"A city," Faith Popcorn says, "is really a product."
Faith Popcorn should know. Faith Popcorn knows products. Faith Popcorn is a product herself: the founder, CEO, and very public face of Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve, a New York-based consulting outfit that tracks, forecasts, and promotes consumer trends. With bright-red dye-streaked hair, a made-up lexicon of trends (Cocooning, EGOnomics, Down-Aging), and a knack for the quotable, she is the go-to futurist for the mass media, popping up regularly on CBS, ABC, NBC, and CNN.
Her trendspotting--"Brailling the culture," as she and her employees put it--knows few bounds. BrainReserve has been called in to help launch SnackWell's low-fat-cookie line and then to revive its sales, to upgrade Jiffy Lube's waiting rooms, to help Hasbro sell toys to young mothers. A quick news-database search finds Popcorn's name invoked in discussions of geriatrics, nutrition, financial planning, office-wear, children's bedroom décor, and the Christianity of the Queen of England--a partial list, and that's just since Christmas. She has been doing this for 27 years. Her Web site sells books, audiotapes, and videotapes. In honor of her new book EVEolution, about marketing to women, she has produced a line of home-office furnishings, including a "computer credenza," in a style one observer compared to a girl's French-provincial bedroom set.
But until now, Popcorn's bulging portfolio did not include any metropolitan areas. That oversight has been fixed by the Greater Baltimore Alliance (GBA), the nonprofit marketing group that promotes economic development in the city and five surrounding counties. Last year GBA enlisted BrainReserve, for a fee of $165,000, to apply its marketing expertise to the subject of the region's economic future. "It's the first actual physical place we've worked with," says Tiffany Vasilchik, the company's director of consulting services.
Working with the business-location wing of the Arthur Andersen consulting firm (to which GBA paid $135,000), BrainReserve spent nearly 12 months doing for the region what it did for low-fat cookies--developing a "branding initiative" to "reposition" Baltimore. With surveys, focus groups, and brainstorming sessions, BrainReserve and Arthur Andersen set out to identify this particular product to figure out how to sell it. "We had to do this," GBA spokesperson James Smith says. "As bold, out-of-the-box, and off-the-wall as it seems, we really had to position ourselves."
The result is a report, dated Jan. 10, 2001, a 99-page PowerPoint printout with faith popcorn's brainreserve on the cover. It will be followed up by a branding campaign, created by the local agency GR8, that translates the research into a sales pitch, a new image for the city.
Before starting the project, Popcorn says, she hardly had any image of Baltimore at all. "I guess I almost didn't think of [Baltimore] as Southern," she says. "I didn't think of it as pretty. I didn't think of it as cultured.
"I didn't think of it."
Why, after generations of mostly unexamined civic life, does Baltimore need Faith Popcorn to think about it at all? For what does the city need to be repositioned? Demographics, answers Daniel Malachuk, Arthur Andersen's worldwide director of business-location services. Businesses, he explains, are in a "war for talent," moving to cities where they can find the young, skilled workers they need. The Popcorn report lays it out as a bullet-pointed syllogism:
· In 10-20 years, talent base will be driven by Gen X and Y.
· While companies chase talent, Gen X and Yers are chasing work/life quality.
· Greater Baltimore must position itself as a premier work/life location to attract--and retain--Gen X and Yers.
If current trends continue, by 2010 the region will have lost some 100,000 workers in the target 24-to-44 age group--108,547 workers, the report specifies--as young people migrate away and others fail to migrate in. This is the hard research. The region needs 108,000 more college graduates in its 2010 work force. Without some indication that that's going to happen, Malachuk says, "it's going to be difficult to attract companies or to create growth."
Of course, one way to have more 25-to-44-year-old college graduates in 2010--one way besides bringing in new, high-class people, that is--would be to get today's 15-to-34-year-old Baltimoreans out of jail and off the needle and give them educations. This sort of thing falls outside GBA's promotional mission. "There are already a lot of programs out there helping that constituency," Smith says, not unsympathetically. "We didn't want to reinvent the wheel."
And Ioanna Morfessis, GBA's president and CEO, is emphatic about the need to draw in more people. Without reaching out to educated, skilled workers, she says, the region will see its economy slump--in which case, "our entire community is going to be disenfranchised."
