Contrarian: Brand on the Run

Boston’s on a mission to market itself in order to better compete with other cities. So far, the effort has succeeded only in generating a mishmash of conflicting messages and a giant, frighteningly friendly baked bean.

It’s a good thing Governor Winthrop’s dead. The guy who back in 1630 labeled Boston a “City upon a Hill” would choke on his beard if he could see what’s going on around here these days. I’m not talking about gay marriage, drunken cavorting in the streets, or the fact that many locals tend to break out in hives when they so much as walk past a church. I’m talking about marketing.

Over the past few months, the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have been taking steps to update their images—to retool their brands, as the parlance goes. In November, Mayor Menino called for the creation of a “sales force” that would travel the country, regaling companies with tales of our city’s business-friendly environment; presumably, if that works out we’ll do something about making the city a business-friendly environment. This came after the mayor paid a Toronto consulting firm a quarter mil to rebrand Downtown Crossing, a move touted as a price-conscious way to revitalize a “really tired” district. The group floated the idea that one way to do this would be to just stop calling it “Downtown Crossing.” (Maybe while we’re at it we can cut the city’s murder rate by not using the word “murder.”) Meanwhile, the legislature has set aside $1.5 million to create a marketing campaign for the state—a good idea, had it not been proposed while the head of the state government was barnstorming around the country, railing against the godless sodomite horror that is Massachusetts. (Possible tagline: “Boston: Don’t Drop the Soap.”)

The problem isn’t so much that we’ve been attempting to rebrand Boston—everyone from the Croatians to the Tibetans to the Philadelphians have jumped on the place-branding bandwagon—it’s the way we’re going about it. In any branding campaign, the first step is to have everyone involved agree on a single, core idea, the selling point you’re trying to convey. But this is Boston (“The City Where No One Can Ever Agree on Anything”), and we’ve approached this branding business the way we approach everything—a hundred chickens running around trying to find the same head. It’s a mess.

It shouldn’t be this difficult. Over the years, a number of selling points have attached themselves to the city of their own accord. Boston’s old, therefore historical. It’s small, therefore livable. It’s got lots of colleges, therefore it’s youthful, cultured, cosmopolitan, tolerant, innovative. And so on. All that remains is for our civic leaders to mold those existing qualities into a compelling contemporary package: Brand Boston.

In 2005, as Boston was about to mark its 375th anniversary, Menino gave a State of the City address in which he intoned, “When I first became mayor, I saw a school system that failed to educate our students. I saw violence and crime that threatened our neighborhoods, and I saw a bleak housing market with ‘For Sale’ signs throughout the city.” (“Boston: Not Nearly as Crappy as It Used to Be.”) Local PR honcho George Regan said afterward, “If I were designing an ad campaign around the speech, it would be that this is a livable city that can only get better.” Since then, the city’s gained a bunch of tacky condo complexes, a planned shopping mall on the waterfront, a crime rate rivaling that of the Triangle of Death, and a future Best Buy that, in an instance of inspired philistinism, will be housed in the Frank Gehry building on Newbury Street. So, obviously, we’re moving in the right direction.

As the city’s identity crisis deepens and the politicians dither, into the void steps the Boston Baked Bean, which, according to its official website, is “a budding Boston icon that draws its inspiration from the rich local history of the Boston Baked Bean” (emphasis ours). This blood-red, 6-foot-tall, self-appointed Ambassador of Goodwill toddles around town in an effort to symbolize “all that Boston was, is, and can be,” as the Bean’s online manifesto has it.

“People laugh with him, dance with him,” says head handler Tom Hayes, a local comedian. “He’s just got this charisma that we would like the city to have. And people somehow identify with this thing, all these pent-up feelings they unleash on the Bean.”

Hayes and his cohorts, sensing an opening in the Boston mascot market, approached the city to see if the Bean’s ambassadorship might be made official. They were denied. So now we have a maverick envoy on the loose, symbolizing Boston according to his own whims. Last month, hoping to consolidate his power, the Bean opened his own retail store on Newbury Street; he’s also creating a line of Bean-related toys and books. Hayes and company have plans for more Bean-related characters, enabling several oversize inanimate objects to work the city simultaneously.

As usually happens when you take a higgledy-piggledy approach to branding, the messages have already started to get mixed. Even as the Bean goes around laughing and dancing with unsuspecting strangers, the online retailer is selling a faux tourist T-shirt reading “Massachusetts: The ‘M’ is for ‘Shut the fuck up.’”

Now contrast all this with Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill.” As a marketing hook, it’s simple, stirring, eminently dignified. It’s so good that centuries later Ronald Reagan ripped it off to great effect (though, to be fair, our proto-gov probably nicked it from the Gospel of Mark). Winthrop’s slogan, as all good branding should, helped forge an emotional attachment to the product. With four words, he managed to convey that Boston is impregnable, morally superior, biblical in its grandiosity.

In our defense, Winthrop didn’t have to contend with the GOP, which for years has waged an extremely successful negative PR campaign against our city. Remember the Dick Armey quip “If I were a Democrat I would feel a heck of a lot more comfortable in Boston than, say, America”? Or how ManDog Santorum blamed our political orientation for the alarmingly high incidence of Catholic priests preying on children? As marketing geeks will tell you, those messages turned out to be highly “viral.” (“Boston: The Only Thing That Gets Us Hotter Than New Taxes Is the Prospect of Marrying Our Cats.”)

Oddly enough, the one time Boston has approached a decent branding strategy in the past 375 years also involved a few well-aimed jabs at the city. In the run-up to the DNC, Arnold Worldwide devised the Celebrate Boston campaign. “Of course we’re a forward-looking city,” one typical ad read. “We’ve been saying ‘Wait till next year’ every year since 1918.” “Mapping the human genome was easy,” went a second. “Mapping downtown? That’s another story.”

The Celebrate Boston spots nailed one key tenet of place branding: that campaigns need to be as much for locals as they are for outsiders. The ads dealt frankly with the endearing aspects of our cultural schizophrenia, while sidestepping the less savory ones (“Boston: Where the Liberalism of the Northeast Meets the Racism of the Deep South”), and spoke with a self-assuredness that’s lacking today. We’re a great, complicated city, full of great, complicated people. And while there’s certainly no excuse for the fiasco that is our present effort to create a Brand Boston, maybe it’s to the city’s credit that it can’t be bundled into a pat little marketing campaign.

It’s Boston. That pretty much says it all.