Why Philly’s Marketing Gurus Will Never Give Up the Cheesesteak (or Rocky)

The beauty of these two icons is that they are loved universally, and they are ours and ours alone, argues the chief of Visit Philadelphia.

Photo by Jeff Fusco for Visit Philadelphia

A while back, Saab ran a commercial that said, “People will always want to be somewhere else.” That’s the motivation for travel. But being somewhere else that feels like somewhere else is getting harder and harder to do these days. Many cities have similar shops, restaurants, hotels and tall buildings, and most cities have museums, waterfronts, parks, concerts, neighborhoods, and start-ups.

What are marketers to do to convince people that our destination is different and therefore worth the trip? The answer comes back to branding — in other words, assuring travelers that Philadelphia has all the expected amenities, along with a few other things that no other city has. For Philadelphia, that’s history (Liberty Bell, Independence Hall), art (Barnes Foundation), music (Sound of Philadelphia) and more. And yes, the “and more” includes Rocky and cheesesteaks. From time to time, we see articles saying “Stop with the Rocky and the cheesesteaks,” but we won’t — and we shouldn’t. It would be unwise to ignore two of our differentiators in such a crowded, competitive world, especially when Rocky and cheesesteaks are known and loved pretty much everywhere. They are an essential part of the Philadelphia brand.

American branding goes back to when ranchers branded their cattle so that everyone knew whose were whose. Companies burned their names on the packing crates and on the products themselves so that retailers and consumers knew what they were getting. In time, people learned to ask for their favorite brands by name: Lipton, Levi’s and Kleenex were some of the first. With Nike’s famous swish and “Just do It” tagline, brand continued to expand in meaning, illuminating the underlying brand promise that Nike could and would help you discover your inner athlete.

Philadelphia’s brand promise is its name — brotherly love — and Rocky and cheesesteaks are two of the underpinnings of our city’s brand promise: You will love us, and we will love you back. Let’s start with Rocky. What other city would pick the guy who did not win the title as its champion? We love Rocky not only because he was an underdog, but because he decided for himself what winning meant, and he did that right here in Philadelphia — nowhere else. And cheesesteaks? Everyone knows you can’t get a real one any place but here. On our website, visitphilly.com, “Where to Find the Best Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia” continues to be our most-visited article because everyone wants the insider scoop on where to get them and how to order them.

In fact, the beauty — yes, the beauty — of Rocky and cheesesteaks is that they meet two key criteria of successful brands: They are loved universally, and they are ours and ours alone. And in that, this fictional character and this delicious sandwich have given us a way to showcase the best of Philadelphia’s attractions and brand them as essential parts of the Philadelphia experience. As a result, our region has increasingly — 43.3 million visitors in 2017 compared to 26.7 million in 1997 — become that “somewhere else” that people crave. To that, I say: Yo, Philadelphia!

Meryl Levitz is the president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia.