Come on, Little Rhody, you can do better than this
“You’ve got a problem. Why would anyone from away want to visit you when Rhode Islanders don’t even think it’s a nice place?”
The question was not rhetorical. It came from a marketing and communications professional from New Hampshire who was reacting, when asked, to respond to a recent Gallup Poll that put Rhode Island dead last in terms of how people feel about their own state.
More on what the marketing executive had to say in a bit, but first the background. It turns out, according to a poll released by Gallup on April 4, that out of all 50 states Rhode Islanders liked their own state the least, with just 18 percent giving a thumbs up to Little Rhody. Rhode Island was lower than anybody. Lower than Mississippi.
Perhaps Rhode Islanders are naturally modest; they don’t like to brag. Oh, scratch that. Forget it.
Perhaps the majority of the 600-plus people surveyed were not born here, are not native Rhode Islanders. That might make a difference, because Rhode Islanders have a nativist, protective mentality: “I can make fun of my state, but I better not hear a bad word about her from you.” But that’s a pretty feeble reason, too.
A story published in the May 11 Sunday edition of The New York Times only exacerbated the negative perception. The writer, Katharine Seelye, managed to put in some color. (She went down to the weiner joint in Olneyville, and grabbed an interview with Buddy Cianci who, undeniably, always has a great sales pitch for the state.) But she trotted out the obvious highlight — Newport is such a big deal!
News for Ms. Seelye: while she was downtown, all she had to do was look up and see one of the most magnificent State Houses in all of the United States. All she had to do was take a walk inside.
But on the whole, Rhode Island does not display its charms the way other places do. It is not New York City, with its “Blade Runner” signage and huge cultural landmarks that seem to loom over every sidewalk and intersection. Visitors have got to suss things out. How many people have visited the Gilbert Stuart Birth Place, in Saunderstown, which is just a short ride from Galilee?
Yes, Rhode Island always seems to be in the news for the wrong things (the Gordon Fox scandal being the latest, along with its miserable employment rates, the state of our infrastructure, the state’s credit rating with Moody’s). Something called the State Integrity Investigation gave Rhode Island an “F” because of the risk of corruption in the state.
Just Google the phrase “negative stories about Rhode Island” and there will be no shortage of responses. Googling the phrase “positive stories about Rhode Island” yields results that aren’t much better. The top response for that search was a TV news story about a kidnapping that reported the abductee was in “good health.” The next response was a 2013 Providence Journal story with the headline: “Foundation wants to change the way we think about Rhode Island.” The news lede to the story was, “Hey, Rhode Island, why so glum?” It chronicled a decades-long effort to boost the state’s image through various ad campaigns. (According to that ProJo piece, the state’s marketing slogans have changed routinely, which doesn’t help. “I love New York” works as well as it did when it was introduced in 1977.) If the most recent Gallup poll is any indication, these marketing efforts haven’t helped much, at least inside the state.
Part of this may be attributed to the fact that the state doesn’t put a lot of resources into marketing itself. A piece in The Block Island Times a few weeks back about all of the candidates running for governor indicated they wanted to increase the amount of marketing (and spending) the state does for itself.
Scott Tranchemontagne, president and founder of Montagne Communications in Manchester, NH, does a lot of work with states, municipalities and hotels. He read The New York Times piece, as well as the stats on how much Rhode Island spends on marketing itself ($710,000).
The first thing Tranchemontagne said was, “You’ve got a problem.” He said it must be equally frustrating because Rhode Island “has a lot to offer from a tourism standpoint.”
Tranchemontagne said it was somewhat dismaying that Rhode Island has changed its advertising slogan so often in the past couple of decades.
In 1981, “The Biggest Little State In the Union” was tried. In 1986, it was “Rhode Island — Our People Make Us Great.” In 1992: “I’m On Your Side.” Still another: “America’s First Resort.”
A smart, lasting slogan can make “a big difference. It’s a huge part of any successful marketing campaign. You’re driving a message, you’re driving a theme that makes sense of what you have to offer and that resonates with people: ‘Virginia is for lovers’ or ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’ These are positioning statements, taglines, whatever you want to call them, but they resonate with people,” said Tranchemontagne.
When Tranchemontagne was told that there didn’t seem to be much pushback inside the state from this most recent poll, he said, “It’s hard to blast a poll where your own citizens are the critics.”
He also mentioned the state’s marketing budget — $710,000 — which he said “on the face of it, that sounds low, but the budget is really driven by the strategy: Where are you trying to draw people from? New Hampshire spends a lot of money in New York and in the greater Philadelphia area because people from Philly want to come here.” But the commitment to marketing has “to be strong enough to move the needle” in terms of getting more people to come to the state.
In the end, Tranchemontagne said, “Turning around an image takes a lot of time and commitment and will also take the collective will of the state. You’ve got some amazing places to visit, and you’ve got amazing events” — he mentioned Waterfire specifically.
But the biggest challenge is that the state has an “internal image problem. You’ve got to get your own people to believe in you. When people love their own state they become their own ambassadors, and then a campaign with real muscle behind it can change minds.”
One final note: Tranchemontagne said it didn’t help that the most prominent business mentioned in the New York Times story may be iconic to Rhode Islanders, but didn’t evoke images of The Ocean State to outsiders. “It took me a while to realize that Olneyville New York System was even a diner,” he said.
Tourism budget stats:
New York Times story: