What’s in a name? For regions in the intensely competitive economic development and tourism business, the name’s almost always the game. The Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, along with a host of local organizations and tri-County communities, recently unveiled plans for a new tourism campaign that will attempt to lure millions of people to visit the area—to stay, and spend. The Bureau’s Keith Arnold is to be congratulated for forming this coalition and working to raise the kind of money it will take to make a serious impression on the traveling audience.

Luckily, it seems he didn’t see the memo that likely crossed his desk after he took the job telling him to forget about ever crossing the bridge because tri-County communities just don’t play well together. Well, now it looks like they will, and the entire region will hopefully reap the benefits.

Ah, but alas, it wouldn’t be Peoria without just a bit of second-guessing. The group chose to brand the region Illinois River Country-So Many Ways to Play. To many I’ve talked to it conjures up images of comfort and security, away from big city sirens, pollution, skyscrapers—a kinder, gentler, slower paced lifestyle—a good place to visit. Of course, we understand the connection and importance of building upon one of our most marketable assets, the Illinois River. And the fact that the Bureau convinced the communities to view the river as a joiner, and not a divider, is a major accomplishment.

But this issue as we see it is one of branding. Do we really want to portray the central Illinois region as Illinois River Country? Is it the word "country" that so many have a problem with? Part of the concern with the name is found in the recent report on the Regional Biocollaborative. There is an interesting little tidbit unearthed by none other than the author of the feasibility study, respected business location consultant, Battelle. It says Peoria should leverage its incredible national name recognition, and build upon its "Will it Play?" theme to sell its Bioscience advantages to a national and international audience. "Will it Play in Peoria?" may be a tired catch phrase to those of us who live here, but it’s also recognized as part of the mainstream American vernacular.

It’s more than just marketing … it’s the creation of a brand that defines the community, its strength and character, its attributes, its people. Whereas 10 to 20 years ago, communities positioned themselves as all things to all people, retrenchment and decentralization have communities fighting for their niche. Community marketing is extremely competitive and the cliched messages touting one’s assets often blur the lines of reality. Communities (and regions, for that matter) our size would pay huge sums for the rights to a name like Peoria, with tremendous national equity—long the barometer for gauging national sentiment. Unfortunately, to many it may seem a liability that our name "Peoria" reflects a national perception as an average place. But in the wake of recent events on the national and international stage, perhaps being average isn’t so bad.

Here’s the question to consider: Can one region be promoted as or go by more than one name? Can Peoria and the region, however defined, be promoted as Illinois River Country in newspapers and magazines intended for the visiting tourist—and at the same time be promoted nationally and internationally as the Peoria Bioscience Center to attract the growth in jobs and businesses we all hope for in this important initiative? The last time I checked, Peoria is also known as the Earthmoving Capital of the World.

The Illinois River Country initiative is a good one in many ways. It has also given us the opportunity to question how we want to be viewed nationally and internationally. What is our positioning statement that defines our place in America? What distinguishes us, makes us memorable and is our signature? Our brand and theme-line must be simple, unique, memorable, accurate, and focus around a unique selling proposition. The foundation of any successful marketing program must include a comprehensive look of our competitive advantages, our limitations, and prospects for success. We need to know what business and leisure travelers, corporate executives, location advisors and business media perceive (or misperceive) about the Peoria Area. These results should drive our marketing strategy, selling messages, and brand image.

In the next few issues, we’ll look at community branding, image building, and the importance of selling the progress we’re making here. What’s in a name? To a community with the name Peoria: everything. IBI