fb-pixel

What is going on with R.I. tourism campaign?

The tourism video features the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, not Rhode Island.
The tourism video features the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, not Rhode Island. (Rhode Island tourism)

First there was the video footage that mistook Iceland for Rhode Island. Then came an inflated claim of a vast array of historic landmarks in the Ocean State. And don’t even start about the defunct restaurants listed on a new tourism website as among the state’s alluring attractions.

Rhode Island’s rollout this week of its first statewide tourism campaign in years was a public debacle that enraged locals and lit up Twitter, frothing up a sea of complaints stretching from Woonsocket to Westerly.

Much of that anger has been focused on the state’s new tourism slogan: “Cooler & Warmer,” a phrase few understood.

Advertisement



“My first impression was like ‘what?’ I really didn’t know what they were talking about,” said Mark Bevington, a Providence-based marketing executive.

Bevington wasn’t alone. The backlash was swift, exacerbated by the fact that the flawed campaign is costing the state about $5 million.

After the slogan’s unveiling, the blunders just kept coming. A promotional video to accompany the campaign included a shot of a skateboarder in front of a distinctive building that turned out to be the famous Harpa concert hall, located almost 2,500 miles away, in Iceland. The new website erroneously boasted that Little Rhody is home to 20 percent of the country’s historic landmarks. And officials needed to remove three names from its restaurant database, after realizing the information was so outdated that two of the restaurants aren’t open right now.

“Obviously, this is not the preferred way to roll out a campaign,” said Betsy Wall, the state’s new chief marketing officer, who once worked as Governor Deval Patrick’s top tourism aide. “But I think the meat of the campaign is really, really strong. . . . The meat of the campaign is not a tagline and not a piece of art.”

The gaffes, while embarrassing, were quickly fixed. But the slogan, well, that may be tougher to shake. The state paid about $500,000 to a consultancy run by Milton Glaser, the man credited with “I Love New York,” for the work, which included designing a new logo.

Advertisement



Glaser’s expensive new catchphrase is tough to even find on the tourism website. The new logo, an image of a billowing sail, is prominent. But “cooler and warmer” is conspicuously absent.

“We don’t have a specific plan for that,” Wall said of the slogan. “We’re trying to make a streamlined appearance for the website, so there’s no extraneous information. There may be a time, design-wise, when it fits better.”

The new logo for a campaign to attract tourism and business to Rhode Island was displayed.
The new logo for a campaign to attract tourism and business to Rhode Island was displayed.(Michelle R. Smith/AP)

Bevington, president at brand marketing firm Ninedot in Providence, said it’s a telltale sign that the tourism arm of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation isn’t actively using the new phrase on its site.

One easy scapegoat: An out-of-state firm designed the slogan. This mess could have been avoided, he said, by picking a local designer instead.

“Milton Glaser is an icon in his field,” Bevington said. “I have the highest regard for him and his studio. But he’s not a Rhode Islander.”

The campaign’s rocky start marks a public setback for Governor Gina Raimondo, a Democrat and former venture capitalist who has basked in waves of positive press since taking office in early 2015.

Raimondo staked some of her political capital on the campaign by pressing to direct hotel taxes toward this statewide effort. She sees vibrant tourism promotion as a crucial part of her efforts to turn around the state’s economic fortunes.

Advertisement



The governor on Wednesday defended the marketing effort to the media, saying it goes well beyond any one video or logo, and that she’s still optimistic this one will be effective in the end. On the bright side, she said, Rhode Island is now showing up in Internet searches about Iceland tourism.

A year ago, statewide tourism spending totaled less than $500,000. But in this fiscal year, under Raimondo’s direction, the total will approach $5 million, including a contract with Havas PR to promote the state to the media.

Wall, who had been the top tourism official in Massachusetts for eight years until Governor Charlie Baker took over, said much of the money will be spent on digital advertising: spreading the word about Rhode Island on the Internet and through social media.

“The campaign is about communicating with real live people about how they’re going to spend their time and their leisure dollars,” Wall said.

Amy Derjue, a Rhode Island native who works in public relations in Boston, was miffed enough by the slogan that she penned a blog post about it. The “warmer” part, she said, tripped up Rhode Islanders, who don’t particularly think of themselves as a warm bunch.

But she acknowledged that it can be hard to describe a state in a catchphrase, even one as small as Rhode Island. “It’s really hard to put an entire state into two words and make it appealing to tourists from around the world . . . and appeal to Rhode Islanders who tend to be a cantankerous bunch of people,” Derjue said. “As much as Bostonians have a bum rap for not liking things, I think Rhode Islanders are possibly worse.”

Advertisement



Jon Duffy, president of Providence marketing firm Duffy & Shanley, said he prefers an earlier slogan, “the biggest little state in the union,” but said it’s too early to know whether the new campaign is a waste of public money.

For years, he said, Rhode Island spent dimes on statewide tourism, compared to Massachusetts’ dollars. Now, at least, his home state can compete.

“I guarantee you that when ‘I love New York’ came out and ‘Virginia is for lovers’ came out, people were like, ‘What’s that?’” Duffy said. “I firmly believe [they] became iconic because they were supported with money and smart strategy. . . . This at least gets us in the game.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com.