no 'mistake' about it: cleveland launches new rebranding effort

Northeast Ohio's convention and visitors bureau wants to change the conversation about Cleveland.
That's not to say we should stop talking about our world-class orchestra, diverse dining scene and rock and roll roots. Those topics still are in play, though our first obligation should be to transform the mindset of potential visitors to the city, says David Gilbert, president and CEO of Positively Cleveland.
That's because an art museum and variety of stadia aren't enough to alter the "visceral reaction" people have to the word "Cleveland," Gilbert explains. "We can mention our orchestra, and people will come back with, 'Yeah, but you're Cleveland.'"
Gilbert's organization invested nearly two years of planning and research into figuring out how to change a perception dominated by images of foreclosed homes and flaming rivers. The effort revealed a simple truth: Folks who had visited Cleveland had a friendlier view of the city than those who had not.
Enfolding those people into the region's fresh narrative is the root of Positively Cleveland's new travel and tourism campaign, unveiled March 19 at the Cleveland Convention Center before a crowd of 900 civic and business leaders.
The multifaceted branding enterprise is designed to bridge a communications gap that ideally will be crossed by millions of business and leisure visitors over the next few years. A rock-scored "brand essence video" evokes a gritty, eclectic and hip urban lifestyle meant to show off Cleveland's unconventional quirkiness.
The campaign will give a key target audience of Millennials and younger GenXers something to talk about as Cleveland competes for tourism dollars with peer cities like Columbus and Pittsburgh, maintains Positively Cleveland chairman Len Komoroski.
"If Millennials say something is hip and cool, other people will think that, too," Komoroski says. "It's about being comfortable in your own skin."
Clevelanders are encouraged to spread that vibe by using the hashtag #ThisIsCLE or the website when they want to share something fun and Cleveland-centric, be it an international film festival or a polka happy hour.
"What we're doing isn't an ad campaign," says Gilbert. "We're asking what will resonate with our potential customers, and who can help put the word out."
Reshaping Cleveland's story doesn't mean back-burnering the city's $16 billion in planned infrastructure improvements or the nine hotels being built between downtown Cleveland and University Circle, notes the bureau president. Positively Cleveland instead aims to connect these dry numbers with the buzz surrounding cool neighborhoods and activities.
"We'll have multiple taglines for multiple audiences," Gilbert says. "The key word is 'flexible.'"
Creating a hip, positive vibe has to feel authentic, says Jeff Finley, vice president of Go Media, an Ohio City firm specializing in branding, graphic design and web development. Cleveland's tourism board was successful in its opening salvo, he believes, with the linking of the area's cultural and infrastructure advantages carrying particular resonance.
"The message felt legitimate and real," Finley says. "It can be a catalyst that helps bring people together."
Finley, 31, wants to be among the vocal advocates of Cleveland's burgeoning brand. In 2010, he founded Weapons of Mass Creation (WMC), an annual art, design and music festival that draws young creatives from all over the country. Finley knows from experience that people who have actually spent time in Cleveland haven't lacked for fun things to see and do. He just hopes the city in its rebranding efforts provides the proper attention to cultural beacons like WMC.
"Instead of saying Aren't we cool?," give people the resources to continue doing what they do," says Finley. "Positively Cleveland has a megaphone to champion what's happening here."
The nonprofit's message is a great one for Clevelanders themselves to uphold, says Cathy Fromet, director of strategy at Studio Graphique. Involving city dwellers as ambassadors gives the campaign a much-needed grassroots feel, she maintains.
"Our best sales agents are the people who live and work here," says Fromet, 39. "We haven't let the negative perception [of the city] hinder us from moving forward."
Keeping that energy going is paramount to Positively Cleveland's plans. The organization estimates that 15.6 million people came to visit the Cleveland area in 2012. Gilbert wants to boost that count to 20 million in five years.
Cleveland might not be "flashy, trendy or perfect," as unapologetically stated in the tourism board's new video, but it shouldn't have to continue to live down its skewed reputation as "the mistake by the lake."
"This is a new way of talking about Cleveland," says Gilbert. "We want to tell our story."

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
Signup for Email Alerts