Saturday, March 19, 2011

Reselling El Paso: Task force wants to undo damage of Juárez violence on EP's image

by Vic Kolenc \ El Paso Times
Posted: 03/13/2011 12:00:00 AM MST

Click photo to enlargeThis billboard at a visitors information desk at El Paso International Airport is part of the El...«12»The drug-cartel violence in Juárez is hurting El Paso's image and making it more difficult to attract conventions, tourists and talent even though El Paso remains one of the safest cities in the nation, city officials said.

That has a new, city-convened group of 24 officials from the city, county, business groups, UTEP, Texas Tech, Fort Bliss, and media outlets, including the El Paso Times, trying to figure out how to enhance the city's image and get the word out about El Paso's assets.

People on the city's Strategic Communications Task Force, which met for the first time this month, "felt El Paso's negative image is affecting our ability to recruit talent and (draw) visitors. The consensus was to look at this and address El Paso's image," said Kathy Dodson, director of the city Department of Planning and Economic Development. She's coordinating the task force meetings.

Bill Blaziek, general manager of the El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau, and a task force member, said he has "too many examples in the last six to eight" months of groups turning down the bureau's attempts to bring conventions or meetings here because of the Juárez violence.

About 7,800 people have been killed in Juárez in the past two years as the drug war has escalated.

The Juárez violence is "beginning to take its toll, and we have to come together as a community to defend our image," Blaziek said.

"We need effective and positive messaging that shores up or enhances our image and gives us the ability to talk as one."

The task force's first decision was to survey what types of things El Paso organizations are now putting out to sell El Paso.

Much of the city's image selling through the years has been through the convention bureau's marketing campaigns.

Its latest campaign, unveiled last summer, revolves around the slogan "Real Adventure is Still Alive" in El Paso.

It focuses on selling El Paso's mountains and other outdoor attractions, its history, culture and food, Blaziek said. Parts of the campaign are similar to the bureau's previous campaign, which used the tag line "El Paso -- Do Texas Different."

The campaign was designed by El Paso advertising agency Sanders\Wingo.

Images in the latest campaign include hikers at Hueco Tanks, folklorico dancers and Mexican food.

"These are individual (tourism-aimed) campaigns. They are not development or marketing of a (city) brand," Blaziek said.

The bureau, with an annual marketing budget of about $600,000, aims its selling at a regional market. It uses print ads, brochures, airport billboards and the bureau's website, Facebook page and YouTube videos.

Several years ago, city officials tried to go beyond tourism advertising by having a branding campaign developed for use by all city agencies.

The campaign, launched in 2007, revolved around the tag line "El Paso Texas -- You Have No Idea," and it featured a logo with a cactus and silhouette of the mountains. The city paid two companies about $250,000 to develop and implement the campaign.

Morris Pittle, owner of Two Ton Creativity, an El Paso advertising agency that devised the "You Have No Idea" campaign, said it grew out of California-based Glass Beach Marketing's research that outsiders' prevailing emotion about El Paso was ignorance.

It's not uncommon for visitors to come here and say, "I had no idea El Paso has mountains, I had no idea this is a big city," Pittle said. The campaign was designed to tell people about El Paso's assets, he said.

That campaign was revised in late 2007 and took on the tag line "El Paso, Capital of the Border."

That's a tag line and theme that Pittle liked, but city officials initially rejected in favor of the "I Have No Idea" campaign, Pittle said.

A combination of City Council budget cuts and growing violence in Juárez killed the campaign in 2008.

Pittle said he favored the Capital of the Border theme because it was a regional concept and also reflected El Paso's true identity.

"People may think the border is a negative thing, but it is who we are," Pittle said.

The border connection may not be positive today, but it's still important for commerce and it's still part of El Paso's identity, he said.

The media focus on the border because of the drug-cartel war gives El Paso the opportunity to "tell our story ourselves and not let someone else tell it," Pittle said.

Bob Cook, president of the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corp., or REDCo, El Paso's privately run industry recruiter, said this area would be better off without the violence in Juárez. But he agreed with Pittle that it has "shined a spotlight on this community like never before and given us a platform to talk about the community," Cook said.

For several years, REDCo has employed a New York public relations firm to reach out to media outlets to do stories about this area.

The PR campaign, which has allowed REDCo to point out positives about this area, such as a still-thriving maquiladora industry in Juárez, appears to have paid off with more interest from companies, Cook said.

However, a recently conducted REDCo survey of site consultants showed that many consultants are concerned about the violence and are having difficulty recommending this area to clients, Cook said.

Cook said the city task force, which has two REDCo representatives, is looking at developing strategic, fact-based messages that all agencies involved with talking to the outside world can use.

The city also would be well served to have a unified branding campaign with a "consistent look and feel," Cook said. That would give more bang for the limited marketing dollars available, Cook said.

Pittle agreed with task force members that what is needed now is a strategy on how to communicate with the rest of the world about El Paso.

"A tag line won't solve the problems," he said.

Public relations, Facebook, YouTube and "guerrilla marketing," such as putting El Paso food carts in other big cities, should be part of any image campaign, Pittle said.

El Paso's Mexico connection used to be a big seller for the El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau's marketing. These days, visitors are cautioned against going to Juárez, Blaziek said.

Now is not the time to sell El Paso's border connection, he said.

"It's best to position ourselves as El Paso, and sell 'Destination El Paso,' Blaziek said. "We can re-create the international experience here with our food, shopping, like Pro's Ranch Markets, and Mexican music."

Laura Gallegos, communications and marketing director for the Texas Tech University medical school in El Paso, and a city task force member, said she doesn't know whether the Juárez violence is hurting the medical school's ability to recruit faculty.

"In general, El Paso sometimes can be a difficult place to recruit people" because this is an area people don't know much about, she said. "We try to get them here (for a visit) to see how great El Paso is."

Gallegos, a native El Pasoan who left the city for several years for college and work, said she found that people in other cities knew El Paso because of UTEP's 1966 college basketball championship made more famous by the 2006 movie, "Glory Road."

"I think a city branding campaign would be useful," Gallegos said. "With my marketing background, I know image is important."

Vic Kolenc may be reached at; 546-6421

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