An international brand resource for neighbourhoods, towns, cities, regions and economic clusters.

Everyone loves to diss Toronto. Oh yeah, except Torontonians.

Posted by Claire Matthews
A recent ad campaign by the Niagara Parks Commission (NPC) in Ontario has been getting a lot of attention – unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. The resulting uproar should be a good test of whether that old adage "all publicity is good publicity" is really true.

The ads in question consist of a series of television spots exhorting viewers to "Shake Off the City" by visiting the Niagara region. They feature unflattering portraits of city living – traffic jams, noise, congestion – followed by bucolic scenes of Niagara vineyards, parks and waterways. And while Toronto is never specifically named, the graphic of the city you are supposed to "shake off" looks suspiciously like Hogtown – or some other city with a very tall, needle-like structure and a large roofed stadium.

Funnily enough, the people of Toronto did not take kindly to this vision of their city. Seems the folks at the NPC forgot that most people live in the city because they actually like it. And while Joel Nolden, the NPC's executive director, has stated repeatedly that the ads were based on input from Toronto focus groups, he and his organization have backed down to the point of pulling of couple of the spots that were deemed most offensive.

But to me the most interesting thing that Mr Nolden said was this: "We were trying to break the stereotype that people in Toronto have about Niagara Falls. That it's basically just Clifton Hill and a casino." (For those who don't know Clifton Hill, it's one of the tackiest places on the planet, home to haunted houses, hotels with heart-shaped hot-tubs and bars favoured by bachelorette parties.)

So the purpose here is to re-brand the region and emphasize some of its many natural attractions. And they chose to do it by insulting the largest source of potential tourists in the country. Interesting approach.

The ads don't even make sense. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Toronto knows that it too has many spectacular green areas, and that it's easy to find a quiet park to jog or do yoga in. And anyone hoping to avoid traffic jams shouldn't be heading to Niagara Falls or Niagara-on-the-Lake on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I know, because my in-laws live near there. Finding parking is hell.

It seems to me that the NPC has a lot to learn about branding. For one thing, they need to figure out who their target market is, because I'm pretty sure that the folks heading for Clifton Hill and the casino aren't the same people who support the region's more than 100 wineries. And most importantly, they need to make nice with the 2.5 million potential visitors just to the north of them. You don't have to like Torontonians, but when they're holding the purse strings, you have to respect them.

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Placebrand.ca© is a Taiji Brand Group project that explores the role and importance of place branding. We invite your comments and contributions at any time.