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Fahlgren Tapped for New Columbus Branding Effort

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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It was announced yesterday that Fahlgren Advertising has been selected to spearhead new branding, imaging and marketing efforts across multiple local organizations including Experience Columbus, the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, the Columbus Chamber, Columbus2020!, The Columbus Partnership and the Columbus Bicentennial Commission.

The concept of branding our city and creating a consistent message for marketing beyond our borders has been a hot topic of debate over the past few years. Pete McGinty, President of Fahlgren Advertising, and former Vice President of Marketing at Experience Columbus, says that his team is up for the task.

“Fahlgren is excited about this challenge, said McGinty. “Our belief is that the key to success is using authentic stories and images based on what the citizens told us that they know and love about Columbus.”

This challenge is not a new one, with Columbus marketing efforts dating back over the past half-century.

“We can document seven studies on this issue going back to the 1960s, explained McGinty. “From these we have come to know that residents generally love Columbus, and feel it is a fun and comfortable place. What makes this different is that for the first time we have an unprecedented collaboration, bringing together entities focused on economic development to lift the effort out of the research phase and into the implementation phase to tell the Columbus story globally.”

In more recent history, a marketing plan was assembled by the 2012 Bicentennial Commission’s Imaging and Marketing Subcommittee following the public input gathered during the Citizen’s Summit event in January 2008.

“Fahlgren will integrate elements of that research into the future marketing campaigns done individually by the Chamber, 2020, Experience Columbus, the Sports Commission and the Bicentennial Commission, so that all our materials reinforce common threads about Columbus,” said McGinty. “The goal isn’t to create one campaign and declare victory, that’s not realistic. We are setting out to create consistent impressions over time to build a more solid identity.”

This past July, a New York Times article was published that depicted Columbus as a place struggling to come up with a catchy slogan, but McGinty begs to differ.

“It’s not about a slogan or a tag line for Columbus,” he said. “It’s about collaborating at an unprecedented level to show the world the creative, friendly and open city that we all love.”

With over fifty years of creating and shelving marketing plans, the task at hand has proven to be quite difficult. Will Fahlgren succeed where others have failed?

“We reached out to 29 marketing firms in a very public way and reviewed many great candidates,” said Amy Tillinghast, Vice President of Marketing for Experience Columbus. “Fahlgren has a very extensive portfolio in travel and tourism and place-based-branding. Their final presentation and their passion for Columbus were very clear, and the vote of the group was unanimous to pick them for this initiative.”

One lesson that sounds like it has already been learned is to keep this type of effort away from getting bogged down in the public input process.

“It’s not PC to say this, but too much public involvement at the wrong stage is a bad idea,” said TheUrbanophile.com author Aaron Renn last August, in response to the New York Times article. “Clearly, it’s important that the public buy in and that the results be shared and genuine input solicited without delivering a fait accompli. But design by focus group almost never works. I’ve seen a lot of civic visioning efforts that tried to be maximally inclusive, but I’ve yet to see one that produced compelling results or moved the needle.”

“Think about it,” continues Renn. “Did Steve Jobs design the iPod by asking people what they thought about music players? No he did not. Apple, and all the best product companies, succeed by giving us the thing we didn’t even know we wanted until they gave it to us.”

“It is important to note that the public has been a big driving force and contributor to the process and work done thus far,” explained McGinty. “Beginning with the Citizens Summit, over 2,000 residents gave their input on what they felt was representative of Columbus. Now, as we use that input to help define an image of Columbus, it will be residents’ voices that can effectively get the word out. We all have to play a role in telling the Columbus story.”

As a resident of Columbus, you may be curious about when you can expect to hear some of your ideas translated into branding initiatives that will be telling Columbus’ story to the world.

“There is no timeline to reach a common slogan or logo that represents all that Columbus has to offer,” said McGinty. “This is the beginning of a long-term partnership of independent organizations. One of the first projects Fahlgren will work on is for our Bicentennial in 2012, and you’ll see elements of that project in the coming months. The Bicentennial is an important milestone for many reasons, and we plan to make the most of it to show our residents and the world how great our city is.”

“As this unique effort moves forward, a singular logo or message may rise to the top and be adopted by the community,” continued McGinty. “But only if it rings true and earns the respect of our residents.”

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