So GBA and GR8 are at work on an image campaign to promote the city among those Xers and Yers. (That "Xers" and "Yers" are real and identifiable groups, with real and identifiable tendencies, is not open to question.) The budding overclass, as anatomized by consumer research, has a picky, often contradictory, collection of desires and needs: They are mobile "free agents" with shallow loyalties, yet (according to Morfessis and Kevin Kelly, GBA's director of the branding project) they define themselves by where they live. They are "carpenters" undoing the mistakes of the baby boom, Morfessis says, but Kelly (speaking, he says, as an Xer himself) says they'd rather move into the houses boomers rehabbed than rehab houses themselves. They would prefer, everyone agrees, not to sit in traffic jams.
And even while the region tries to woo these people, it also has to woo the companies that want to hire them. There is a chicken-and-egg quality to the problem of attracting a work force while also trying to attract jobs, but Arthur Andersen's Malachuk says a region does have to reach out to employers and employees at the same time. Businesses don't find workers "lying around" in places they want to set up shop, he says; rather, business choose locations to which they believe they can induce workers to move. They leave places like Pittsburgh; they go to Denver, Phoenix, Raleigh, Northern California.
The process is fluid. Malachuk describes one corporate client--four-fifths of his work, he estimates, is finding sites for corporations; the rest is finding corporations for sites--that combined hiring and location-finding into one process, on the fly. It gave prospective employees a list of cities to choose from, then used their responses to pick which place would be its headquarters and which cities would have branch offices. The winner, Malachuk says, was Denver--people thought well of it and were willing to move there from other talent centers, such as California, the Northeast, and Texas.
But does Baltimore have the stuff to compete with Denver for mobile young talent? To market itself as Denver East?
"They copied your baseball field," Malachuk says. "They've got a mountain, you've got a bay."
Regional marketing has a long history in these parts. In 1666, George Alsop published A Character of the Province of Maryland, pitching the new colony to prospective indentured servants in England. "[T]he four years I served there were not to me so slavish, as a two years Servitude of a Handicraft Apprenticeship was here in London," Alsop wrote.
Servants in Maryland, he proclaimed, had a better life than those in any other colony. In the summer heat, they were permitted "to repose themselves three hours in the day." In addition. "every servant has a Gun, Powder and Shot allowed him, to sport him withall on all Holidayes and leasurable times." And when a man's indenture was over, the law provided him with "Fifty Acres of Land, Corn to serve him a whole year, three Sutes of Apparel, with things necessary to them, and Tools to work withall."
The basics haven't changed much. "First of all, you've got to have a positive attitude," William Donald Schaefer says. The mayor-cum-governor-cum-comptroller is audibly fired up at the prospect of more promotions. "You've got to sell the city." He begins rattling off local amenities, not excluding the Walters Art Museum, the hospital system, and the Baltimore Blast. Baltimore is "a friendly city for young people," he says. "You've got so much going on for you." He envisions billboards, four or five well-placed ones, on corridors into the city. "I believe in billboards," he says.
Schaefer, in his mayorship, was the master billboarder and sloganeer, the force behind "Charm City" and "Baltimore Is Best." The Kurt Schmoke administration never had the same brio, offering the much-derided "The City That Reads" and the instantly forgotten "Catch the Spirit." Mayor Martin O'Malley, for his part, is back in the game, with "The Greatest City in America."
But there are a lot of Greatest Cities in America vying for consumer attention. "It's a great time in Detroit." "St. Louis. We got it good." "Council Bluffs: Iowa's Leading Edge." "Akron, it's alive."
"Most branding statements for cities are absolutely terrible," says Andrew Levine, president of Development Councellors International, which specializes in producing branding statements for cities. A successful city brand, Levine says, "has to be simple, has to be short, and it has to be defensible." This last point is critical. The best slogans, he says, evoke the "unique selling quality" that sets one place apart.
Thus, Memphis, Tenn., with the Mississippi River, FedEx headquarters, and major truck lines, has spent the last 12 years presenting itself as "America's Distribution Center," enlarging its share of the shipping industry. Tacoma, Wash., turned out to have a superior communications infrastructure, which allowed it to successfully tout itself as "America's No. 1 Wired City." But it had to have the wires first.
