctioned entities (which include Visit Baltimore, the Downtown Partnership, the Waterfront Partnership, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts) in charge of promoting Baltimore--either directly through running ad campaigns, or indirectly through the sponsorship of events that are designed to increase the attractiveness of the city--are not necessarily trying to attract the same people. A 2007 report issued by the Downtown Partnership, an organization that focuses on promoting economic development in the city center, argued that the people most likely to move downtown are empty nesters and childless young adults, the opposite demographic Visit Baltimore wants to see pushing strollers a few blocks away. While destination marketing organizations are alike enough to have their own acronym (DMO), professional organization (Destination Marketing Association International), and even an accreditation program, the scope and function of organizations charged with promoting the city differ from place to place.

Gilmore admits that he was puzzled and frustrated by the local reaction to the "Happy Place" campaign. "For Visit Baltimore, [much] of their revenue comes from hotel tax," he says. "Their mission is to sell hotel rooms. It's up to them to determine what's going to sell a hotel room. Baltimore is a small town with a big image. Every city has a DMO. I'm not sure if other cities care about them as much as Baltimore residents do."

Disagreements over the city's image are expected--Visit Baltimore, BOPA, and local residents are each addressing very different audiences. And while BOPA does everything from managing event facilities to awarding community arts grants, other organizations see Baltimore at a bird's eye view, indifferent to the conversations about the city's identity at the neighborhood level.

Deborah Patterson, the founder of the Park Heights-Pimlico community art organization ArtBlocks and a 2007 fellow with the Open Society Institute, grew up in Baltimore in the 1970s and remembers locals feeling like they were the "thorn between two roses," New York and Washington, D.C. Frustrated with what she calls the "malling of the America," Patterson moved to Italy in 1987 and came back inspired by the piazzas she saw there. After studying the work done by New York's Project for Public Places, best known for its Bryant Park revitalization, Patterson became a passionate advocate for "place-making" through artwork and building a city block by block. On the OSI blog Audacious Ideas, Patterson wrote a March 1 post in which she suggested that the city promote itself as a city of "art neighborhoods."

"What I love about Baltimore is its complexity," she says by phone. "It's a little jewel in a way. I wish we'd promote how paradoxical it is."

Because she's done most of her work in the long beleaguered Park Heights-Pimlico neighborhood, Patterson knows that not every neighborhood can become a tourist attraction overnight. She argues, though, that by building neighborhoods place by place, they eventually add up to a collective identity. "I still believe that if you create authentic places, not manufactured, they become destinations," she says.


Residents interested in having an impact on the city's identity often find local institutions receptive to their ideas, even if the Baltimore branders are distant from neighborhood concerns. In this way, residents invested in defining local subcultures are quickly incorporated into the mainstream.

Mobtown Modern contemporary music series co-founder and self-identified Baltimore booster Brian Sacawa gave a talk at the March Ignite Baltimore event discussing a problem facing many Baltimore artists: the city's identity as an oddball place. "Because Baltimore has been branded a certain way, as quirky and weird, that also affects the perception of the city from the outside," he says. "It might have the affect of people not taking the city's art scene as seriously as it should be taken. I don't know who pushes the sorts of things that have become emblematic of the city. I'm certainly not blaming anyone, because those people have put John Waters on the map. Even less people would know about the city."

While Baltimore's artistic underground rarely stays underground for very long these days, the city's small size allows disparate groups to make connections and foster hybrid identities. For example, when the Baltimore Development Cooperative won the 2009 Sondheim Prize, members of both the city's art community and activist community took notice. When Kate Khatib moved to Baltimore in 2003 to attend graduate school at the Johns Hopkins University, she didn't expect the city to be as receptive for the radical politics she had engaged in as a student in Philadelphia and Amsterdam, so she got to know the city through its music.

To her, "Baltimore was a poor cousin of Philly," she says at Red Emma's, the worker-owned, collectively run coffee shop, bookstore, and event space she helped start. "I didn't have a perception of Baltimore of being a particularly supportive city for radical work. But I knew there was a small experimental music scene in Baltimore. I sought this out and started going to shows."

Since then, Khatib and other members of the Red Emma's collective have, through various projects and events, attempted to connect the city's varied grassroots radical groups. And even though they didn't seek out mainstream institutional support, the institutions came to them.

"[I was surprised to see] the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts reach out to Red Emma's, Velocipede, the Craft Mafia, and say 'We need to bring some life into our events, what's going on in the city?'" she says, citing BOPA's support of Red Emma's inclusion in the annual Baltimore Book Festival, one of BOPA's flagship events. "That doesn't happen in other cities. There is so much support for the things that are happening in the underground."

While Khatib admits that these are "unlikely alliances," Red Emma's and other like-minded organizations have been able to pursue relationships with major institutions that have more power to shape the city's brand. Khatib, though, isn't as taken aback by the darker side of Baltimore's identity as others. "I'm not sure I would want to change much about Baltimore's image," she says. "We talk about all the amazing things going on, but the perception of the city as gritty, dangerous, poor is important, too."


While the family- and waterfront-focused Visit Baltimore tries to downplay the darker and seedier sides of the city, many new residents are attracted to the idea of living in a place that still feels undiscovered. The professionalization of city branding encourages cities to choose more generic campaigns in hopes of attracting travelers who expect their weekend vacations to be predictable. When the Inner Harbor marketplaces were created, they were intended to showcase local crafts and cuisine. Today, nearly all their stores are chains.

For at least a decade, the city's tourism-focused brand and its resident-focused brand have been in tension. So it's understandable why people care. Nearly a decade ago, City Paper managing editor Tom Scocca explored a branding campaign conducted for the Greater Baltimore Alliance by well-known trendspotter Faith Popcorn ("Bal&%153;ore," Feature, March 14, 2001). While the campaign tagline--"Baltimore Is Better"--was soon forgotten, the accompanying report, which focused on transforming the region to better meet the needs of Generation X and Generation Y (now called "Millennials"), was prescient. A decade later, the city's marketers are still fixated on promoting downtown and waterfront amenities, while many twenty- and thirtysomethings have fanned out across the city's many under-populated neighborhoods. Now that the city is no longer branding itself as one thing or another, smaller groups, working with institutions, have the space to create neighborhood and city identities without the ad-agency glitz.

In other cities, though, residents might not even know what their tourism agency is saying. Beverly Morrow-Jones, the executive director of marketing and communications for Visit Pittsburgh, said that Pittsburghers are generally unaware of what her organization does. "The folks on the street don't have a clue as to what's going on at the visitor's bureau," she says by phone. "We don't market to Pittsburghers. It's not what we do on a day-to-day basis. The goal is to get [visitors] to stay overnight in a hotel."

BOPA's Gilmore says that Baltimore's uneasy relationship with its image dates back to the 1970s and '80s, when it did produce bombastic advertising campaigns intended to reach locals who were becoming disillusioned with the city. "You would have to put yourself in that place and time to understand the '60s, '70s, and '80s," he says. "Baltimore didn't have a tourism industry. There were no hotels. There was no convention center. Most of the boosterism under [then Mayor William Donald] Schaefer was aimed toward locals, to bring pride. In this day and age, with people being a lot more sophisticated because of the media and how quickly things spin, you don't really need to do that anymore."

Hoffberger says that "Find Your Happy Place" evolved organically from her original suggestion, "What Makes Us Smile," which made the pushback even more surprising. "I think they [Carton Donofrio] were trying to relate it to Baltimore as a place of joy," she says. "So they chose, 'Come here, find your happy place.' Which I'm sure is benign as can be. I think there's enough joy to go around for everyone."

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