Jeff Schaaf, 37, brand manager for the Toledo Brand Initiative project, stands near the Web site of toledoregion.com at the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce. 'We want to take it to the corners of the region and spread the word,' he says.
Maybe you’ve heard this story before.
Toledo and northwest Ohio are pretty nice places to live, work, learn, and enjoy. Sound familiar?
While many northwest Ohioans have no doubt felt or believed that to be true, the reality is that an actual story about the many merits of Toledo and its surrounding region has never been fully told in any kind of compelling or public manner.
Until now, that is.
A three-and-a-half year effort to develop a “Toledo brand” — a distinctive narrative summing up who and what the northwest Ohio region is about — has finally borne fruit.
Facts have been gathered, a story penned, a logo and Web site created, and an audience identified.
Now what remains is selling the brand to the region, country, and world.
“There’s so many opportunities for us to get out there in front of people and tell the story. …I’m excited, I’m fired up,” said Jeff Schaaf, 37, an enthusiastic Toledo native hired two months ago to go out and sell the completed “Toledo Region” brand.
“We want to take it to the corners of the region and spread the word,” he said.
Specifically, the brand initiative’s “story” paints Toledo and northwest Ohio as ground zero for a “New Manufacturing Economy.”
“It’s kind of a compelling story if you read it, and it kind of sums up what we’re talking about,” Mr. Schaaf said. “The New Manufacturing Economy is manufacturing enabled by digital technologies and used by advanced systems and processes. Part of the New Manufacturing Economy is: We invent it, we design it, we build it, and we move it.
“For a long time we’ve let others define the Toledo region story. We kind of want to say: ‘This is how we are, this is what we offer, this is what’s it like to live in, work in, and learn in Toledo,’ ” Mr. Schaaf said. “And if I just want to do something fun on the weekend, I can enjoy myself here too.”
The brand has no nifty tagline or catch phrase. The Web site emphasizes living, working, learning, and enjoying oneself in the region with links to opportunities in all four categories.
“It’s almost like our pillars. Those are the things we stand behind,” Mr. Schaaf said.
To understand exactly what the Toledo Region brand is and why one was needed, it’s helpful to know that in the summer of 2009, Dave Nolan, then-CEO of Destination Toledo, the area’s convention and visitors bureau, invited representatives from many of the area’s top organizations and institutions to meet to discuss a “big idea.”
“Dave called us and said he had something big to discuss,” said Joe Napoli, general manager of the Toledo Mud Hens and Toledo Walleye.
Wendy Gramza, executive vice president of the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce, who also attended, said Mr. Nolan sought ways to increase local tourism.
But as the group offered ways to promote the region, their ideas drifted into the lack of a “brand” that could better define the region and tell, in a nutshell, anyone seeking information what the region had to offer and why they ought to relocate here.
“From an economic development side, we found that site selectors — the people who decide where to locate a new business — go to the Web first before they do anything else. We realized that we had nothing out there that was compelling to get people to look at the Toledo region,” said Keith Burwell, Toledo Community Foundation president, another attendee at Mr. Nolan’s meeting.
Ms. Gramza said that “as we talked about it, it made so much sense” to think about creating a regional brand, rather than merely do more marketing.
“In [Mr. Nolan’s] mind it was going to be a tourism project. But later on when we brought in consultants, they said, ‘You have a very compelling story that needs to be told, and the brand needs to be economic-development focused, because that’s what drives your economy. Everything else kind of fits within that,’ ” Ms. Gramza said.
“To his credit, Dave said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense,’ ” she said.
The meeting attendees agreed to form a Toledo Branding committee in the fall of 2009, then hired a consultant, Applied Storytelling of Berkeley, Calif., to research and develop a brand and hold meetings to gather information and bring other organizations on board.
“I think the thing we heard the most when we went down this road was ‘What are you going to do? — because this has been tried before,’ ” Mr. Burwell said. “When we started, we knew that everyone there was in it for the long haul because we were all writing a check. We put our money where our mouths were to get this going,” he said.
Getting on board
Initial committee members were the University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University, the Greater Toledo Urban League, Toledo Mayor Mike Bell’s office, Destination Toledo, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, the Mud Hens and Walleye, the chamber, and the community foundation. As it grew, a brand council was formed that includes those organizations, plus the Regional Growth Partnership, the Downtown Toledo Improvement District, and the Wood County Economic Development Corp.
The branding initiative has gained additional support from Owens Corning, human resources firm Job1USA, employee benefits firm Findley Davies, The Andersons Inc., Rudolph/Libbe Inc., Buckeye CableSystem, and The Blade.
From 2010 through 2012, the branding effort spent nearly $100,000 annually gathering information about the region and turning it into a narrative. Ms. Gramza estimates the effort has cost about $500,000 so far, including the 2013 budget.
Andi Roman, the first brand manager, who left the job at the end of 2012, compiled the information and placed it on a Web site, www.toledoregion.com that launched in January, 2012. The effort also included creating a “TR” logo, a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/ToledoRegion) and a Twitter account (@ToledoRegion).
Mr. Schaaf, who previously worked for Maritz Research in Maumee, is the key to the next phase — selling the brand to potential participants, including companies, governments in the region, organizations, and individuals throughout northwest Ohio.
“It’s about trying to create that buzz and get more people involved,” Mr. Schaaf said.
The brand council seeks new members to provide support through donations, promotion, contribution of materials, or just linking their Web sites to the Toledo Region site.
Mr. Schaaf’s first big test is this month when he’ll meet with the Maumee Chamber of Commerce. But the succeeding months will find him on the road a lot, he said.
Ms. Gramza, who helped Mr. Schaaf make a recent presentation to the port authority, said most people are unfamiliar with a brand concept at first. “I’m not sure what their expectations are going in. But when you explain it to them, then they get excited,” she added.
“The story — it’s very impactful. It makes you feel proud of your community. You can see yourself in the story and you say, ‘Yeah, that’s why I’m here.’ It’s a very well-crafted story,” she said.
More importantly, the Toledo Region brand concept “enables everyone to speak about the region in a positive way, but also in the same way,” Ms. Gramza said. “If you heard different people telling this story, it would all be different, but it would be clear that we’re all from the same region.”
Mr. Napoli said when the committee began it learned that several Ohio cities, including Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Dayton, all spend millions of dollars a year promoting their brands. “We found one community spends as much as $4 million a year,” he said.
While the Toledo effort is modest, spendingwise, it’s the results that count, Mr. Napoli said. Toledo, he added, has accomplished a lot with $500,000.
“As for the funding, I think we’re doing well with that,” he said. “I think we can do better, and the way we do better is to make the brand essential for the businesses in town,” he said.
Mr. Burwell said a common complaint about the brand is that it took so long to achieve. “Has it been as fast as we all would like to have moved it? No, but I could say that about any project in town,” he said.
The effort, he said, was not to create a slogan that would be forgotten a month later, but to create something lasting and permanent.
“The point is, have we created something real and authentic? The answer is yes,” Mr. Burwell said.
The success of the effort can be seen in a recent decision by state of Ohio officials to examine the ToledoRegion.com Web site, and to include both it and some of its materials in the state’s promotion of Ohio and northwest Ohio. “The state completely repositioned northwest Ohio by the materials that we created,” Mr. Burwell said.
“We’ve been very careful not to create this utopian ideal that would cost $10 million dollars. And we were not interested in creating 10 different videos that would do nothing for northwest Ohio,” Mr. Burwell said.
“We wanted something that was effective, and I’ve been encouraged by folks who have responded to it at the corporate level.”
Contact Jon Chavez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6128.