Can new ideas restore shine to Florida's brand?

Gov. Rick Scott last week took two days to head out on Visit Florida's four-city whirlwind "Share a Little Sunshine" tour, promoting Florida to frozen folks in Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago.

This isn't new. Former Gov. Charlie Crist did a version of it, and governors before him, too. It's what modern Florida has always done: pitch itself as fun in the sun, as vacation destination, as America's paradise.

Because of the recession, though, some important factors have shifted. The last three years, say many who study the state's present and past, were not just a rejiggering, but a more fundamental reordering. Florida, they say, is not what it was.

Sullying the sunny brand are nagging unemployment and foreclosures. Some wonder if the Sunshine State isn't becoming the Sunset State.

The message the state sends to potential visitors or residents matters to those who live here. All of us. It has a lot to say about the state's character, economy and priorities.

Maybe it's time for a reconsidering of the brand. Who do we think we are? Who does everybody else think we are? What's the message we're sending?

• • •

Florida is tourism.

Those three words make up the first sentence of the new book Sunshine Paradise: A History of Florida Tourism. "For nearly a century," Tracy Revels writes, "Florida has been defined by what outsiders expect of the state, a constantly evolving land of fantasy and illusion."

Officially, Visit Florida is the state's tourism marketing agency; realistically, it's the state's de facto public relations firm.

Until the 20th century, Florida was not a place most anybody wanted to be — not to live, not to visit. It was too wet where it was wet, too dry where it was dry, and generally dangerous, isolated and inhospitable.

Over the last 100-plus years, though, tourism took Florida from a spot for the ill to get well to an exotic game preserve for the rich to a playground for the middle class. Roadside kitsch gave way to Mickey Mouse ears.

Tourism has been good for Florida. It's a $60-billion-a-year industry. And tourism has been not so good for Florida. It's helped create an unbalanced economy heavy on the low-wage service industry. The governor said in announcing the "Sunshine" tour that every 85 visitors to the state create one job. What he didn't say was that that's a lot of motel maids and fast-food clerks.

"Florida is the destination when people think about sunshine and great family getaways," Visit Florida's Kenneth Morgan said.

"Why," he asked, "would it be necessary to tweak the branding?"

• • •

Many of the factors that made Florida's tourism boom in the last half of the last century also made the population explode. Exponential increases in leisure time and household income in post-World War II America. A robust or at least stable middle class. Easy interstate travel greased by low-priced gas. An intangible sense of the country's collective optimism.

That equation has changed. How much — and to what end — is harder to pin down.

Florida's population in 1950 was under 3 million. It's now nearly 20 million. From 2005 to 2009, though, the state went from attracting about 400,000 people a year to losing some 60,000 in '09.

In the history of tourism in Florida, and in fact in the modern history of the state as a whole, there are two major before-and-after events. One is World War II. The other is the opening of Disney World in 1971.

But the Great Recession could end up being a third.

Time magazine in 2008 called the Sunshine State the Sunset State. In the story, Crist, the governor at the time, said: "How can you not be optimistic about Florida? Is there a more beautiful place on the planet?" The state's old tried-and-true. Sunshine as stimulus. But Florida's economy got worse after he said that, before it started to get even the littlest bit better.

University of Florida history professor David Colburn and Florida State public policy professor Lance deHaven-Smith in 2002 wrote a book called Florida's Megatrends: Critical Issues in Florida. They put out a second edition in 2010 because they had to.

"The consequences of the recession," they wrote, "were so profound and widespread in 2008 and 2009 that projections we had made for the 21st century in the first edition were simply no longer valid."

They urged Florida's leaders to do some "rethinking and reformulating."

• • •

"You keep as much of the old brand as you can," veteran marketing man Ken Banks said.

Banks has been the marketing head for PetSmart, Circuit City and Eckerd Drugs. He's on the advisory board at UF's advertising school.

"The biggest revenue producer we have, still, is tourism, as long as there are 3 feet of snow in Boston and Chicago," said Banks, who's 65 and lives in Seminole. "But I think you can ask, 'Well, what else do we need to do here?' "

Michelle Bauer of the Common Language communications firm in St. Petersburg thinks Florida should no longer be the Sunshine State. Instead? The Baby Boomer State.

"They're such a perfect demographic group around which to build your brand," she said. There are nearly 80 million of them, and they're starting to retire, if they still can afford to. "They represent this demographics bonanza for Florida's future."

To which Charles Armstrong says: No, please, no. That is Florida's past.

"If you're trying to position the state as a progressive, innovative leader in the country," said the CEO of Tampa's Spark Labs, "you need to be appealing to the 20-somethings, not the 50-somethings."

"I think Florida is something different to everybody," said Pam Moore of FruitZoom, a social media marketing agency in Tampa. "If I were to brand it, I would do some surveys asking, 'What is Florida to you?' How cool would that be? Let the world tell us what they think Florida is."

Moore recently posed the question to her almost 47,000 Twitter followers.

What she got back was: Spring break. And retirement. Orange juice and alligators. Palm trees and relaxation. South Beach and Disney. Old people.

The problem with this, though, is that it feels dated, and definitely incomplete.

There is no single Florida. Jacksonville feels like Georgia, Miami feels like Latin America, and Spring Hill feels like Staten Island. "We're a very diverse state," said Mark Freid of Think Creative in Orlando.

"The more broad you are," he added, "the harder it is to pursue a specific audience" — and the harder it is to craft a viable singular image or message.

"In many ways," Colburn and deHaven-Smith wrote in Megatrends, "Florida is at the forefront of possibilities and challenges that will confront much of the nation.

"If Florida is indeed a bellwether — and we think it is — then the nation's transition to a larger-than-ever senior population and increasing racial and ethnic diversity is likely to be tumultuous."

That's probably not going to find its way into a Visit Florida ad campaign.

• • •

In November 2008, Gary Mormino, a history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, wrote a piece for Tampa Bay's Creative Loafing set 50 years into the future. "The descent from Sunshine State to Shutdown State began in 2009," he wrote.

"The state that once trafficked in the fantasies of millions of retired auto workers and transplanted New Yorkers simply ran out of new dreams, and old solutions no longer made sense."

Mormino now is less alarmist.

"The historian in me," he said the other day, "always comes back to perspective."

He offered up an excerpt from an essay from The Nation. "Dead subdivisions line the highway, their pompous names half-obliterated on crumbling stucco gates. … Whole sections of outlying subdivisions are composed of unoccupied houses, through which one speeds on broad thoroughfares as if traversing a city in the grip of death." It was written in 1928.

Said Mormino, the author of Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida: "The Florida dream has always been redefined and reinvented."

"This kind of last-century perception of fun in the sun, Vegas-style partying, the place where old people go," that's what needs to change, said Laura McFarlane, a vice president for the SapientNitro marketing firm in Coral Gables. "We need to gradually shift the perception of the brand."

To?

"It's almost thinking 'sunshine,' " she said, "and saying, 'Okay, what does that really mean?' It's not just hanging out on the beach and getting brown. It means an awful lot more. Focus on a more holistic sense of health and wellness. Florida is good for you, heart, body, soul, and your business."

"Florida," said Revels, the author of Sunshine Paradise, "needs to be reborn as something more than just a tourist state."

But last week, on the "Sunshine" tour, the governor talked with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News.

"You are hitting cities to attract tourism?" she asked.

"This week," Scott told her, "I'm the tourism governor.

"You guys have had a horrible winter," he said with a big smile. "We are open for business."

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Can new ideas restore shine to Florida's brand? 03/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 5, 2011 3:31am]

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