Pittle: How to sell El Paso
by Morris Pittle
Posted on September 1, 2009
How do you sell a city? How do you convince absolute strangers that your city is a cool place to possibly visit/live/do business with?
It’s a question that gets a lot of play when it’s thrown out there. Everyone, and I do mean everyone has an opinion. I have had the fortune/misfortune of taking on the task of marketing a city several times. And every time, I reminded of why it’s said that opinions are like assholes. I’ve pimped Atlanta, Phoenix and recently, I got to take a stab at El Paso. They all had their ups and downs. Some good response, some bad. Some great response, and some flat out miserable responses.
But at the end of the day, there are just so many variables; it’s somewhat of a windmill-slaying mission if you ask me.
During my last gig … trying to bring El Paso into the international limelight on a very local budget, I threw out a few suggestions that were met with somewhat less than a positive response. I suggested several guerilla tactics including commissioning street food carts in Philadelphia to serve gorditas. Of course, it would be noted that these gorditas were courtesy of the city of El Paso. I suggested heating bus transits in Minneapolis during the winter to match the temperature in El Paso. We thought about staging Old Eest gunfights in Seattle (where the high concentration of Asians and Asian Americans are known to lose their sake over the Old West.) Essentially, I wanted to take the culture or soul of the border and bring it to the rest of the country. No polish or spin. Just who we are and what we’re about on the ground level.
No dice. Instead, the request was for billboards in Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago. Given the budget, we could afford one per town with a little bit of small-space print ads supporting the effort. There were talks of TV, and if you were one of the lucky souls watching the Sun Bowl or Texas vs the Nation football games, you might have seen the commercials that were the result of that talk.
One of the other discussions we had was a request/suggestion to rethink who we were targeting. Instead of targeting geographic targets (re: The “They’re on the way through here. They have to stop somewhere, why not here?” strategy), we should be targeting psychographically.
Gays and lesbians are wonderful consumers. They typically are open-minded and affluent. They love seeing new places and are fantastically communicative. They share their experiences with everyone they know, and sometimes with people they don’t know.
To risqué for you? How about outdoor enthusiasts? A lot of them already know about El Paso. Hueco Tanks is known the world over when it comes to rock climbing and bouldering.
Point is … traditional is not working, not going to work and shouldn’t even be an option. But that’s all academic, right?
Well, last Sunday night, I found myself at the House of Blues in Anaheim where I hope it was seen that theory was proven to be reality.
I have been lucky enough to working with the band Radio la Chusma as their manager for almost a year now. We’ve collaborated on several projects (including the city commercials previously mentioned). Radio la Chusma is a blend of reggae and various Mexican and border styles of music I simply like to refer to as Border Reggae. Whatever you call it, it’s the musical personification of our home, and I’m not talking just about El Paso. It’s the sound of the entire border area, both sides and all directions in between.
Last year, over 13,000 people came out to see them play at Music Under the Stars. Previously, I had suggested to the city that part of the money allocated to “brand” El Paso be put towards helping RLC get out and play the country. Again, just like the street food carts, with the very implicit understanding that the city was making this possible. Imagine if you were a local in Portland, a very progressive city itself, and you saw this amazing band knowing it was their city that made that possible. You’d be a lot more interested in finding out about El Paso then if you saw an ad with a picture of a taco, or some random buildings on it.
Anyway, it did not fly with the city, but that has not stopped RLC from heading out as often as possible and playing all over the Southwest. It’s expensive to do this, it takes you away from your family, your job and of course, your home. And there are others … great bands who are proud of being from here. Not trying to emulate what they see on YouTube or even worse, MTV. They go too. At best, they might make enough to pay for some food and enough gas to get to the next gig. It sounds cliché, but ask any musician, and they’ll tell you it’s the reality of the situation.
So over the past two weeks, RLC had been on a West Coast swing. It climaxed last Sunday night where they were booked as the opening act to Steel Pulse at the House of Blues. I decided I wanted to see for myself just how they would be received in a setting like this. Filled with both tourists drawn by the magic of Disney and locals flocking to come see one of the world’s most renowned reggae bands. They were given 45 minutes to play.
