When Visit Baltimore kicked off #MyBmore — a social media campaign intended to change the narrative about the city — the launch party was held not at the Inner Harbor but in the Station North Arts District.
The location in the burgeoning arts and entertainment center was symbolic. The aim of the five-month-old campaign is to promote less-heralded areas and activities — to encourage Baltimoreans to tell fresh, unexpected stories about neighborhoods, attractions and their own good deeds, while fighting back against an image shaped by record violent crime.
“There’s a lot of great news happening in Baltimore, but unfortunately not enough people know about it, and we now have an opportunity to tell it,” said Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, the quasi-public tourism agency. “We need to use social media because that’s where a lot of folks go to get their information.”
“#MyBmore” isn’t a traditional marketing campaign but rather a grassroots effort encouraging Baltimoreans to rally on behalf of their city by posting photos, videos and stories on Instagram, Twitter and other apps or sites using a common hashtag.
“It’s great because that’s what travelers want — third-party recommendations and local experiences,” said Casey Rhoads, vice president and account director at TBC, a Baltimore-based advertising agency.
The posts must compete with news accounts about mounting homicides and other violent crimes. Homicides have surpassed the 300 mark in the city in each of the past three years. Before 2015, Baltimore hadn’t recorded 300 homicides in a single year since the 1990s.
The tens of thousands of #MyBmore photos posted so far include a kitten rescued by the Baltimore City Fire Department; the Rawlings Conservatory & Botanic Gardens decorated with garlands for the holidays; street scenes; and fancy desserts at local restaurants. There are pictures of youth choirs, martial arts classes, dogs and outdoor murals.
The many participants include the fire department and other city departments; R. House, a Remington food hall; Treason Toting Co., which makes travel bags; Project Pneuma, a nonprofit program for Baltimore boys; Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.; and Under Armour and Plank Industries.
“We’re trying to breathe new life into Baltimore,” said Damion J. Cooper, founder and executive director of Project Pneuma, which says it teaches young men “the art of forgiveness, self-control and discipline.” He said #MyBmore can help show that the city isn’t defined by what “is often seen in the news and in the movies.”
Plank Industries — the investment company of Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank — was invited to the campaign’s launch in July at the Motor House, a theater and studio in Station North.
“It was a great way to see what was going on in the city outside of major headlines, which are sometimes pretty negative,” said Danielle Bennings, the company’s public relations director. “It was about sharing experiences from across the city. There were big companies from across the city and entrepreneurs and artists and other people who have a presence online and could help tell the story.”
The company’s #MyBmore posts include photos of Plank Industries and Sagamore Development volunteers packing holiday meal bags at a Thanksgiving event with the Maryland Food Bank.
The Fire Department has posted photos this month of rescued cats and a young boy receiving a bicycle as a Christmas present.
“The firefighters used their own money,” said Blair Skinner, a department spokeswoman, of the gift.
BGE recently purchased an ad in the Southwest Airlines flight magazine that will appear in a forthcoming issue. “Baltimore has the energy you’re looking for,” says the ad, which features the “MyBmore” hashtag.
“BGE is 201 years old and we feel like we’re synonymous with Baltimore,” said spokeswoman Linda Foy. “Our employees live here.”
The advantage of a grass-roots campaign is that it is “authentic,” said Ryan Jordan, senior vice president and creative director at IMRE, the advertising and marketing firm with an office in Sparks.
“If we place the storytelling in the hands of the people, then who better to represent the city?” Jordan said. “Not only will they give an authentic story but also there’s just a ton of creativity in the city.”
The challenge, analysts say, is growing the campaign large enough to distinguish it among the waves of other hashtags.
“It’s definitely not a bad idea. It can’t hurt,” said Shana Harris, chief operating officer at Warschawski, a Baltimore-based marketing agency.
“The question is, what is the reach? I hadn’t heard of it and I live in the city and am active in the business,” Harris said. “In order for it to move the needle, it probably needs a little more behind it.”
Hutchinson, the Visit Baltimore chief, said the campaign “is by no means a silver bullet. It’s not going to be the end-all, be-all, but it is a way for us to come together as a community and as a private sector-public sector and begin to tell the great stories that all of us know, but the world needs to know.”
Visit Baltimore described the campaign’s cost as “minimal” — the budget figure wasn’t available. The agency organizes the accumulated content using a software program and highlights some of the material on its website.
#MyBmore is a grass-roots extension of a more traditional campaign in 2015 with the same name, minus the hashtag. That advertising campaign featured celebrities such as actors Josh Charles and Julie Bowen and baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.
The campaign kicked off within a week or two of the arrest and death in police custody of Freddie Gray. The unrest that followed included looting, rioting and fires.
Visit Baltimore quickly suspended the campaign, which eventually was relaunched and will conclude in June.
Visit Baltimore does not currently have a national advertising campaign. The celebrities campaign ran in several regional markets and convention trade magazines.
Ultimately, Hutchinson said, “we need to come up with a national story of Baltimore — a national commercial telling everyone about Baltimore.”