"You can't brand something you're not," says Tom Altemus, commissioner of Vermont's Department of Tourism and Marketing. For Vermont, he says, that meant some hard lessons.
"We thought we were a place that people came to see the people," he says. "That was a myth we had about ourselves--that the Vermont people were so special." Culture and history, both points of local pride, were likewise nonstarters. "Everybody expected history in Virginia or Massachusetts," he says. "We couldn't get up and say, 'Come to Vermont and experience our great history.' But we could say things like 'outdoor recreation.'"
So Vermont's brand identity is a nuanced thing. "Our brand character [is] one of peace and quiet and relaxation--and beauty, but in a gentle way," says Altemus, who managed Michigan's brand before moving to Vermont. Studies showed Vermont was "the kind of place that made you feel good about yourself. It didn't make you feel great. It didn't excite you. It didn't thrill you. . . .
"You start with what you are, because you can't build from what you're not. If you give me a picture of Baltimore that has no real relevance to what I might think, I'm not going to put you on the short list."
This would seem to rule out Baltimore's taste for being the best or the greatest. But Popcorn expresses sentiments not unlike those of our singing mayor. "I think people who live in Baltimore should believe that they're living in the best city in the world," she says.
"You hear New Yorkers say that all the time."
But don't New Yorkers live in, ah, New York?
"It won't be the same kind of people that feel that way," Popcorn says.
Changing how people feel about a city, though, is not the same as changing how people feel about the average consumer product. The notion that they are the same, that every identity is a brand identity, is a fairly recent one; its manifesto was a 1997 article in the business magazine Fast Company by famed management guru Tom Peters, titled "The Brand Called You." "Today," Peters wrote, "brands are everything." This assumes, however, that all activities can be reduced to shopping.
Repositioning can be simple for actual commercial brands. This is ad-biz gospel: From the 1900s through the early '50s, Phillip Morris' Marlborough cigarettes (renamed Marlboro in 1925) were ladies' cigarettes, advertised in women's magazines as "Mild as May." They had red filters, to hide lipstick marks. Then in 1954, with brand sales in a coma, adman Leo Burnet engineered a new flip-top pack, and put the distaff smokes in the hand of a cowboy. And that was that.
"With products, sometimes it's easier to refine the product offerings," BrainReserve's Tiffany Vasilchik concedes. "You could do a product redesign in 12 to 18 months."
To reinvent a city means dealing with everything the city is. Take Baltimore, as seen by The Washington Post 22 years ago: "a national symbol of urban renaissance," with a "classy skyline" and "revitalized neighborhoods," its 850,000 residents bursting with civic pride. That description appeared in a 1979 profile of then-Mayor Schaefer. In the two decades that followed, a quarter of those proud citizens cleared out, and Mobtown's image nosedived. By 1987, with the decline nowhere near bottom, the Morris Goldseker Foundation issued its famous "Baltimore 2000" report, diagnosing "rot beneath the glitter."
A new coat of glitter--niche-marketed to upwardly mobile young adults--is not going to do much on its own. What GBA and GR8 hope to do is reshape the whole meaning of "Baltimore," to promote the whole region as a whole region. "When a site-location consultant looks at Baltimore," GBA's Kevin Kelly says, "more than likely, this person knows very little about Bel Air, Columbia, Annapolis."
"This can't be a city slogan," alliance spokesperson James Smith says. "It has to be a regional slogan."
So after one year and $300,000, this is the positioning statement Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve presented to the Greater Baltimore Alliance: "Greater Baltimore is the one region where community, education, and business enable the individual to thrive."
"The plus of it, I'll say," professional city-brander Levine offers, "is that it's sort of focused on the end user or the company or the person that they're trying to get to move to Baltimore.
"Could you take 'Greater Baltimore' off there and put in Austin or put in Chicago?" he adds. "Probably. That's a downside."
But Development Councellors International is an inside-the-box kind of company, which has been marketing cities--not furniture or lube shops--for 40 years. Levine explains his work by saying things like, "You have to think from the self-interest of a business, which is: How can my business operate more profitably in this location?" For an initial statement and a marketing blueprint, he charges about $40,000.
