How not to “rebrand” R.I.

Screenshot of the primary image of proposed rebrand campaign. (Atom Media)

Screenshot of the primary image of proposed rebrand campaign. (Atom Media)

Rooting around online in search of a website for the Metamorphosis dance troupe I saw in Pawtucket on Saturday afternoon, I came across what seems to me a perfect example of how not to “brand” Rhode Island. The pitch is called “Whatever you do … Rhode Island.”

Atom Media Group, of West Warwick, presents its proposal to state officials seeking a firm to undertake a rebranding effort as “a radical departure from typical campaigns.” However, a campaign that relies on vagueness is neither new nor, in all likelihood, effective.

Kate Bramson, in her July 7 Providence Journal article, “R.I. pursuing the perfect pitch for new tourism campaign,” cites “Pure Michigan” as one of state officials’ ideal state brands. It strikes me as equally vague and bland, but at least “pure” is a word with high positives. “Whatever you do” seems both difficult to understand and eminently forgettable.

Screenshot from Atom Media campaign.

Screenshot from Atom Media campaign.

Yes, I know, the idea is that people will read into the slogan a meaning that picks up on what they already think about Rhode Island. If so, that only shows how unnecessary that slogan is. It may show that a rebranding campaign is unneeded. If the name of the state already conjures specific ideas that are swimming around in people’s minds, the state should identify those ideas and then base a rebranding campaign on them. But that might be difficult to do with enough specificity to be useful in developing a brand.

My own guess is that Rhode Island’s current slogan, “Discover Beautiful Rhode Island,” is a more effective brand than any P.R. firm is likely to invent. Except that I’d slice off the first word. Make it “Beautiful Rhode Island.” That would make the slogan an assertion rather than a call for action. It is simpler, and conveys a self-evident truth. For Rhode Island’s natural and civic beauty are unimpeachable, at least much more so than most states.

Rhode Island can then get on with the job of helping the state live up to its brand. That means keeping up the beauty of its beaches and other natural attractions, and preserving its beautiful architectural heritage.

Since both primarily require maintaining a generally admirable status quo, effort should be directed at improving that status quo. The state should make sure that new buildings, bridges, parks and other proposed structures strengthen rather than weaken the state’s already highly competitive environment of traditional architectural beauty.

Only a slogan that reinforces the state’s existing reputation will strengthen its brand. And only then can Rhode Island’s brand aspire to benefit from a slogan to attract tourists as effectively as “I ♥ New York” attracted tourists to the Empire State. Meanwhile, state officials should concentrate on improving its business climate, which contributes to the negative brand that the state wants to get rid of, even though it is free.

Until then, the state’s desire to promote Rhode Island as a “place to visit, live, work, and start a business,” as Atom Media expresses it in its campaign, is likely to run up against hardened attitudes that no new slogan or rebranding campaign can be expected to surmount.

By the way, Governor Raimondo recently canceled her predecessor’s clubfooted plan to eliminate the wave from the Rhode Island license plate. The wave is a successful logo. Hopefully, the governor will decide to continue it rather than squandering more money on the unlikely bet that a better logo can be invented by another P.R. firm.

Stefan Pryor, the state’s first secretary of commerce who is in charge of the rebranding campaign, says some 40 firms, in and out of state, are vying for the job. A winner is to be announced in October.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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9 Responses to How not to “rebrand” R.I.

  1. Soundslike says:

    Oh god, it’s gotten even worse–now with clipart from an old Windows 3.6 Gateway: http://www.providencejournal.com/news/20160328/rhode-islands-new-marketing-slogan-unveiled-cooler–warmer

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  2. Steve Maciel says:

    I’m in the process on of sharing the open letter below.* What’s not mentioned in the letter is my 2 cents on branding which will follow. In a nutshell, I’m proposing we stick with our exclusive brand of “America’s First Resort” and its interpretive story of how the first two week vacation (1524) was taken in RI. I further propose we continue that “First” theme and continue to focus on all the things we are first at in RI. See http://www.1of52.net/blog

    *Open Letter to State of Rhode Island & Business Community – 09/22/015

    A Proposal to Generate Additional State Revenue

    Regarding our state’s Tourism re-branding efforts, allow me to propose to our state and business community that whatever brand is chosen, we need specific plans in place to generate additional state revenue.

