Opinion

opinion | Mike Ross

Forget the brand: Sell Boston

What happens in Boston, not Vegas: tour guides dressed as British redcoats.

file 2010/John Tlumacki/globe staff

What happens in Boston, not Vegas: tour guides dressed as British redcoats.

By now we’ve all heard about the hysterical Vegas lawyers who sent Boston tourism officials a cease and desist letter for recently using the tagline, “What Happens in Boston Changes the World.”

“We call that a ‘snow clone’ in the business,” said Eric Swartz, a self-dubbed tagline guru. “It’s when you borrow the trappings of a familiar line.” As in, “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.”

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So much focus has been placed on a city’s tagline that you can’t blame Boston for trying. For years we’ve been looking for that word or phrase to best describe who we are, but have never been quite satisfied enough to stick with just one. We’ve gone from the Napoleonic — Hub of the Universe — to the Hellenic — Athens of America — to the sophomoric — Beantown. One of our earliest sobriquets was “City upon a Hill.” Most recently we’ve adopted “Boston Strong,” a powerful statement but limited in its application.

A tagline can be brilliantly descriptive, like when people call Detroit the “Motor City” — or it can be brutally deceptive, like when they call Detroit “The Paris of the Midwest.”

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Some cities have it easy. Take Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. It never even had a choice — translated “philos” is Greek for loving and “adelphos,” brother. Others like the Big Apple (New York) and the Big Easy (New Orleans) fit like a glove.

My favorite is Silicon Valley — for its a cleverly descriptive name, sure, but more so for its success. You know both your brand and region are strong when everyone is copying you. There’s Silicon Alley (Manhattan), Silicon Prairie (Midwest), and several dozen Silicon-prefixed areas worldwide. (Note to the litigious Vegas set: No one sued).

But here’s the thing. Taglines don’t matter. Neither does a smart moniker.

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What does matter is the money and effort put behind the campaign to promote the city, state, or region. According to Swartz, “A mediocre slogan that’s well marketed does better than a great slogan that sits on a shelf.” He’s right.

Vegas isn’t successful because it has a clever slogan. It’s successful because you’re watching its commercial on your television in Boston. That, and, well, it’s Vegas. But it works for just about anyone.

Enter the “Pure Michigan” campaign. You’ve seen the ads. The piano, the soft yet steady voice of the announcer, the oddly seductive images of snow, water, trees, and mist. I find myself suddenly wanting to go there. Suddenly, to Pure Michigan.

It’s called advertising. It works for beer, deodorant, and breakfast cereal, and it works for Michigan. In 2009 Michigan officials decided to market their state. Within a year they saw out-of-state visitor spending grow by 21 percent, and for the first time surpass in-state travelers. Their $25 million tourism budget is sixth in the country, and they claim a quadruple return on their investment in tax revenue received by the state for every dollar invested. Said differently — the more they spend, the more money they make.

So where do we stand? Massachusetts is 33rd in tourism spending nationwide. And Boston, well, we haven’t actually been known for our international marketing. Some of our sister cities have begun calling to check to see if we’re still family.

We tend to rest on our laurels, assuming the world is lining up to see the Paul Revere House and stop by Cheers for a pint. As iconic as those places may be, they can’t replace the value created by a sustained marketing effort that highlights the full range of Boson’s attractions, and especially when every other city is doing so.

Particularly when new markets are opening. According to state tourism chief Betsy Wall, within the next two years, China alone will see 100 million new world travelers get on a plane. And having just announced our city’s first direct flight to China, this is a perfect growth area for us. We need to recognize that Logan Airport is a critical economic development tool. And being the closest major US city to our airport (3.5 miles to downtown) and to Europe, why wouldn’t we create additional direct flights to capture all the more?

The Walsh administration has an opportunity to relaunch our city’s marketing strategy by prioritizing out-of-state and international tourism alongside our state and city partners. And if we do that, what happens in Boston might just be more than a great new slogan.

Mike Ross is a Boston city councilor.
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