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Thursday, September 29, 2005

Commission not so fired up about slogans

A somewhat positive development: the city commission is showing some cautious decision-making, if not outright contrition. At their Monday meeting, the commission decided not to decide on the recommendations from Paulsen Marketing on a new positioning line for the city. Commissioner Mark Stadel didn’t offer KJAM news any great insight into the reasons for the commission’s hesitance other than to indicate that the commission wants to take time to get some public input.

Public input? Holy cow—are they really going to ask us what we think of the slogans dreamed up by Paulsen? Perhaps the city should have asked the public to start with, before they spent $2500 on some rather underwhelming results.

The commission’s delay is telling. We’re not talking about a major budgetary decision here; the money has already been spent. Could the commissioners be catching a lot of grief, not just from this writer, but from the morning coffee crowd they meet when they stroll downtown? Madisonites eager not to be branded with silly slogans can only hope (and holler, whenever the commission gets around to asking our opinions). At the very least, the commission apparently feels a need to put a gloss of public input on the matter, so in the future, when visitors to our fair city are greeted by cheesy banners with grossly uncreative declarations on them, the city leaders can say they don’t bear full responsibility but sought public input on such foolishness.

It’s too bad the commission couldn’t have sought public input earlier in this image-tweaking process. They might have saved the city several thousand dollars by seeking and following some homegrown advice. If branding is about creating a unique, authentic image, then the best results will come from our own people. Why let an outside marketer define who we are? An outside marketer will produce similar slogans and other recommendations for community branding to every community he works for, based on his own worldview and principles formed in Advertising 101 at university. Let a town come up with its own ideas, and that town will generate slogans and other such decorations that more truly reflect the character of that town.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

One Month at 55 and I Feel Fine

For four weeks now, I have been driving no faster than 55 miles per hour. On my 23-mile commute to work (all on open country roads, two stop signs, virtually no traffic), on trips to town for groceries, even on a drive to and from Sioux Falls, on highways where the posted limit is 65, I have set my cruise control for 55 and let the world zoom by a touch more slowly. I have accepted the four extra minutes it takes to get to work and the eight extra minutes it takes to get to Sioux Falls. I have accepted the occassional driver who creeps up on my bumper and expects me to drive the same speed and burn gasoline at the same accelerated rate he wants to.

This personal Drive-55 campaign started one afternoon on my drive home. I was listening to Viewpoint University on 1140 AM KSOO, program host Rick Knobe suggested that to save energy, we could reinstate the 55-mph speed limit. However, as a good conservative, he asked why we should wait for the government to take the lead in that regard. If we really want to save fuel, we can simply let up on our gas pedals.

Hearkening back to my conservative roots, I decided I couldn't agree more. I let up on the gas right then and there and haven't put the pedal any closer to the metal since. I've even dragged my dad's old motorcycle out of the shed and ridden it to work a few times. (That Kawasaki 250 won't break 55 even if I try.)

What are my results so far? Well, I haven't run dollar figures, but our Ford Focus has gotten around 14% better gas mileage. This improvement fits with an estimate from energy analyst, John Dowd of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co, who told a Senate panel this month that

if, as a country, we were to obey speed limits for the next two months, we would probably conserve more fuel than will be lost by the refinery outages. Reducing speeds from 70 m.p.h. to 60 m.p.h., for example, improves fuel efficiency by 15 percent. If Americans want to know what they can do to limit gasoline price inflation, the answer is simple: slow down.
["Driving 55 m.p.h. is looking pretty good," Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 2005]

We have in our own hands -- and feet -- the power to bring down fuel demand and fuel prices. And considering the actions of the South Dakota State Transportation Commission, we can't count on government to help. The September 21 Argus Leader reported that the Transportation Commission voted in August (and received approval from the Legislative Rules Review Committee Tuesday) to raise the speed limit on five stretches of divided four lane highways from 65 to 70. (In case Argus link dies, see also KNBN/MSNBC.)

Now I've driven every one of the roads affected by this ruling, and I know they include some long empty stretches, especially long lonesome stretch of US 83 from I-90 to Fort Pierre. I know that in South Dakota's wide open spaces, often the only things aside from the driver endangered by higher speeds are cows and barbed-wire fences. And as beautiful as the prairie is, I recognize that sometimes people just want to get through that empty country as quickly as they can.

