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City

I Sell New York

by Kate Stohr, Mar 17, 2003
 
 

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg canceled the trip to London that he had scheduled for this week — the first stop on the "road show" to foreign business capitals in order to help sell New York to out-of-towners — he announced that he would wait "until international tensions subside." Yet, both Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff and Andrew Alper, the president of the city's Economic Development Corporation, went ahead with the trip, which includes plans to meet one-on-one with various business executives and wine and dine them in Bloomberg's London townhouse.

Even as international tensions convinced the mayor to stay home, local concerns seemed to have dictated that the show must go on. Indeed, it is precisely because a war with Iraq looms and the city is in an economic recession that city officials remain focused on promoting New York, to both businesses and tourists. To Bloomberg the businessman, New York City is a "luxury brand" with untapped potential - and the city had better do some tapping.

"We think that New York has enormous advantages over other places...but you have to tell people that," the mayor said. "Any company that has a brand name that they've tried to promote and maintain...can tell you [it] is a nonstop, constant, expensive proposition."

And an anxiety-ridden one. Officials were alarmed by the four-day musicians' strike last week, which temporarily dropped the curtain on 17 of the 18 musicals running on Broadway. Their concern was not just because of the millions of dollars of lost income, but because it threatened to undermine the brand. "It's...the negative image that this sends about New York City," Cristyne L. Nicholas, president of the city's tourism office NYC & Company, told the Times. "What we've learned with tourism is there are other cities that are competing for our business. They have bigger budgets and better means to compete... I don't think we can take this lightly."

To promote the product known as New York, Mayor Bloomberg has taken several steps since coming into office. Besides the road show, these include staging pep rallies, hiring the former head of the Miss Universe pageants, even planning to license the NYC brand for an official line of doodads.

Will treating New York like Coca-Cola improve the city's economic health, or even its morale?

"Will it have a significant economic impact?" asks Kathryn Wylde, head of the New York City Partnership, the city's largest business group. "That depends on how successful the program is."

THE HISTORY OF SELF-PROMOTION

This is not the first time a New York mayor during hard times has attempted to boost the city's spirits (and its revenue) by marketing (and spinning) its image. In 1966, during a debilitating transit strike, Mayor John Lindsay made the off-hand comment, "I still think the city is fun." Dick Schaap, a columnist for The New York Herald Tribune, picked up on the comment and coined the expression, "Fun City." The mayor soon adopted the phrase as a slogan to promote the city's theaters, museums and many cultural "happenings." But as racial divisions, strikes and the political upheaval of the day marred his administration, the term soon took on a derisive tone, and the mayor's efforts backfired.

When Mayor David Dinkins toured Europe in 1992 on a road show similar to the one that Bloomberg has now planned, the trip was deemed a publicity failure — even though it eventually resulted in the creation of a small number of jobs. "It had an air of desperation about it," said Steve Malanga, who covered the trip as a reporter for Crain's New York Business. "City officials spent most of their time answering questions about crime. It only reanimated a discussion that was already in the back of people's minds." Now with the Manhattan Institute, Malanga remains skeptical about such campaigns. "This is the kind of stuff that matters on the margins. What matters most is making sure the city itself remains as attractive as possible. And if that happens the rest of the world and the media will do the work for you."

The most successful effort to "brand" the city came during the final moments of the city's fiscal crisis in the 1970's. Crime was rampant and, then as now, the city's coffers were empty. Businesses (and their employees) were leaving the city in droves. Fear permeated perceptions of the city, and tourism was suffering. The city had lost much of its glamorous allure, and the State of New York turned to Madison Avenue for help. The state commissioned the ad agency Well, Rich and Greene and graphic artist Milton Glaser to develop a campaign, and the "I love NY" slogan was born. Its goal: to promote tourism.

Launched in 1977, the "I love NY" design became one of the most recognizable logos of any city in the world. The campaign was so successful it was plastered on everything from coffee mugs, to buttons, to bumper stickers. John Lennon and other boldfaced names have all been famously photographed wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, and the state still sells official "I Love NY" merchandise today.

After the twin towers fell in 2001 Glaser revamped the logo, so that it read, "I love NY more than ever," the heart blackened ever-so-subtly in the bottom left-hand corner. Then in December, the graphic artist suggested yet another slogan: "Together for the City We Love."

But the city and state, which had bought Glaser's original logo, did not buy into his revisions. They are sticking with "I Love NY."

The mayor is focusing on ways to spread that love around.

MAYOR MARKETER

In his State of the City address in January, Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to hire a "chief marketing officer" for the city. "New York is the best-known city on the planet," he said. "Yet, as a city, we've never taken direct, coordinated custody of our image."

According to Doctoroff, this person's primary responsibility will be to seek out sponsorship, merchandising and other revenue-generating opportunities for the city. Programs could range from creating a line of New York City licensed products to partnering with corporations interested in becoming official sponsors of the city.