    One specific proposed plan to generate revenue is to increase our shoulder season occupancy levels. Each overnight visitor to Rhode Island expends approximately $444, and every 187 visitors creates one new job. (IHS Global Insight Study 11/8/11, benefits of increased state/local based consumer spending, Pg. 2.) Each additional percentage increment in shoulder season occupancy rate produces an economic impact that is quantifiable and track-able.

    The plan to increase shoulder season occupancy levels is to greatly enhance existing RI Vacation Packaging. Since our tentative RI Tourism Budget of $5m is still less than half of our direct competitive states, creating “irresistible” packaging will better position us relative to the regional market. The Tourism budget deficit can be mostly compensated for with added value incentives to better market RI vacations. (RI. $5m, CT $13m, MA $15m – Source: RI Governor Office)

    This enhanced packaging can be formed by building on existing – and adding new – resources through greater strategic partnerships, e.g. between our accommodations industry and manufacturing/maker industries. Packaging investment can be partially borne by participating/benefiting businesses, and be subsidized as a form of media within existing state marketing budgets.

    One specific example of enhancing existing vacation packaging is to advertise that; over-and-above the best room rate or amenity package you book, upon check-in, you’ll be presented with a “Discover Rhode Island” hospitality package. These packages can be created now by bundling existing amenities and consumer incentives, and continually grow to become elaborate invitations. These promotions are designed to both make RI more attractive as a destination, and to drive consumer traffic out to Main Street to generate additional revenue within the local economy.

    My colleagues and I have extensively test marketed specific methods to implement these plans, and we are in the process of freely sharing them with the state and business community. If this is something you have an interest in seeing come to fruition, and would like to learn more, contact me directly at stevemaciel@cox.net.

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  3. Great perspectives, David and Nancy — as always. Though I was initially curious about what new slogan we might see coming out of the competition, I agree now that we should retain the current 4-word command, fix the inside marketing shortcomings, and build on the slogan for fun and profit.

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  4. As a native Rhode Islander who loves our state, I’ve been talking about what a new tourism campaign might look like for many months, if not years. I’ve said leave the logo/slogan alone – it’s not a priority – what we have is just fine – “Discover Beautiful Rhode Island” – I even created a Facebook page to celebrate our state and post to it daily:

    https://www.facebook.com/DiscoverBeautifulRhodeIsland?ref=hl

    A colleague suggested using changeable signs to hang at the bottom of our signs that say things like “at….Slater Mill!” – and – “at…Waterfire!” – or – “on….our beaches!”

    The license plate we have has that slogan on it – deepen the blue of the wave w/new reprints – but don’t spend a moment more on it.

    What should we spend time on? The deeper dive. Back to basics. Fixing roads and walkways. Sweeping the streets; cutting the roadside brush. Safety and security. Recruiting people! Great people who effervesce about RI – to man our tourism “stops” – no, not building a new mega gas station with brochures and fast food. Recruit our “RI ambassadors” (think “PC Friars” – student ambassadors to the college – look for the white jackets – ask them a question).

    And then we need coordination – of all the tourism departments still sprinkled around our state, and the large venues – the hotels with big tourism promotion dollars. And PPAC and Trinity and the Blackstone Valley events and Waterfire. Are we rowing our tourists ashore with one strong voice?

    The low hanging fruit in any PR campaign is a logo and slogan. Will we reach higher – will we extend our arms to do the tougher work of coordination and skillful use of tactics – as we row together will this tourism grant serve as an effective coxswain – “Hands up!” It’s time to… “Discover Beautiful Rhode Island”.

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  5. Soundslike says:

    All that, besides the fact that “Whatever you do. . . Rhode Island” is so naturally “filled in” as “Whatever you do [don’t come to] Rhode Island”.

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