Branding the City

By Lucy Morris | Photos Courtesy of Chattanooga CVB

For cities to compete globally for investment, visitor, and tourism dollars, they must position themselves as attractive locations for business, entertainment, culture, and community. With its billion-dollar brand, Chattanooga is doing just that.



What’s in a brand? Would a brand by any other name sell just as well? History suggests not. But what causes one brand to fail colossally and another to exceed even the highest of expectations? The answer, it seems, lies in careful thought, research, and due diligence.

A brand is so much more than a logo or a tagline – it’s a way of thinking that represents the ideas, beliefs, and experiences of a product or offering. Started in the 1500s as a means of marking cattle to specify ownership, the purpose of a brand is to differentiate. And in today’s global marketplace, where brands transcend the product or service itself, it is imperative to understand exactly what a brand epitomizes. For example, the Apple brand goes beyond a cellphone or computer. Consumers purchase the idea of innovation and imagination with a human touch.

Over time, the concept of branding has expanded to include categories far beyond just products and services. Organizations and corporations have defined brands. Individuals self-promote personal brands. Even places are developing brands.

Today, cities across the U.S. are capitalizing on what they have and what they see themselves as to create a cohesive brand that drives capital investment, visitor, and tourism revenues. Chattanooga has been on the forefront of this trend for nearly two decades, evolving its message as the city grows and changes.

Success in the City Branding Sector

For cities that recognize both their tangible and intangible benefits, branding can have an enormous impact that leads to economic growth and financial success. Take New York City. Its “I Love New York” branding is the most identifiable city branding in the nation, some could argue the world. Developed by Milton Glaser in 1976 and donated to the New York State Department of Economic Development as a gift to the city facing bankruptcy, the slogan still represents the spirit of the city today – a place that can be anything to anyone.

Another New York city a little farther north, Ithaca has built a branding campaign universally beloved. The slogan “Ithaca is Gorges” was coined by Howard Cogan nearly 50 years ago. An advertising executive and local business advocate who had lived in the city most of his life, Cogan gave the phrase to the city with no trademark rights so that it could be used to market the city to tourists and travelers. The brand has come to define the identity of the city with its natural beauty, serving as a mantra for those with even the slightest connection to the city.

Heading south, there’s another city whose branding cannot be overlooked – Austin, Texas. “Keep Austin Weird,” the slogan now synonymous with the essence of the city, entered into the ethos almost accidentally. In 2000, an Austin author and librarian called into a local radio station known for playing a varied mix of artists and genres to make a donation because he enjoyed the show so much. When asked why he supported the station, he responded, “I don’t know. It helps keep Austin weird.” The phrase immediately gained traction and was soon picked up by the Austin Independent Business Alliance, who began using it to promote local small business. Today, it continues to illustrate what so many love about Austin – its eclectic art, music, and food scene – and bring investment and tourism to the city.

And one of the best city brands falls to Las Vegas, Nevada. The city known for gambling and debauchery understood exactly what it had to offer visitors. That’s why its “What Happens Here, Stays Here” branding continues to be successful more than 15 years after it was introduced. Devised in 2003 and meant to portray Las Vegas as a destination for freedom from daily lives, the campaign is considered to be partially responsible for quickly returning tourism rates to pre-recession levels.

When Bad Branding Happens to Good Cities

On the other hand, cities who don’t stay true to themselves – or don’t recognize what it is they have to offer visitors in the first place – often pay the price for poor branding. In fact, Forbes magazine reports that 86% of city branding campaigns fail.

In 2013, Enterprise, Florida, quickly learned there was more to branding a city than a quippy slogan. The city paid close to $400,000 to develop its first-ever business branding campaign, “The Perfect Climate for Business.” Meant to promote the city as a great place to start or expand a business – a complement to its well-known perception as a state for tourism – the branding missed the mark. The logo’s design included a necktie meant to take the place of the “i” in Florida. Unfortunately, many felt this suggested the city was only meant for male-led business, though female-led businesses were developing there at a much faster rate.

In testing the campaign, the city took another swing and a miss, picking an out-of-state firm to complete testing, though a local female-led firm had bid for the project – and at a significantly lower rate.

In 2005, Leeds, England, attempted to brand the city around the slogan “Leeds Live It Love It.” Unfortunately, the campaign failed to capitalize on what tourists could expect when they visited the city, and its lack of personality didn’t appeal to locals either. Beyond that, the city spent close to $200,000 on promotional materials before realizing the slogan was already being used by another city – Hong Kong. 

Chattanooga’s Unique Brand

Today, Chattanooga has a $1 billion+ brand, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Chattanooga Visitor’s Bureau (CVB). The CVB works to grow tourism by highlighting what the city has to offer – its attractions, hotels, restaurants, entertainment, business opportunities, sports, and more. “Developing the brand is just about conveying the essence of Chattanooga, and the experiences you can expect when you visit,” says Dave Santucci, Vice President of Marketing for the CVB. “We have to showcase the most amazing things you can do here, the feelings you’ll get, the memories you’ll walk away with … and we need to capture attention quickly. That’s what we work on here every day.”

