Public Citizen - Larry Barnett


Selling $onoma

Apervasive belief within Sonoma’s tourist serving businesses is that we must constantly compete for the attention of tourists. The recently formed Tourism Improvement District (TID) is spending $450,000/yr. on advertising of all sorts to “brand” Sonoma; placards on BART trains, billboards, radio spots, newspaper and magazine ads and so forth. The theory goes that if the Napa Valley is spending bundles, then we must spend bundles, lest we lose the attention of leisure travelers trying to find a place to “get away.”

Ask yourself: when was the last time you made a vacation or “get away” destination plan because of an advertisement? If you’re like me, the answer is “almost never.” Travel planning by California leisure travelers, as opposed to corporate travel planners, follows predictable logic. The first step is knowing when to plan a trip; this is dependent upon vacation time or knowing a particular weekend in the future would be workable. Once this is determined, the next decision is “local” or “distant.” If it’s local, consideration is given to “inland” or “coast.” In either case, north, east or west must be decided. Ultimately a destination is selected, lodging is researched and reservations made.

In one way or another, this is the way leisure travelers plan; they work from the largest to the smallest scale decision. At some point in time, Sonoma might come up as a choice; either they have been here before or they have not, but the process of getting to the smallest scale always arises. If “branding” accomplishes anything, it is intangible and dependent upon implanting Sonoma as an idea in mental background. Of course, Sonoma is also an entire county, so it’s even more complicated.

One of the great forces stimulating advertising is not measurable results, for as noted they are most often intangible. The greatest force is competition between advertisers. A form of advertising envy fuels the whole branding effort; “If our competitor advertises maybe they will get something we want – visitor money. We want visitor money too and we don’t want our competitor to get it instead, so we will advertise too!” This competitive psychology feeds most branding expenditures and the bundles being spent on it.

The irony is that Sonoma needs no branding to attract leisure travel visitors. Sonoma is fully branded, well-known, world-famous – even used to name trucks! Spending fortunes on branding accomplishes little. A good case, in fact, can be made that Sonoma would be better off becoming known as the destination that needs no branding, a destination so lovely the public seeks it out for the hidden and rare treasure it is. In this sense the best “branding” for Sonoma would be a whispered “shhhhhh” campaign, one quiet and stealthy based on being so special it’s best if not too many know about it.

The alternative is the pricey $onoma branding campaign, which is what we’re doing now. It’s geared to increasing name recognition, driving demand higher and higher in a quest for more visitor spending. Unfortunately, like hawking goods at the ballpark, yelling “Get your red hot $onoma here!” cheapens the brand, and ultimately degrades it. Sonoma would be better served by saving the money and understanding in this age of social networking mystery is the best allure; quietude, rural peacefulness and charm are what’s most appreciated. The noisy selling of $onoma is so terribly 20th century.

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