When the bigger world considers Florida's different metro areas, what do they imagine? Orlando's got Disney and theme parks — though it now wants to be known for more than that. Miami is urban chic, tropical and the Latin gateway.
And Tampa Bay? When researchers at Tampa marketing firm Spark last year started digging deep into what comes to people's minds for this area, what did they find?
A blank slate.
"We do not have a brand," says James Robbins, Spark's brand director. And places without a brand end up with consumers conjuring one of their own, he warns, showing an image of a local strip club that too often stands in as Tampa's identity in the national media.
Folks who pitch this area for a living to the tourism industry and meeting planners realized they lacked a clear "elevator pitch" — that 30-second sales message — that captured the Tampa Bay region and would compel more people to consider coming here.
"We realized we needed to coalesce our message as to who we are and what this destination is in a succinct way," says Doug McLain, marketing vice president at Tampa Bay & Co., the Tampa/Hillsborough tourism marketing agency.
Tampa Bay pays representatives to sell this region in places as far flung as Chicago and Washington, D.C., London, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
"All of us struggled with how to describe ourselves," says McLain, who relocated here last year after completing a branding campaign for Kansas City, the Midwest city split between Kansas and Missouri.
Spark is leading an effort for Tampa Bay & Co. to develop a brand that captures not just Tampa but the entire Tampa Bay region.
"This is tough," Robbins concedes.
And McLain wants to take the brand farther. He's just starting to share Spark's research and initial branding ideas to groups across this region — from county governments and chambers of commerce to economic development agencies and, of course, his direct counterpart at the Visit St. Pete/Clearwater tourism agency that promotes Pinellas County area beaches.
Wow. I admire McLain's vision. I hope he's ready for the tough sell that comes with getting this region to embrace one idea.
"We expect challenges and questions," McLain admits. He wants the depth of research on branding to guide him.
"There is a momentum and crescendo to push this area as the Tampa Bay region," McLain says. It started with the Buccaneers football team, an early adopter of "Tampa Bay," and has spread, he suggests, to include the Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Lightning, USF's recent adoption of "Tampa Bay" in its own marketing campaigns, as well as the recent renaming of the Tampa Bay Times newspaper and the related Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Spark research includes interviews with 3,000 people: locals, visiting tourists, meeting planners and distant businesspeople. The yearlong branding project is halfway done and, after sitting in on some briefings to area tourism executives in the past week, some of the results are telling.
Tampa Bay suffers from a plain-vanilla reputation in an increasingly cappuccino-crunch world. Tampa Bay's perceived as warm. The people are friendly. The area has beaches. And it's considered affordable. That's all fine — but too boring.
Even among Florida destinations picked as favorites, Tampa Bay ranks fourth behind Orlando, Miami/Fort Lauderdale and the Florida Keys. That does not surprise me, but tourism leaders here want to do better.
Some of Tampa Bay & Co.'s executive board, briefed Thursday on the branding research so far, wondered if the region's ready to rally around one brand.
"We are not at that point yet," suggested Jim Bartholomay, general manager at the Renaissance Tampa International Plaza Hotel.
Fellow board member Ken Anthony of the Affinity Insurance Agency urged the push for a regional brand. "If we wait for a full buy-in, it will never happen," he said. "We may have to bring some people kicking and screaming."
He's probably got that right.
In this effort to find the right brand, Spark CEO Tony Miller encourages area business leaders to be bold, to pick a brand that can inspire people to come here.
"Do we want to be what we are now or something more than that?" asks Miller, who came here 30 years ago. "This is an opportunity. Let's get people excited. Let's make us stand for something."
Last week, Spark narrowed four options or "positioning statements" — researchers stress they are not slogans or tag lines — to one likely candidate: "Seize Life Daily."
One tourism executive thought it sounded too much like the popularized "Carpe Diem" or "seize the day" phrase. Google the phrase "Seize Life Daily" and the first website listed is a South Korean Catholic junior high school ministry.
But "Seize Life Daily" may be fine-tuned in the months to come before a final brand is unveiled in early summer.
Branding is clearly in vogue.
Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development arm, has hired outside firms to come up with an overall brand for "Florida business."
Orlando, now frustrated that its brand is pigeonholed as a mega theme park for tourists, just launched a $200,000 brand campaign to highlight more of the area's business potential beyond tourism.
The trend runs well beyond Florida. Dallas launched a branding campaign this fall called "Big Things Happen Here." Nearby, the Texas town of Denison endorsed "Moving Forward Kicking Back." Kansas City — McLain's last stop — chose a brand based on the theme "America's Creative Crossroads."
None of these brands, including whatever Tampa Bay ultimately chooses, means much unless everybody agrees to embrace and promote it.
Without buy-in, says hotel manager Bartholomay, "a new name is worthless."
Adds McLain: "We have a great Tampa Bay story to tell."
This branding process still has miles to go and many people still to convince of its merit. But what's the alternative? A "Tampa Bay" with no particular identity serves nobody.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.