Islands, arenas and a 21-story Native American statue, oh my!
It’s no secret that Tulsa is struggling to redefine itself.
For the past 19 months, the Tulsa Convention and Visitors Bureau has been working with Littlefield Inc., a group of local experts on branding, to learn what Tulsa has become and how the city can flaunt that identity to bring in tourists and their pocketbooks.
Efforts have been focused so as to have marketing material ready for the high-visibility events soon to take place in Tulsa, such as the 2007 PGA Championship.
“If you’re going to be a true destination, you want to find the one thing that the community can hang its hat on,” said David Littlefield, founder and CEO of Littlefield Inc., 1350 S. Boulder Ave., Ste. 500. “We want to make a promise to visitors so that when they come here, we can deliver on that promise.”
Littlefield Inc. won the bid to perform the research on how both residents and non-residents view Tulsa. Littlefield Inc. used a combination of web and telephone surveys, combined with interviews and city tours, to learn how Tulsans perceive themselves, as well as what outsiders think of Tulsa.
The results gathered from over 900 respondents were eye-opening.
When asked what is the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of Tulsa, 34 percent of 750 survey respondents from Texas, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana said simply that they did not know. Five percent thought of oil and only 3 percent thought of a big city populated by many people.
“The cumulative impact of two major economic busts in the past 25 years, the continued loss of corporate headquarters, negative news coverage, even the rebirth of Oklahoma City have combined to have a profound impact on how Tulsans feel about themselves,” said Littlefield Inc.’s Destination Tulsa: A Brand Blueprint.
The Brand Blueprint was presented to the public in summer 2006.
Littlefield’s Brand Assessment Team “found that the longer a person has lived in the area, generally the worse their sense of community self-esteem.”
The news gets worse: when event planners from across the country were asked what they knew about Tulsa, 76 percent said they knew nothing at all. Only 4 percent had seen ads for Tulsa, and 4 percent more thought Tulsa too small for their conventions.
Not all is lost, however.
“We heard people say again and again, both from outsiders and insiders, that when they came here, Tulsa was a great surprise,” Littlefield said.
“They were expecting the vision of Oklahoma from The Grapes of Wrath and the dust bowl days — or the cowboy and Indian thing, since tourism has spent $4 million a year for the past 15 years pitching the Native America concept.”
So, what was so surprising to visitors, according to Littlefield Inc.’s research? What visitors saw in Tulsa that not even most Tulsans saw in their own community was a place of sophistication, yet friendliness.
Using visitor’s input, Littlefield’s next task was to develop a plan to deploy that insight to seduce tourists.
Littlefield Inc. defined five characteristics visitors most often associated with Tulsa: Tulsa is genuine and has a sense of community. Tulsa is intimate, sophisticated and its population embodies a fusion of diversity.
Suzann Stewart, senior vice president of the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Tulsa Convention and Visitors Bureau, knew Tulsans were a hospitable group. Littlefield’s research still managed to impress her, however.
“We found in our research that this community is welcoming and friendly beyond belief,” Stewart said. “We think of people who come here as guests in our home as opposed to tourists who are coming for an artificial, man-made experience.”
Another thing Littlefield learned was “we have wonderful things for visitors of our city to go and visit; we just don’t think of them as being tourist attractions because we built them for us,” he said.
“Tulsans don’t view Tulsa as a destination. They view it as a great place to live, work, play and raise your family.”
A way Littlefield plans to market Tulsa’s five characteristics is to allow tourists to discover for themselves those destinations Tulsans don’t often consider to be designed for tourism. Tulsa’s treasures are not readily accessible to tourists, however.
“People like to discover things for themselves, so we’re going to play on that,” said Littlefield. “That’s where the surprising sophistication comes in, and the fusion of people. We really do have a worldly community here – it’s just segregated.”
Stewart said she is excited to help design a plan to market “a different kind of tourist experience.”
“What visitors experience here is what we do everyday. The feel we have is very comfortable, very cosmopolitan — which is something that has a worldly influence, not necessarily meaning big or small,” Stewart said.
“The essence is that we are a welcoming city that is comfortably cosmopolitan,” added Littlefield.
“We haven’t adopted a slogan yet,” Stewart said. “Coming up with that is going to be how we position that feeling from a marketing perspective. That’s going to be the fun and challenging part.”
Littlefield Inc. plans to build on its brand promise in designing a marketing and advertising campaign for Tulsa. Littlefield said he hopes he can begin the implementation process during the first quarter of this year.
A Littlefield Inc. consultant and author of The Brand Mindset, Duane Knapp, conceived of a deployment strategy designed to implement the feeling of the brand promise first at the initial points of contact tourists have with Tulsa, and secondly throughout the community.
Knapp coined that strategy “culturalization.” Stewart calls the strategy the “rah-rah campaign.”
Though a contract between Tulsa’s CVB and Littlefield Inc. has not been announced, talks have continued on the scope of the work ahead in the culturalization process, along with expectations of the end results.
“We’ve got some major events coming up in the community that we’re using as a sort of benchmark to have everything ready to go on this,” Stewart said. “We’ve got time to do it, and do it right. It’s been a long time coming, and I’m very excited about it.
The 2007 PGA Championship at Tulsa’s Southern Hills Country Club “is the perfect opportunity for us to make sure that we have the new branding in play. We are rolling it out so that those guests will have a perception of Tulsa that they can take back with them that is different from the one they had when they arrived,” Stewart said.
As the research from Littlefield Inc. revealed Tulsans have little confidence in their community’s ability to draw tourists, Stewart said the first order of business in branding Tulsa as a tourist destination is to work on “internal marketing.”
“Internal marketing is the stuff we do to educate ourselves about our community and what makes us attractive not only to other people, but what keeps us here,” she said.
Littlefield said that educating Tulsans on what the city has to offer tourists will be part of their charge if Littlefield Inc. wins the bid for this phase of the branding project.
“We’ll start with hotels, restaurants, transportation people, and do training on the promise that we’re going to make people. We’re going to say, ‘Hey, this is a welcoming city, and we’re comfortably cosmopolitan. Here’s what that means.’”
“We’re going to train trainers, and then they’re going to train others. It will be like a giant pyramid. It’s going to be a pretty detailed and intense effort,” Littlefield said.
This culturalization has to happen first, Littlefield said, before marketing and communications materials are distributed to potential visitors.
Alexis Higgins, interim marketing director at Tulsa International Airport, said airport employees are charged to know about what’s going on in Tulsa and how to convey visitor information in a way that makes people feel welcome.
Littlefield’s staff as initial point contacts between Tulsa and tourists will train airport volunteers and personnel.
“The airport has been working for the past several years on refurbishing the terminal,” Higgins said. “Now when you get off a plane here, you’ll see something about Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa Historical Society and the Tulsa Air and Space Museum.”
The airport board also has plans to spruce up airport grounds, Higgins said.
“As soon as people get into their cars to leave the airport, that’s their first impression of the city. When they’re coming to depart, that’s their last impression,” Higgins said.
“We want to make sure that no matter what, our grounds are well-kept and maintained, and that they’re cheerful. We’re Green Country, so we want to make sure everything here reflects that.”
As “internal marketing” takes root and tourists begin to flow into Tulsa and have positive experiences here, all work on finding out what Tulsa is in the context of a global tourism market will bear fruit.
“Tulsa’s Brand Blueprint is the first stage in aligning the Brand Promise with the brand experience. As we bring the two closer together, perceptions of Tulsa will change,” said Littlefield. ?