In January of this year, the CVB rolled out a new branding campaign, “Chattanooga – In a State of Joy.” A play on words, the slogan highlights the experience you can expect, while also paying homage to the rising popularity of Tennessee as a destination. “Our tourism period peaks from March to October,” Santucci explains. “We need to be out in front of people as they plan for their trips and vacations so we can compete against the beaches, the theme parks, and any other potential options.”

Market research had shown the CVB that the former “Take Me There” campaign, which launched in 2010 and utilized a photographic technique called tilt shift, was losing the impact it had previously. “In the past year, we started seeing that it wasn’t turning heads like it used to. We wanted to use a new photographic technique that’s true to the look, feel, and expectation of Chattanooga as it is today,” explains Santucci.

The CVB’s primary campaign testing is done through online feedback sessions. “We send it to different markets and age groups,” says Santucci. “We check to see if it appeals to families, couples, boomers, and millennials. Does it turn anyone off or appeal to any one group more than another? This current one had universal appeal.”

Over the years, the CVB has released a number of different branding campaigns aimed at increasing tourism and highlighting the intrinsic value of the city. “The slogan has changed a number of times, but what’s consistent is the reason people come. That’s what we try to capture. Natural beauty, attractions, history, and our biggest rising category over the last three years – music and nightlife,” says Santucci.

Decades of Product Development

Of course, Chattanooga’s brand would be a far harder sell if the city wasn’t so focused on continuing to improve to meet the needs and desires of locals and tourists alike.

From 1985 to 1999, civic leadership and community-wide involvement led to the development of the Convention Center, Miller Plaza, Tennessee Aquarium, Ross’s Landing, Bluff View Art District, Creative Discovery Museum, International Towing Museum, IMAX Theater, Coolidge Park, and more.

The turn of the century saw the creation of AT&T Field and the 21st Century Waterfront, with attraction expansions cropping up year after year to accommodate growing demand.

Over the last decade, new restaurants have opened by the dozen, apartment complexes have increased tenfold, the Choo Choo has seen a massive expansion including the introduction of Station Street, and the Southside has grown tremendously.

New attractions include Songbirds Guitar Museum, the Sculpture Fields, the Lemur Forest at the Tennessee Aquarium, Gray Line of Tennessee Hop On/Hop Off Tours, The Signal music venue, and several new dining experiences. An expansion at Ruby Falls is underway as well, and the $8.5 million Miller Park renovation is nearing completion. Six new or renovated hotels opened recently or are expected to open this year, and the sports and entertainment sectors saw two additions in the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships and the fan-voted Levitt AMP Chattanooga Music Series.

Measuring Success

While the CVB can expect to see positive results from its branding efforts based on the amount of market research completed on the front end, it has measures in place to track continued success. “First and foremost, we measure how many people come to Chattanooga and how much they spend,” says CVB President and CEO Barry White. “We look at attraction attendance, website traffic, hotel stays, ad click-through rates, and more. It’s extremely measureable.”

The CVB also measures success with social and earned media. Since January, Chattanooga has been named to more than 10 “best of” lists, with highlights including the food, the charm, and even the convention venues.

Lists like these tend to spread like wildfire across social media, as locals love nothing more than sharing the pride they have for their town. “Chattanoogans are the best ambassadors of the brand,” says White. “We know that, and it’s an important part of marketing the city.” The CVB even has a program called the Chatta-fanatics, which currently includes 10,000 locals. “These individuals have signed up to share their pride for the city through their social channels,” says Santucci. “It’s a real testament to the pride of the city. People want it to continue getting better and better.”

Opportunities for Growth

At the end of 2017, there were 8,700 direct tourism jobs in Hamilton County. Billions of private dollars have been invested in the community to support the growth of tourism. Because of the growing visitor and tourism industry, taxpayers are enjoying a reported $643 less in tax burden each year, according to the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development. Since 2011, the Chattanooga Airport has grown in enplanements by 40%, and a new non-stop flight to New York’s LaGuardia airport was announced earlier this year to support increasing demand.

This growth can be linked to the positive perceptions of Chattanooga’s brand. “Your brand is something you continuously monitor to confirm, reconfirm, or tweak using information you’ve learned,” says White. “It’s something that’s controlled by the perceptions of people. Any time I talk to a friend or colleague who doesn’t live here, I get one of two things: ‘I’ve been there, what a great city,’ or ‘I’ve heard it’s a great city and I look forward to visiting.’ That shows us we’re headed in the right direction.”

One area that has seen the greatest amount of growth over the last three years is the music and nightlife scene. After reaching out to all the music venues and festivals, the CVB can now report that the number of music events in Chattanooga has doubled during that period, as has the number of attendees. “That’s huge growth,” says Santucci. “It’s been a citywide effort – from private investment, the City, the state, foundations, musicians, and event producers, and we expect to see continued growth in this sector.”

In March, the Moon River Music Festival announced it was moving from Memphis to Chattanooga, and tickets sold out in eight hours, much faster than anticipated.

The food scene is also on an upward trajectory. “In research we see that the number three reason people are visiting Chattanooga is for the food, and it’s the number two reason people make return trips,” says Santucci.

“As these aspects of the brand continue to evolve, it may affect how we present ourselves,” says White. “We are committed to continually meeting the needs of our clients and customers. We compete with every destination, so we need to showcase what makes us unique and special – what they can’t find anywhere else. That’s what will guide our brand year after year.”

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