TAMPA — Orlando, land of mouse ears, fanny packs and Fantasyland, is more authentic than Tampa, home of hand-rolled cigars, the pirate José Gaspar and historic Ybor City.
"How is Orlando more authentic than Tampa Bay?" said Hillsborough County tourism chief Santiago Corrada. "It doesn't make sense. It doesn't compute. It's not logical."
No, it's not. But when Corrada saw the research, he was floored: A survey of tourists gave Tampa lower marks than Orlando for authenticity. Tampa's culture and history also got low scores. Those should be strengths, not weaknesses.
The effort to unlock Tampa's strengths started Thursday. County officials unveiled their new tourism brand "Unlock Tampa Bay" at the Tampa Convention Center.
It's aimed at selling the history, culture and urban-flavored experience of Tampa and Hillsborough County. But it doesn't just sell the region. It's selling an attitude of exploring and discovering all that the region has to offer.
"Treasure awaits" is the inviting slogan beneath the Unlock Tampa Bay logo. Look for other brand words like adventure, attitude, discover, explore and daring spirit.
It's the first tourism brand that Tampa and Hillsborough County have ever had, officials said, and it will be pushed by the area's rebranded tourism agency: Tampa Bay & Co. It officially changed its name Thursday to the more nimble Visit Tampa Bay.
Corrada, who left City Hall last month to take over the tourism agency, bounded onto a stage at the convention center on Thursday to introduce the new brand.
"Unlock Tampa Bay holds the key to the success of our destination and we need buy-in from our stakeholders," he told the crowd. "We tested this brand around the world and 'Unlock Tampa Bay' was the choice everyone made.
" 'Unlock Tampa Bay' allows them to unlock and discover the treasures we have today."
The "Unlock Tampa Bay" font is custom-made, with two keys crossed beneath the shape of a lock. It resembles the skull and crossbones of a pirate flag, hinting at Tampa's rich pirate history and the monthlong Gasparilla festival — without all the gaudiness and excess.
The colors are also custom-made: bay blue, ybor gold and Gaspar's hull (black, like a pirate ship.) The colors are meant to set urban Tampa apart from the endless stream of gauzy, sunny pastel colors employed by marketing agencies for other Florida destinations.
The keyhole shape is one that repeats itself organically around town. It matches the spaces in the minarets at the University of Tampa, the arches of the bannisters along Bayshore Boulevard and the windows at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City.
In the TV, print and online ads that are to come, the keyhole will highlight different aspects of Tampa that visitors will be invited to unlock and discover for themselves: Busch Gardens, the Florida Aquarium, Lowry Park Zoo, restaurants, shops. It's meant to be a wide open, flexible brand.
Visit Tampa Bay worked with Spark, a Tampa branding and ad agency, to come up with the new brand and new agency name. The cost was $147,000, or double that including Spark's donation of its services. The process started a year ago under Visit Tampa Bay's former CEO, Kelly Miller, and Doug McClain, vice president of marketing and communications.
But the new "Unlock Tampa Bay" brand is also a form of damage control. Market research showed that Tampa just wasn't distinguishing itself from comparably-sized destinations like Austin, Baltimore, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Louisville, Nashville and Orlando.
Visitors already think of sand and water when they think of Tampa — but most of the beaches are across the bay. There were no physical elements that distinguished Tampa itself.
"We don't have a Golden Gate Bridge or a (Gateway) Arch or anything that marks us as a destination," McClain said. "We're branding an attitude, seize life daily."
James Robbins, brand director for Spark, said this kind of brand leaves an impression on consumers because it's not just a slogan. It's also a call to action.
"The word unlock is an action statement," he said. "It's telling the consumer or the meeting planner what to do. You're going in to the destination to unlock the treasure of that destination.
"It's the best branding when you can tell a consumer what to do. It's like 'Just do it' by Nike."
Corrada said the more low-key unveiling of Visit Tampa Bay's new brand will also help Hillsborough sell its message. "Visit" is a common name for many local and state tourism agencies, including Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, Visit Orlando and Visit Florida. The Hillsborough agency markets to tourists and meeting planners, booking events for the convention center.
The old name, Tampa Bay & Co., was never fully embraced when it was introduced in 2007. But it was an improvement over the stodgier Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"It takes out all the guesswork from the name Tampa Bay & Co.," said Corrada. "You really had to get in there and explain what it meant and what that was. I can't tell you how many people asked me, 'You're leaving city hall to go work for what? Tampa Bay & Co.? What is that?'
D.T. Minich is the executive director of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater. Both sides of the bay work closer than ever to expand tourism, and he said Hillsborough's new brand works just fine next to the brands Pinellas is pushing: America's best beaches, youth and a hip vibe.
But the rebranding never stops, he said. When he came to Pinellas six years ago, the beaches were already a well-known brand. But the area was saddled by its reputation as a retirement mecca, as depicted in the movie Cocoon. Pinellas has been fighting that ever since.
Said Minich: "You have to constantly be monitoring what the perceptions are of your destination and reacting to that."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.