A preview of the kind of commercial quid-pro-quo the city seems to have in mind took place last fall, when the city played official host to the National Football League's "Kick Off" rally in Times Square. In return, the league donated time on its television network and sponsored an ad campaign aimed at attracting tourists to the city.

The mayor has also assembled a team of business leaders to help the city encourage investment, attract jobs and expand tourism. The task force, which is set to meet for the first time later this month, includes Kathryn Wylde of the Partnership for New York, and such advertising luminaries as Rochelle Lazarus, head of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide and Mike Dolan, head of Young & Rubicam, Inc.

And Mayor Bloomberg has created a "permanent host committee" to help the city woo major events (such as the national political conventions and the Olympics), and put Maureen Reidy in charge of it. "We want to secure the biggest deals to bring the best events to the greatest city in the world," Reidy told The Sun, with a breathlessness one might expect from the former president of the Miss Universe pageants. "There's nothing I would rather do than be showing people how great New York is."

Prior to the committee's formation, the city established ad hoc committees and had to "reinvent the wheel" each time it bid on an event, according to Jonathan Tisch, chairman of NYC & Company and co-chair of the new permanent committee. "We would have to set up an office, set up a fundraising operation, find people to do a million different things," he told the Sun. "Now there will already be a mechanism in place."

SUCCESS?

Will the city's efforts pay off?

The Bloomberg administration can already point to some successes. The city has been designated the U.S. candidate for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games (after the staging of a fake ticker tape parade to show the Olympic committee how enthusiastic New Yorkers can be). It also has captured both the 2004 Republican National Convention and the 2003 WNBA All-Star game. It is bidding with confidence on the 2008 and 2011 Super Bowls as well.

When the Grammy's returned to the city this year after a five-year absence, city officials were quick to cite the $40 million worth of economic activity it generated — as well as the publicity (including an appearance by Bloomberg to plug "the greatest city on earth" on national television.) The city estimates that the 2004 Republican National Convention will generate another $150 million in direct economic activity.

But critics are asking a larger question: How does one define success? To put it less cosmically: Will these successes translate over the long-term into clear-cut benefits for the city? There is already a sharp debate over whether the benefits of bringing the Olympics to New York will outweigh the costs.

Others see the administration's plan to sell the city's "brand," especially the corporate sponsorships, as potentially damaging to the city's image, and by extension, ultimately its economy. If it allowed the Brooklyn Bridge, say, to become the Starbucks Brooklyn Bridge, "New York could be the butt of jokes across the country," said Gary Ruskin, head of Commercial Alert, a national organization dedicated to keeping advertising out of the public sphere. "Does any company want to locate to a city that is the butt of jokes?"

And some economists question the effectiveness of an international road show. International networking, while a good idea as part of a more comprehensive strategy, according to James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute, is unlikely to attract by itself the kinds of small businesses that employ nearly half of the city's private-sector workers.

The critique by Emanuel Tobier, a professor of economics at New York University, is more fundamental: "A product as diverse as New York City," he said, "can't be couched in a marketing campaign."

COMPETITION

But the supporters of the mayor's efforts believe they are all worth trying. To them, the situation is urgent. Times are tough, and the competition is tougher.

As the mayor said in the State of the City, "New York is in a fierce, worldwide competition; our strategy must be to hone our competitive advantages. We must offer the best product — and sell it, forcefully."

The competition is in many arenas.

The City of Las Vegas, with a population of just over a million people, spends $191 million a year marketing itself. The State of Illinois spends over $91 million a year in promotion — and that doesn't include money spent by the city of Chicago. By contrast, NYC & Company has a budget of $14.5 million, which may explain why most of the mayor's marketing initiatives rely less on advertising, and more on forging alliances with the private sector and behind-the-scenes lobbying.

Cities like Tampa, Atlanta and Kansas City all have more aggressive marketing machines in place, according to Dennis J. Donovan, the director of a New Jersey-based consulting company that has helped such companies as Federal Express relocate. But it is not just American cities that New York must compete with, Donovan says; companies are as likely these days to move their corporate headquarters to foreign financial centers like London and Brussels.

In an index of the most livable cities of the world New York's ranking is an embarrassing 44, behind San Francisco (20), Sydney (5), and the index's most livable city, Zurich.

Even as a cultural mecca, New York is not what it once was. New York magazine profiled artists and others who had skipped town for Berlin's low rents, chic galleries, and hip-cheap restaurants. Austin, Seattle, and Detroit all have thriving underground music scenes; fashionistas flock to places like Antwerp, Belgium, according to Newsweek; even post-war Kabul has a thriving film industry.

But the city's boosters can take heart that many out-of-towners still apparently subscribe to an old adage about the city. Last year, New York was named Conde Nast Traveler Magazine's "Hot City" and received Travel & Leisure magazine's award for "World's Best North American City." In reviews of travel destinations on the comparative shopping site, Epinions, New York gets an overall rating of 5 stars, compared to a measly 4 stars for Los Angeles. In other words, whether or not they want to live here, New York remains a nice place to visit.


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