After a day of playing at Disneyland (laugh all you want, it’s a fun place and I’m plenty secure with myself to admit that) we headed to the House of Blues for dinner. The food was bland and overpriced, but we managed to strike up a pretty good conversation with our waiter. He told us Steel Pulse was a pretty big draw, but that they had just been there a few months ago and wasn’t sure they would draw again. Regarding RLC, he admitted to not knowing about them, but did not scowl when we told them where they, and we were from. If you had been in the focus groups I had the pleasure of attending in L.A. when we were working on the branding campaign, you’d know why this was an important observation for me.
He returned a few minutes later with a smile on his face to tell us they had already sold 800, and that meant it would probably be a full house. If you’ve ever been to a full house show at a House of Blues, you know the energy that comes from it. If you’ve never been, it’s about as cool as you can imagine.
When RLC took the stage, they opened with a lot of energy and enthusiasm … but what I thought was most interesting, they opened with a song in Spanish. Not uncommon for them, but in the white-bread setting that is Downtown Disney, one might think that they would opt for something a little more, shall we say, “expected” just to get the crowd into it. This was not the case.
My girlfriend looked at me with the “Oh shit” face. I can’t say I didn’t return the look. I’m not a producer, just their manager, and I do not tell them what to do or how to do it. I have my opinions, and when they ask, I give it to them. I had asked if they were going to change their set list any thinking more along the lines of playing more reggae to connect with the crowd there to see Steel Pulse. Nope. Not who they are.
Sound a lot like a certain home town?
Well, we were in Disney, so I guess you can figure how the whole thing went down. People danced. They leaned into each other to talk, and even though i couldn't hear what was said, the looks on their face told the story. There were all sorts of people there. White, Black, Hispanic and Asian. There was also a pretty good age spread as well. Old and young. They all grooved. Now don't get me wrong, like I said, it's Disney, so this is a happy ending, but I'm not going to blow smoke up your butts and tell you the skies opened, a heavenly beam of light came down and when RLC played, all the planets aligned and the world felt perfect harmony for that time period.
Nope. They did great and people loved them. The head of security, a few bouncers and the waitress who knew we were with RLC all came over to tell us how very cool the band was. A few of the people sitting near us kinda figured it out as well and went out to buy CDs. Nothing Earth-shattering. No, I wasn't approached by the head of a major label (a la the "Ultra Happy ending" from Wayne's World) but I do think there was a lesson to be learned here.
This is how we communicate now. As a global culture. All of our technology has brought us back to the point of communicating one on one. It just happens a whole lot faster now. As I write this, I just found out that Sen. Ted Kennedy died a few hours ago. It's amazing. Everything happens so fast, but it's communicated even faster.
So of the 1,000 or so people there, it is entirely possible that not a one of them will go on to tell anyone about the band they saw from El Paso, but not likely. What's more likely is that the people who bought the CD's will remember what they saw and heard. When it comes up, they'll say good things. The word will spread. Sounds simple, and I'm sure a fair amount of you are thinking, "duh."
But recognize this; there wasn't a single ad that brought Seattle to prominence in the '90s. But SubPop records, Starbucks Coffee and Frazier sure did. I suppose there's a politician or an ad executive out there trying to take credit for the boom in Seattle, but we all know the reality. Sure Chicago might be known as the "Windy City" but show me an ad that has survived the test of time vs Millennium Park, or Navy Pier, or any number of fantastic museums, restaurants or clubs. Not gonna happen. The list goes on and on. Austin, San Francisco, Atlanta, Denver, New Orleans, Las Vegas ... hell, even Marfa is getting in on the action.
Maybe only a few people will go on to talk about RLC, and somewhere in there, El Paso will filter up to the top. But if you repeat that process. Send other bands, artists and entrepreneurs alike out there to be themselves. To be El Pasoans, or even better, border dwellers, you'll find the word will spread.
So the next time there's a concerted effort to market the city, I most likely will not be on that train. Hopefully someone will remember RLC and the House of Blues and skip the billboard or the print ad and see past that.
All it takes is a little vision, a little self confidence and some luck and who knows.
RLC has all of that. It's still to early to see if it will pay off. But I can tell you as someone raised in El Paso, and as someone who returned to El Paso after 12 years and seven different cities, I was really proud to be from El Paso that night. Still am.
Pittle is a principal of Two Ton Creativity, a cultural marketing company based in Downtown El Paso.
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