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The Slogans That Never Sleep: How to Brand a City

In mid-March the convention and visitors' bureau for Cleveland, Ohio, unveiled a new branding campaign for the city of about 400,000. The campaign, developed after "years of research" and many focus groups, had a theme, a logo, a website, and a hashtag. What it didn't have, the bureau insisted, was a slogan.

Gone was the old (unofficial) "Cleveland Rocks" slogan. Long gone was the older (official) "Cleveland: It'll Rock You." In its place was a blandly demonstrative declaration: "This Is Cleveland." But don't call it a slogan, said the bureau's president; instead, think of those three words as "a repository," "a collection of stories," and a way to "change the narrative."

A sample set of one isn't much to build a thesis on. Still, I wonder whether the Cleveland example represents the sunset of the age of city slogans — an era that gave us a mixed and colorful bag of memorable marketing, blatant ballyhoo, and populist poetry.

City slogans exist throughout the world — often surfacing before a major event such as the World Cup — but they're most at home in North America. Elsewhere (and here, too), cities often have official mottoes: high-flown phrases, sometimes in dead languages, emblazoned on seals and coats of arms. The word motto hints at that seriousness of purpose: it was imported directly from the Italian in the 16th century, when it signified a saying attached to a heraldic design. London's motto is the Latin Domine dirige nos ("Lord direct us"); Paris's is the lyrical Fluctuat nec mergitur ("Tossed by the waves, she does not founder").

One of the oldest city mottoes — it's said to date back to the 13th-century reign of Alfonso X — is that of Seville, Spain. The motto is "No me ha dejado" — "She [Seville] has not abandoned me" — but it's represented as a rebus, or pictorial word puzzle: NO8DO. The 8 in the middle is actually a skein, or coil, of yarn, the Spanish word for which is "madeja." Said aloud, "no madeja do" sounds almost exactly like "no me ha dejado." The rebus-motto appears throughout the city.


Town hall sign. Image from Inside the Travel Lab.

Even Cleveland has an official motto: "Peace and Prosperity."

Cities often have nicknames, too. A nickname — the word is a mis-division of Old English eke-name, or "additional name" — is unofficial and often anonymously created. Paris is the City of Light; Rome is the Eternal City. At least 31 U.S. cities, including Cincinnati and Denver, are known as "the queen city." New York City is known as The City That Never Sleeps and — even more famously — as The Big Apple, a moniker whose origins Barry Popik has traced to 1920s racetrack slang. The Big Apple casts a long shadow: Minneapolis is known as The Mini-Apple; Honolulu as The Big Pineapple; Manhattan, Kansas, as The Little Apple.

Cleveland has several nicknames, including C-town, The Forest City, The Rock 'n' Roll Capital of the World, and Comeback City. San Francisco also has several nicknames; my favorite is The City That Waits to Die. New Orleans has at least 20 nicknames — The Big Easy, The Crescent City, and The City That Care Forgot are three of the most famous — but none of them appears on the city's flag.

A slogan is a different proposition. (As long as we're doing the etymological circuit, the word comes from Gaelic sluagh-ghairm, "battle cry." It came to mean "a distinctive word or phrase used by a political or other group" in the early 18th century.) City slogans serve as advertising; they're intended to boost tourism and rally civic spirit. While they may carry some of the weight of mottoes, and have more official backing than nicknames, they can be changed at the whim of the powers that be.

Slogans' sources are different than those of mottoes and nicknames. A motto is imposed from above (the king, the city founders); a nickname bubbles up from below (reporters, ordinary citizens). Slogans, by contrast, usually have commercial pedigrees. They're bought and paid for — and meant to be consumed, like corn flakes.

In the past, cities and towns (or the largest employer therein) often sponsored civic slogan contests. In a 1911 contest, Modesto, California, chose an immodest but lyrical city slogan: "Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health." (The prize: $3.) That slogan, now considered unofficial, still adorns a downtown arch. A 1929 contest produced "The Biggest Little City in the World," the long-lasting slogan of Reno, Nevada. (The winner, one G.A. Burns of Sacramento, received $100.) That slogan, too, appears on a downtown arch.

Real-estate developers tried their hand at sloganeering as well. In 1925 Jacob Ruppert, who owned the New York Yankees from 1915 to 1939, bought a swath of swampy real estate in Florida adjoining the team's spring-training field. He dubbed the property Ruppert Beach and gave it the long-winded slogan "Where Every Breath Brings Added Health and Every Moment Pleasure." Unfortunately, in September 1926 a massive hurricane struck the region. Ruppert Beach was never built.

