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Marketing guru Terry O’Reilly on burnishing Alberta’s image

The lessons from New York’s transformation

Michael Ganley is the editor of Alberta Venture. BizBeat takes a big-picture view of the provincial, national and international news affecting Alberta's business community. He can be reached at mganley@albertaventure.com and @MikeatVenture

Nov 22, 2012

by Michael Ganley

Terry O’Reilly was in Edmonton on Thursday to speak at an event being put on by the Ad Club of Edmonton. I sat down with him to ask about Alberta’s reputation and what might be done from an advertising and marketing perspective to improve it. I was motivated by the belief that Alberta’s image often takes an unjust beating on the national and international stages. I was thinking about the recent story in Esquire that referred to Fort McMurray as “the little Canadian town that might just destroy the world,” and the well-funded “Rethink Alberta” campaign a couple of years ago, which discouraged people from visiting the province because of the oil sands.

First, O’Reilly said he wasn’t sure the perception problem is as bad as we in Alberta may sometimes think. “It’s not that people think badly about you, it’s that they don’t think about you,” he said, not meaning to be cruel.

Then he told the story of New York in the 1970s and 1980s. The city was at a low ebb. It was broke, saddled with a strike by garbage workers and suffering from a high crime rate. Tourism was at an all-time low for all those reasons.

The city hired ad firm Wells Rich Greene, who did focus groups with people who travel a lot. When those people were asked about New York, the replies were all negative. But when they were asked about Broadway, the loved it. There was a disconnect, which Wells Rich Greene set out to exploit. The resulting “I love New York” campaign was all about Broadway. The song itself is a show tune. Casts from Broadway shows were used in ads. They leveraged Broadway to help change people’s perceptions of New York. The advertising worked, O’Reilly says, because it connected with people at an emotional level. “If you connect with the heart, you’ll have loyal customers. If you connect with the head, you’ll have occasional customers.”

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But there’s no tougher task for a marketer than changing an engrained perception. “The task at hand is to change the conversation,” he said. “You have to reframe the conversation away from the negatives of the tar sands to an emotional reason why there’s a great silver lining. People have to see a positive reason for the tar sands that affects them personally.”

It can’t be spin: O’Reilly did an entire show about how BPs green marketing campaign added to the company’s pain after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, because there was so little substance behind it. “There has to be a legitimate thing that makes people think about it in a different way.”

He added that perceptions can’t be changed through small and subtle actions. “Giving to charity is a lovely thing, but it’s not transformative,” he said. “It’s not big news. You have to ignite change with an explosive new way to look at something. It takes courage and is tough to do.”

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