"Brailling the culture" is a far more expensive proposition. By focusing on consumer trends and on the desires of future residents rather than on plain economic infrastructure, Morfessis says, GBA is "blazing a new trail." What BrainReserve and Arthur Andersen did, she argues, is qualitatively different from a standard location-marketing campaign.
That is almost certainly the case. The BrainReserve packet, which works within the framework of Faith Popcorn-certified trends, is built around six "Key Insights"--which works out to $27,500 per insight. Key Insight No. 1 addresses the question of positioning Greater Baltimore with respect to cocooning--one of Popcorn's greatest hits, coincident with the rise of the VCR, which originally described the tendency of people to want to stay snug at home. It's expanded in the report (Popcorn trends being highly open-ended) to cover "the need to protect oneself from the harsh, unpredictable realities of the outside world."
"Greater Baltimore," Key Insight No. 1 announces, "needs to offer conspicuously safe cities and counties, as well as diverse and affordable housing."
What makes Key Insight No. 1 impressive is that it manages to be both howlingly obvious and untrue. It is indisputable in a generic sense--What place would build its image around dangerous streets and overpriced housing?--but misses the facts about Greater Baltimore entirely. Greater Baltimore already has plenty of affordable housing, and it has wonderfully safe streets. They're just not in the same place. You can buy a house on North Broadway for pocket change. You can stroll alone at night through Fallston. You can't do it the other way around.
This is an important distinction. It is the distinction GBA must make. In it is all the trouble--and all the hope--of the region. The whole notion of misery in the city and bounty in the counties depends on the artificial effects of the city line. Taking the metropolitan area as a metropolitan area, encompassing Cherry Hill and Sandtown-Winchester andOwings Mills and Annapolis, the overall picture improves immensely. Baltimore's crippling urban problems become treatable regional ones; the airless suburbs become quiet outskirts. A brand that could convey that specific vision would be a valuable brand indeed.
But there is nothing visionary in the report. The Key Insights, shoehorned into Popcorn's trend categories, have the empty familiarity of any focus-group message. Greater Baltimore needs better transportation access . . . quality education and child care . . . a welcoming attitude toward diversity. That sums up Nos. 2 through 4. Here's No. 5: "Greater Baltimore must offer a clean and attractive region with affordable and diverse cultural, recreational, and entertainment options." No. 6: "Greater Baltimore must be a place that retains and attracts GenX/GenY . . . by understanding their unique needs, abilities and aspirations."
The layperson, Joe Formstone, may not have known that effective transportation relates to Popcorn's "99 Lives" trend ("Too fast a pace . . . forces us to assume multiple roles"), or that a clean and attractive region aligns with the trends of "Small Indulgences" and "Being Alive." He may not even have suspected that Being Alive was a consumer trend. But Joe Formstone certainly knows that you can't take the subway to Penn Station and that Howard Street is strewn with trash, and that the city would be better off if these things were different.
"I think all the insights have been built on very specific needs that the region has," BrainReserve's Vasilchik says. She points to the back half of the report, with its "Roadmap to the Future," a laundry list of short-, medium- and long-term recommendations for action. More bullet points, coded by shape, mark whose responsibility each item is.
Many of the items have square bullets, indicating that they're GBA's job. The alliance is dedicating itself to improving the region's presence online, targeting the right companies to move here, and launching a national product-design competition. It's also supposed to promote "Baltimore's Brightest" in the press; Popcorn helpfully includes a list of suitably buzzy outlets, including YM, the Miramax debacle Talk, and the late JFK Jr.'s George, which announced it was following its founder into oblivion six days before BrainReserve issued its report.
The first GBA bullet point, though, is "gain internal buy-in around vision for greater Baltimore with key stakeholders": government; community, business, and educational leaders; the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association; Gen X and Y residents. Which is necessary, because there are plenty of chores to go around. In the short term, city government, for instance, needs to "explore programs for affordable housing," "develop increased access to other markets," and "clean up areas surrounding Penn Station." The convention association needs to "continue to promote . . . arts and culture, sports, water recreation, and entertainment facilities." Community members need to "support 4H/other youth development clubs."
"It starts with the community buying into the whole project," Smith says. "This is not a GBA project. [It] has to have community buy-in." Without that community buy-in, Kelly adds, "this falls flat."