But given South Dakotans' higher-than-average dependence on cars and trucks, we must accept some limitations on our lifestyle in order to preserve that lifestyle. Driving above 55 may save a few minutes, but it also drives up demand and fuel prices for everyone. Perhaps more importantly, every extra drop of gasoline we burn now deprives future generations of the option of burning that gasoline for their own needs. Even if our state government fails to see it, we drivers should recognize that it is in our best interest to slow back down to that optimal speed of 55. Driving faster speeds us to our destinations, but it also speeds us to the days when gasoline will cost $5, $10, $20 a gallon, when working people simply won't be able to obtain gasoline for their personal use, and when small-town South Dakotans will find themselves forced to either use alternative fuels, take drastic measures toward local self-sufficiency, or abandon their unsustainable small towns and move to the big city.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

New Slogan: "Madison: You Can Sell Us Anything"

Marketing must be the easiest job in the world. You get paid big money for demonstrating almost no creativity whatsoever.
Yes, it’s another big week for Madison. Paulsen Marketing of Sioux Falls has finished the positioning lines (i.e., slogans) that our city commission has seen fit to pay $2500 for. Our three choices:
  • “The Great Little City Between the Lakes.”
  • “Two Lakes. One Great Town.”
  • “Madison. Your New Favorite Place.”
I am underwhelmed. I expected to be underwhelmed, and I am still underwhelmed. Perhaps I can say I am over-underwhelmed. $2500, and that’s all Paulsen Marketing can come up with? Again, for those kinds of results, why couldn’t the City Commission have just just held a contest for community members to think up slogans? Why couldn’t the City Commission have simply held a one-hour brainstorming session and made up their own slogans? Town slogans are cheesy, if not outright embarrassing, no matter what, but I would find our town slogan less embarrassing if we at least had the chance to make our own. Instead, we prove our business rube-hood by paying big-city outsiders thousands of dollars to label our town with uncreative garbage (which I suppose could boost our economy by drawing lots of outside businesses who realize we are rubes ripe for the picking... though there must be an easier way to foster economic growth).

I am dismayed by the utter blandness of the slogans offered by Paulsen Marketing, especially when I compare their thoroughly researched and focus-grouped offerings with our existing positioning line. Apparently the Chamber of Commerce already has this winner on its letterhead: “Hometown Hospitality. Tomorrow’s Technology.” Again, cheesy as almost any slogan is wont to be, but this slogan at least has some content. It emphasizes two specific aspects of our community that we claim as an advantage over other places. If nothing else, the existing slogan should score points for alliteration.

This existing slogan, though, obviously isn’t good enough for Paulsen Marketing. As explained by Bryan Bjerke, Paulsen Marketing’s PR director, in testimony before the City Commission Monday night, our existing slogan isn’t unique to Madison. (Amazing—someone else thought of our alliterative slogan, but no one has used the milquetoast rah-rah lines Paulsen is offering?) “It’s not a unique positioning of your city,” said Bjerke, “and we thought you might be at a better advantage if you uniquely position yourself with your logo to say something more, something that would be more compelling.”

Bjerke went on to recommend the third slogan — "Madison. Your New Favorite Place" — as his favorite. “I like it because it’s very upbeat... and invitation to discover” Madison.

He says we need something more compelling, and that’s the slogan he recommends, the most contentless of the three? Wow. I guess marketers really can be creative... if not when selling Madison, then certainly when selling their slogan for Madison.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Like hitting the broad side of a barn...

MDL reports that Mayor Hueners has written a letter to the County Commission declaring that the city of Madison cannot afford to increase its funding for 911 service. Evidently the city faces a budget shortfall of $350,000 due to electric rate increases. Along with not being able to find more money for 911 service, the city has had to make significant cuts in street maintenance ($100,000) and support for the library ($17,400), airport, and other areas.

The explanation for the shortfall seems perfectly reasonable. The city ate an electric rate increase in 2004 but cannot afford to keep doing so. When fiscal belts need to be tightened, government officials have to set priorities and make tough choices.

But remember, this is the same city commission that spent thousands of dollars on focus groups and now another $2500 on a town slogan. So the library may have fewer books and shorter operating hours, potholes may go unpatched for another year or two, and in an emergency my 911 call may not get through, but at least when I ride into town, I’ll get to drive by beautiful banners flapping in the breeze and declaring, “Madison Is Marvelous!™”