There used to be a sign hanging up at PHL for new arrivals that said, “Welcome to Philadelphia, where old and new beckon you.” It was simple, but it worked. So naturally the city took it down.
That slogan was written by a local elementary school class, who made the mistake of being straightforward. Adults, especially politicians and marketing types, tend to overthink things. The kids’ slogan was replaced by “Philadelphia: The city that loves you back,” which itself was quickly amended to “The place that loves you back.” Don’t want to offend suburbanites by excluding them, do we? As if they’d even care. (We all know that plenty would rather be associated with the Molokai leper colony than with Philly.) Sacrificing clarity for the sake of inclusiveness is a textbook example of too many chefs spoiling the soup.
Even worse than the muddled message: That slogan reeked of desperation. It’s like the city was saying, “Of course you love me—that’s a given—and I want you to know the feeling is mutual.” Geez, Philly, don’t act so needy! A 330-year-old city behaving like a 16-year-old girl is not a pretty sight. Honey, you’ll never get a prom date like that.
And so, the city went back to the drawing board. A few years ago, after “working with the 65-person pro-bono Philadelphia Executive Marketing Council, [which] undertook this extensive project that has been developed over the last 12 months,” the city rolled out its newest slogan: “Life, liberty and you.” Let me get this straight: Sixty-five people worked on Philadelphia’s branding for a year, and in the end they cribbed it off some guy from Virginia? Plus, the rollout of the city’s new “signature brand, designed to transcend administrations,” as it was breathlessly described at the time, was such a smashing success that I’ve only just noticed it now while actively researching city branding.
Undaunted by its previous misfires, the city recently had the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation (GPTMC) develop a campaign to promote our world-class art collections called “With Art Philadelphia.” Great idea, lousy execution. That phrase is a semantic nightmare. Lacking a comma after “art,” it reads as, “With an entity known as ‘Art Philadelphia.’” There is no such entity. But if you realize it’s a riff on another GPTMC campaign called “With Love, Philadelphia”—which not everyone will do—you’d read it as, “With Art, from Philadelphia,” which is gibberish. Who’d ever sign a letter that way? Worse yet, the marketing doesn’t conform to the letter-writing conceit. The “With Love” ads personify the city as it thanks various people and institutions that make Philly a fun and unique place. The “With Art” campaign doesn’t follow that structure, and wouldn’t make sense even if it did.
Does it at least convey the intended message? Not really. “The whole gestalt behind the With [Art] is that people don’t just do art when they come to a city, they do the With,” GPTMC President Meryl Levitz explained to the Inquirer. “So they do eat. They do shop. They do take note of the city’s architecture. They do take note of the music and the fashion. The city becomes the experience as well.” That sounds pretty convoluted to me. The message is really more like “Art, With Philadelphia”—come for the museums, then go explore the city. Did Yoda write this slogan? Backwards, to me it sounds. I wish GPTMC well, but I also wish they’d just be direct instead of tiptoeing around. And, please, my kingdom for a comma! (P.S. Meryl, bragging about the “fashion” of Philadelphians? C’mon. This is a city where people routinely go out in public wearing sweatpants. I’m lookin’ at you, Port Richmond Thriftway).
The question beneath these mixed messages is whether the Philadelphia brand name is a plus or a minus. Consider how two local casinos are lately taking very different approaches. Harrah’s just rebranded itself “Harrah’s Philadelphia,” dumping “Chester” from its name, to strengthen its local connection, and started using the tag line, “Where Philly comes out to play.” Good for them. Meanwhile, up in Bensalem, Parx Casino is pushing itself as “So Vegas you’ll think you’re in Vegas” to distance itself from Philly. For reference, here’s Vegas. And here’s Parx. The resemblance is uncanny.
Maybe if we could ever sort out our identity crisis, we’d attract more people—visitors and residents alike. We don’t need warmed-over, 18th-century phrases like “life, liberty and you,” or passive-aggressive marketing that’s almost apologetic about the city, or that claims to sell you an entirely different city. Maybe the marketing experts need to go back to school. Specifically, to elementary school.