The experiment of staging a Grand Prix in the heart of Baltimore has benefited the city. Whether you loved or hated it, it has caused us to consider the branding and selling of the city of Baltimore — who we are and why people want to visit, work and live here.
The Grand Prix was dubbed a "signature event," the kind of occasion that put a spotlight on the city and brought thousands here. Now that it's gone, we should be thinking about how to replace it with something else that enhances our image and visibility.
During the past 20 years we've had more slogans and identities than can be remembered: Charm City, the City that Reads, Believe, B-more, Hon Town, America's Best. The Monumental City is an old tag that still applies and gets used. Queen of the Bay was popular for a long time when produce and tobacco came here daily from the Eastern Shore.
But the image that began to stick because of the power of television was more about drugs and homicide: "Body More" replaced Edgar Allan Poe's "Nevermore."
Baltimore deserves better than that.
I believe that the core of our signature is very basic. They are a few words that every American is already familiar with: the land of the free and the home of the brave. Those few words in our national anthem, written 199 years ago on a ship just off of Ft. McHenry, lie at the heart of our signature — the who and what we are and why this city matters, why it's important.
Our signature is "free and brave."
In 1814, British forces set their military sights on us, because we vexed them. Our creative minds and engineering brilliance built radical new ships captained by brave people that interfered with their ability to bully other nations and do as they pleased on the high seas. We fought for free trade, so they set out to destroy this "nest of pirates."
In September 2014, on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore, the nation and the world will be focused directly on Baltimore because we were free and brave. That natural focus is what we need to build on, utilize and be proud of.
I don't believe that our signature lies in one annual sporting event. It lies in knowing who we are and presenting it well. There are 300 years of stories about freedom and bravery in the port that built a city to look to for inspiration.
According to Visit Baltimore, the single largest and most successful event in the city's history was the Star-Spangled Sailabration of 2012. One-and-a-half million visitors came to see and experience international tall ships and naval vessels in one week. Compare that with Gettysburg, the most popular Civil War battlefield, which gets that number of visitors in a year.
If our maritime identity and heritage works that well, doesn't it make sense for us to lead with it and feature it? Not just once in a while but consistently?
Our neighbors in Washington, D.C., draw more than 10 million visitors a year. Many of the most popular museums are part of the Smithsonian brand. Baltimore has dozens of museums, landmarks and historic ships that would benefit from a common branding theme.
Under Armour's slogan "Protect this House" has its roots 200 years ago when 15,000 Baltimoreans did just that and stopped the invaders who had burned the White House and Capitol, making Congress flee for their lives. Baltimoreans didn't run, they stood together and won. Defense isn't a concept that was invented here by Gino Marchetti or Ray Lewis, but they represent it well.
Port Fest, which celebrates the city's port and was recently created by the Baltimore National Heritage Area, is an example of a new event that illuminates who we are, in order to benefit our students, families and port employers.
The first Port Fest was run on a very modest budget by dedicated volunteers. It touched hundreds of young people and may just have turned some lives around.
If we recognize that our signature is "free" and "brave" and that those words were written out of pride because of our maritime prowess and our ability to come together in a moment of crisis, it will have authentic power. The Bicentennial in 2014 is a gift that lets us focus our brand.
Baltimore: free and brave.
Mike Wicklein is the producer/director of the Wicklein Group and a Baltimore native. His email is email@example.com.
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