But the agenda is dauntingly far-reaching. (Bullet point: "clean up crime.") The message seems to be that the way to bring 100,000 college graduates to Baltimore is to make Baltimore a place that 100,000 college graduates would want to live.
Still, while the city is trying to clean up its act for hypothetical future yuppies, it's time to get future yuppies thinking about Baltimore. The hiring of Faith Popcorn is itself a step in this direction; Baltimore is now, like Hasbro or Estee Lauder, part of the BrainReserve promotional file. "There's definitely a benefit to that, in terms of the PR aspect," Kelly says. When Popcorn pitches her services to a Fortune 500 company, she can pitch Greater Baltimore too.
Mainly, though, there's the matter of the region's new brand identity. What face will we present to those media-savvy Xers and Yers? The report floats a few prospective slogans--not slogans, really, but proto-slogans, to inspire the creative professionals at GR8 in coming up with the real thing.
"Greater Baltimore, the portal to success."
"Greater Baltimore, the portal to communities of opportunity."
"Believe in Baltimore. We believe in you."
"Live, work, dream, Baltimore."
"Baltimore is better."
"Baltimore is better"? A quarter-century of worrying about rot and glitter and the best we can do is dial a Schaefer slogan down from the superlative to the comparative?
GR8 is working on it. And working on it: The branding campaign, scheduled for a March 23 rollout, was put on hold by GBA earlier this month, following a preliminary presentation to the alliance's board. "We need a little more work on the community-improvement piece," Morfessis says. A region, it turns out, is a complicated thing to work with.
When Baltimore's new image does debut, GBA says, it will be a complicated thing in its own right. The alliance envisions not just one Baltimore brand, but a family of brands united under a Greater Baltimore brand umbrella, the way Pontiac, Cadillac, Chevrolet, and Oldsmobile are united under General Motors. There will be old brands and newly created ones, the Inner Harbor and the Digital Harbor and Johns Hopkins University. Whether the less successful parts of the package will be dropped, like the Oldsmobile line, is unclear.
But what is to be Greater Baltimore's central brand message, its "Just Do It," its "We Bring Good Things to Life"? While the final decision is deferred, GR8 offers an online preview of what's to come. At gba.gr8.com/survey, the agency is polling consumers about four possible ad messages.
The survey offers each motto by itself, and then presents it with an explanation, supplemental slogans, and possible accompanying images. Denver can sleep soundly. The first entry is "Be in Baltimore"--as in, "Be Motivated. Be in Baltimore" or "Be a Leader. Be in Baltimore." The second is "re: Baltimore" ("re: Success," "re: Innovation"). Then comes "Inside Out": "A Day, Inside Out," "Grow, Inside Out."
The real prize comes at the end: "Baltimore, Suits to Nuts." This message, the site says helpfully, "is a lighthearted play on the phrase 'Soup-to-Nuts.' It demonstrates that Baltimore has something for everyone, from A-Z."
There is, in this, a faint echo of John Waters' address to the Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce last summer, in which our most successful local image-maker urged civic leaders to drop the usual boosterish pap and focus on the city's tradition of seaminess and grotesquerie. "This is the strangest, coolest, most peculiar city in America," he said. The best slogan for the city, he offered, would be "Come to Baltimore and Be Shocked!"
But here's what "Baltimore, Suits to Nuts" might look like, according to GR8: "In an elevator on the way to work--an older guy with a starched white shirt and tie and long baggy shorts--carrying his laptop and a folded up razor scooter."
This is mortifying--middle-school-dance mortifying. Razor scooter? Come to Baltimore and ride your Razor scooter?
The problem is that civic advertising is inherently, irredeemably corny. It's a corny idea. The city-as-product can never achieve the basic goal of advertising. Real advertisers don't truly want you to like them, or to feel tenderly toward them, or to think they're cool. They just want you to buy something. When Stephen L. Miles brays his own praises, he doesn't care if you think he's a jackass--he just wants potential clients to know his name. When McDonald's hits you with a schmaltzy dad-and-son breakfast vignette, all it really intends, in the end, is for you to buy an Egg McMuffin.
But you can't buy a city. You can live in one, happily or unhappily. You can decide to move in or move away. It's not a simple consumer transaction. When a city begs for your affection or your respect, it's actually begging for your affection or respect. And that, in the end, conveys the clearest message of all.