Smile Politely

Does Champaign really need a marketing campaign?

Community pride is built from the ground up by sincere investments of time, money, resources, planning, and creativity. That hard work shines through when people visit that place or contemplate a move there. 

A couple of weeks ago, the News-Gazette reported a planned marketing campaign for the City of Champaign. The City Council approved a request for proposals from professional marketing firms to promote Champaign to visitors and residents with the hopes of encouraging tourism and economic development. This move comes from a key project outlined in the 2021-2023 City Council Goals. This project’s goal was to “develop and implement a comprehensive marketing campaign to promote Champaign’s positive attributes and strengthen community pride.” 

Rather than trying to convince people who already live here that they live in a great place, or enticing visitors with a new website and social media ads, the focus of that funding and energy should continue to make this a great place to live.

Notably, this campaign is to be exclusively focused on the City of Champaign, to the exclusion of neighboring communities like Urbana and Savoy. While the City of Champaign is its own municipal entity, it’s impossible to completely separate it from the rest of this small metropolitan area. The residents of these cities pay taxes to their particular municipalities and utilize governmental services accordingly. Still, it’s very difficult to live your life in this area without venturing outside of your city’s boundaries. You may live in Champaign, but work in Urbana. You may live in Urbana, but eat in Downtown Champaign. Even the University of Illinois spans the two cities. Those who are looking to move to this area, whether for work or school, look at this community as a whole as well. 

As described in the News-Gazette article, Mayor Deb Feinen and City Council member Vanna Pianfetti brought up the danger of this project overlapping with work already happening to market Champaign County to residents and visitors. This is a valid concern. We have an entire visitor’s bureau, Visit Champaign County, that is doing all of the things proposed in this campaign. They do branding, event promotion, and emphasize what makes this county and surrounding counties, of which Champaign is a significant part, a great place to live, work, and play — all with a buy-in from the City of Champaign. This level of marketing is happening specifically for Champaign through Champaign Center Partnership, with financial support from the City of Champaign. From the report to the City Council: 

In the summer of 2021, the City provided grant funding to and worked collaboratively with the Champaign Center Partnership to develop the “Heart of it All” marketing campaign. This campaign focused on promoting the City’s business core as a must visit destination for dining, shopping, and entertainment and included use of a local marketing firm to develop and implement a comprehensive marketing campaign. The marketing firm created and managed a new webpage, social media campaign, website advertisements, a television commercial and other promotional videos, and developed printed collateral including posters, t-shirts, window stickers, and other promotional materials.

Won’t this proposed campaign be doing much of the same? 

The money allotted for this project, $140,000 over two years, is not a lot. Honestly, it’s difficult to imagine it will make a measurable difference in boosting the city’s image. Yet that amount, plus the time and creative energy that has been and will be invested in this campaign, could be better used to improve the quality of life here. We’ve pressed the need for investment in downtown development of engaging programming, for increased public arts funding, for improving infrastructure in predominantly Black neighborhoods, and for investing more in those who are advocating for this area.

We don’t need billboards and merch to convince people of the city’s worth. We need to see real investment and improvement.

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Trude Namara, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker.

Top photo by Anna Longworth.

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