In recent years, advertising agencies and branding consultancies have jumped into the game. City branding as a discipline goes back to "the industrial decline and fiscal stress of the 1970s," when graphic designer Milton Glaser developed "I New York," writes American sociologist Sharon Zukin in The Guardian (UK). "By the 1990s, every city wanted to be like New York ... From Las Vegas to Seoul, city governments reshaped their convention and visitors' bureaus into more professional, market-savvy organizations, revved up their advertising budgets and hired brand consultants to show them the ropes."

A Kansas City travel-marketing agency, MMGY Global, created the new "This Is Cleveland" campaign. A Las Vegas branding agency, R&R Partners, came up with the spectacularly successful "What Happens Here, Stays Here" for Las Vegas more than a decade ago. Earlier this year, Philadelphia unveiled a new slogan, "PHL: Here for the Making," developed by a local agency, Mighty Engine.

That Philly slogan replaces one introduced less than five years ago: "Life • Liberty • And You" (which in turn replaced "The City That Loves You Back"). The 2009 slogan was created by a committee (65 people!), which is yet another way contemporary city slogans are birthed. Indianapolis had been represented for years by "Enjoy Indiana" until, in the mid-2000s, a committee consisting of 14 civic, business, and nonprofit groups was charged with replacing it. They spent $350,000 and came up with "The New Midwest" — which flopped miserably with focus groups. While writing this article I checked the official city and visitors' bureau website: still no Indianapolis slogan.

If the committee approach strikes you as full of comic potential, you aren't alone. In a March 2014 episode of the NBC series "Parks and Recreation," city councilor Leslie Knope creates an online contest for a slogan for the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. The contest includes a write-in option, which elicits a raft of execrable entries, including the misspelled "When Your Here, Than Your Home" — which, perhaps inevitably, is voted the winner.

What makes a popular and enduring city slogan? A catchy jingle can help — although, as a recent "This American Life" segment revealed, one slogan-song has been duplicated more than 100 times, for cities from Calgary to Knoxville to Milwaukee. (The slogan couldn't be simpler: "Hello, [name of city].") Rhyme can help, as with Modesto's slogan or Spring Lake, Michigan's "Where Nature Smiles for Seven Miles."

For small towns and villages with more gumption than budget, a little wit goes a long way. The city slogan of Peculiar, Missouri (population 4,794) is "Where the Odds Are with You." MicKinleyville, California (population 15,177): "Where Horses Have the Right of Way." San Andreas, California: "It's Not Our Fault." (For that one, it helps to know your geological references.)

Sadly, though, one of the best of the playful city slogans is no longer official. I refer to Yuma, Arizona's "Experience Our Sense of Yuma." Ann Walker, of the local visitors' bureau, told NBC News in 2013 that the slogan was shelved because "some people" didn't like it. "But it still pops up because lots of people will always enjoy a really good, cheesy pun."

It's certainly more memorable than, say, "This Is Yuma."


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Friday May 16th, 1:47 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Seattle has an old and unofficial nickname--"Jet City," an obvious choice, and one that arose spontaneously. I'm not sure the kids these days would recognize it or know why we have that moniker, but it does survive in the names of a couple dozen businesses.

In 1981 the tourism people sponsored a contest to come up with an official nickname (contradiction in terms?), and selected "The Emerald City" from among the entries. Not inappropriate, and it's gotten traction--MANY businesses include it as part of their name, e.g. Emerald City Espresso. I counted about 170 on Yelp.

Apparently and like many cities, we had a "Queen City [of the Northwest]" designation at one point, though you don't see that around here much now. And you still see traces here and there that Seattle was once the "Gateway to Alaska," based on Seattle's extremely profitable role as the staging point for the Yukon gold rush in 1897(!).
Friday May 16th, 8:53 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Retrospective of Baltimore slogans here: http://www.baltimoresun.com/features/bal-baltimore-slogans-pictures-20140124,0,2100763.photogallery. I think they're still going with "Believe" these days, which sometimes works but can be very ironic when juxtaposed with areas of blight and the homicide rate.
Friday May 16th, 8:56 AM
Comment by: Edward A. (New York, NY, NY)
Not the first time Cleveland has tried to rebrand itself:
http://rustwire.com/2012/02/14/an-illustrated-history-of-clevelands-varied-attempts-at-rebranding/

I still remember (and cringe at) the "Cleveland's a Plum" campaign in the 80s.
Friday May 16th, 11:27 AM
Comment by: Julie C
I always loved the slogan for Oxnard, CA: "We're more than just a pretty name"
Monday May 19th, 11:39 AM
Comment by: Charles N.
How about your take on airport names, Nancy? Here in Humboldt County California ("Where the Redwoods Meet the Sea") the airport in McKinleyville was just renamed: "California Redwood Coast - Humboldt County Airport." It's a mouthful and I for one cannot remember it.

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