Dumber and Smarter

Cooler (not warmer) heads prevail as we look at the lessons all of us – yes all of us – should be taking away from the state's tourism debacle.


In the immortal words of Ron Burgundy, that escalated quickly. When Commerce RI unveiled the new state tourism campaign in a suspiciously timed 5pm press conference on March 28, the negative reaction was swift and unmerciful. The mistakes were many and well documented, and the outrage voluminous, so we needn’t wade through the muck again. Nor do we have any desire to be another gun in the circular firing squad of discourse about this campaign. Let’s focus instead, on the lessons to be learned here:

1. Stop looking outside our state for a savior.
The governor and Commerce RI must have thought they had a slam dunk when they landed Milton Glaser to design the new logo and slogan. After all, this was the guy who created perhaps the most successful tourism campaign of all time, “I Love New York.” Now he was going to work that same magic for Rhode Island. That’s one way to look at it; another is that they hired an octogenarian with no connection to Rhode Island whose most significant work was almost 40 years ago to do a job for which any number of locals were eminently qualified. We might as well have hired Neil Diamond to write a new state song. The decision had echoes of both the infamous Providence rebrand of 2009, in which then-Mayor Cicilline hired a Tennessee firm to come up with an orange ‘P’, and the 38 Studios debacle, in which the EDC (now Commerce RI) sank a bunch of taxpayer money into a big name outsider. Design is one of our strengths in Rhode Island. The governor probably could have stumbled over someone capable of a better logo while getting her morning coffee. Hell, it might have even been the person serving the coffee.

2. Don’t make things harder than they have to be.
As we have already noted, Rhode Island is pretty damn good at design and branding. Hospitality and tourism are also strengths for us. Tourism is already our second biggest industry, and we have eight regional tourism boards (six of whom had their budgets cut to help pay for this campaign) that manage to do a lot on limited resources. We also have a wide network of business owners, creative professionals, media outlets (ahem ahem), and local boosters who know how to showcase the best this state has to offer. Investing $5 million dollars in consolidating and amplifying those efforts, and drawing upon that expertise for a statewide campaign, would have been money well spent. Instead, the governor and Commerce RI decided to reinvent the wheel – and came up with a square design.

3. If you want us to embrace something, make us feel like a part of it.
Getting people to buy into something means more than just spending their money on it. It means making them feel like they’re engaged in the process. Rhode Islanders are fiercely proud of their state and probably would have been ready to support a coordinated effort to showcase it – if only the leadership had made an effort to activate that pride. This, on the other hand, felt like an edict that came down from on high. Had this campaign felt even the least bit organic and homegrown – and if the logo actually looked cool – you would have seen people sporting it on t-shirts within a week.

4. Rhode Islanders crave a reason to be outraged.
Sometimes I wonder if Rhode Islanders love complaining about government incompetence more than they actually hate government incompetence. This bungled campaign was a time for thoughtful criticism and holding our leaders accountable, not gleeful schadenfreude. This campaign was embarrassing enough, but we compound the humiliation by coming off like a mob of torch-waving villagers that enjoys nothing more than throwing itself a big hate parade.

5. We still need a (good) statewide tourism campaign.
This could have been a smart investment. Despite all that our state has to offer, we sorely lack the pretty, shiny packaging we need to properly sell it. The problem is that this effort was so poorly executed that we still need a good rebranding – and now there won’t be the political or popular will to do so. Any further effort at promoting the state is going to carry the 38 Studios-like stink of institutional incompetence, and taxpayers are going to instinctively recoil from the thought of spending another dollar.

6. We love our state and we know how to showcase it.
If anything positive has come out of this, it’s that people really do love this place, and they’re eager to talk about it. Beneath the anger and know-it-all spitefulness, there was an undeniable sense that everybody understands what’s wonderful about Rhode Island and knows how to express it – everybody except the people who worked on this campaign, of course.