Negative publicity stimulates an effort to 'rebrand' Modesto

The Yosemite murders, Chandra Levy, Scott Peterson. Meth, foreclosures, the auto theft capital of America.

Modesto has suffered a string of public relations hits over the past decade. It started with those headline-grabbing murders. The economy didn't help. Then, salt in the wounds: coming in dead last on the 2007 Cities Ranked & Rated list.

Now there's a plan afoot to polish the city's tarnished image. CommonWealth Modesto, a group of 50 young professionals, wants to rebrand Modesto by promoting the city's "authentic qualities and attributes," CommonWealth Modesto member Ryan Swehla said.

The idea is to create a unified message that the Chamber of Commerce, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, city officials and the public all can deliver. "The biggest thing we suffer from is lack of a consistent brand, and where there's a lack of a brand, it's filled with negative stuff," Swehla said.

To create the new brand, CommonWealth Modesto surveyed residents, asking them to describe what they like most and least about the city and what they want the city's image to be.

Almost 3,400 people filled out

the surveys. The questionnaires, in English and Spanish, were distributed in utility bills, in The Bee, at businesses and events, such as the Fourth of July parade.

With the surveys complete, CommonWealth Modesto will create a tool kit of phrases and images that organizations and residents can use when they talk about the city to drive them away from the negative and toward the positive.

Survey results showed that Modestans seem to be buying into some of the bad news about the city. More than half of the respondents said they think the city's image is getting worse.

But when asked how they would describe Modesto to a visitor, respondents gave positive answers, describing the city as centrally located, with a small-town feel and friendly people. However, crime ranked fourth on the list of phrases or words people would use in talking about Modesto.

"We have a self-esteem problem, and it's been perpetuated by all this negative hype," Swehla said.

Is it possible to reverse that trend?

Absolutely, said Joel Herche, an associate professor of marketing at University of the Pacific in Stockton. Many cities have retooled their images. Successful rebrandings are based on reality, not spin, Herche said.

What worked for Vegas ...

Las Vegas hit the marketing jackpot when it dropped an ill-fitting family-friendly destination campaign and embraced the city's seedier side, Herche said. Acknowledging gambling, drinking and illicit sex in the "What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas" tag line worked wonders for the city.

CommonWealth Modesto say they, too, hope to use a reality-based approach in crafting Modesto's new image.

"This is not some Pollyanna approach to gloss over the negatives," Swehla said. "It's just a way to authentically communicate the real qualities of our community, which are why so many of us are living here today."

One theme that might work for Modesto is that it's close to the cosmopolitan Bay Area, yet still has a folksy, heartland feel, Herche said.

But playing up a city's central location can sometimes backfire.

"It's close to lots of wonderful things, but it can also be seen as being in the middle of nowhere," Herche said. "For a lot of people, a two-hour drive is a ways away."

Marian Kaanon, marketing director at Community Hospice and a CommonWealth Modesto member, agreed that brands don't work if they're not true. If people visit a city expecting a certain image and it doesn't live up to expectations, they're disappointed, Kaanon said.

"It's not just going to be a fancy tag line. It has to be all the aspects that breathe life into this town, so that when people come here, whether it's to move here or to start a business here, they're feeling that brand," Kaanon said.

An ego boost for residents

The new brand isn't just about selling Modesto to outsiders.

Modestans themselves must believe and use the brand, Kaanon said. Her theory is that boosting the city's "collective ego" will create more community pride and could even lead to a drop in crime and other problems.

Should people be so worried about the city's image? Some say all publicity is good publicity. It doesn't matter if Modesto's name is attached to grim headlines, as long as they're talking about us.

Not so, Herche said.

"Modesto is not a late-night talk show host," he said, referring to David Letterman's recent ratings boost in the wake of admitting a series of affairs with staff members.

"While it's good to get people talking," Herche said, "when you're having your name associated with the most miserable place to live in the solar system, that's not what you want."

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at or 578-2378. Follow her at

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