A woman with an apparent fascination with bondage throwing a dart at a target stuck in the crotch of a muscular and nearly naked man? A long line of sexy young men and women at the side of a hotel swimming pool, taking selfies? Two men, one preppy and one bearded like a hipster, sitting on a couch in what is apparently a gay mixed-marriage?
Welcome to West Hollywood! Oh, and if any of that offends you, well, bye Felicia!
Those images are part of a campaign by Visit West Hollywood to market the rebel city that is WeHo.
“Any time that a destination is able to portray its best assets is always great, but for West Hollywood, it’s also never been more important,” said Tom Kiely, President and CEO of Visit West Hollywood. “This city was built on the idea of a safe haven and welcoming place, with no judgements made, and it’s the same today. With our campaign, we are inviting people from around the world to come visit, and be who they are.”
The radical (or should we call it “rad”?) campaign was developed by Symblaze, a marketing firm with clients across the world that is based in West Hollywood and is best known among locals for its marketing of the city’s Pick Up free nightlife shuttle. Its founders are Michael Horton and Josh Morgerman.
Josh Morgerman said Visit WeHo decided to re-evaluate the way it markets West Hollywood to travelers after the death in 2015 of Brad Burlingame. Burlingame was the well-liked CEO of Visit WeHo for 18 years, the man many credit with making West Hollywood a major center of tourism in Southern California. Kiely was named Burlingame’s successor last September.
“We did a brand audit,” Morgerman said, something that involved long talks with employees of Visit West Hollywood as well as with influentials in the city and the tourism industry. “We came to the conclusion that this brand needed an extreme makeover.”
Visit WeHo’s marketing campaign had focused, as does those of most tourism destinations, on the stylish hotels, great restaurants, hip nightlife and luxury shopping in the city. But that focus “didn’t have the edge that we think West Hollywood has,” Morgerman said. That edge, he conceded, might put off some. However, “we are strong believers that really memorable brands, the ones that stand out, are not for everybody. When brands try to talk to everybody, they’re talking to nobody.”
So who does Visit West Hollywood want to speak to? Who finds, or is likely to find, WeHo a desirable destination? And why?
“It’s no secret that people come to West Hollywood from all over the world,” Morgerman said. “It’s not a cheap place to visit and also has a certain vibe. We found that a large portion of the traffic comes from big cities in North America, and that includes Canada and increasingly Mexico, the EU (especially London and the UK), and of course Australia. We found a common thread in those travelers and diagrammed it.”
Morgerman describes those travelers as “cultural creatives.” They are people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. They work in creative fields such as fashion, advertising, media and entertainment. They aren’t “super wealthy,” Morgerman said, “but they do well.”
“We decided that we are going to talk to them,” he said, adding that those who aren’t cultural creatives are certainly welcome as well.
The next step was figuring out what gives WeHo, a city known for its great hotels and restaurants, and great nightlife and shopping, an edge among all those cities that also have those attributes. What, Morgerman asked, is WeHo’s “special sauce”?
“A lot of people think it’s the LGBT population, but that’s not the only thing…” he said. “The common thread we found about West Hollywood, was in its history. The city was founded by AIDS activists and rents rights activists and Russian immigrants working hard to create a safe space for themselves… In the 80s this was the center of the hair metal scene, getting blasted, partying and rock… And even today, the West Hollywood City Council takes controversial stands on things – the fur ban, the ban on plastic bags, our (former) mayor’s saying that Donald Trump is not welcome here.
“This is a city of social justice warriors, a city of deep compassion and taking moral stands on things …. But there is a really hedonistic side too. And actually they are connected. And the connection is rebellion… We are going to do what we think is right and what we want to do, whether it’s partying our ass off or having bathrooms that accommodate everybody.
“The common thread is we’re a rebel city. This is a rebel city. It has been since its inception. It is politically. It is in terms of the hedonism of the city, which we celebrate. That’s the brand’s special sauce.”
To pitch WeHo as a rebel city required a brand with “some teeth,” Morgerman said. “And that means some people aren’t going to like it. We created this brand before the (presidential) election, and now it’s going to have even more impact … Our carrying this torch of rebellion, it means more than it ever did.
“Our target audience, whether they come from North America or Europe or Australia, appreciates that. They are very much on our side in this cultural war. Trump’s election put our branding position in even more stark relief.”
Visit WeHo’s new approach is displayed in a marketing video that Visit West Hollywood produced, with Morgerman as director and Richy Jackson, known for his work with Lady Gaga, as choreographer. Titled “You’re Too Good for This Sh*t. Visit WeHo”, it depicts West Hollywood as rebellious in a particularly hedonistic way.
“The video starts in a grey, depressing, everyday reality,” Morgerman said. “Suddenly you’re whisked away on a fast-paced jaunt across a world that is glamorous, vibrant, strange, and sensual: West Hollywood. You barely have time to savor the rush of fantastic sights before you’re cruelly dropped off again in the grey reality of everyday life. But now there’s a longing in your heart—a spark of curiosity—to experience WeHo for yourself.”
“The video is about creating a mood. It’s not a literal sell. It’s about what West Hollywood means… the creative permissiveness of it.”
It also embraces what Morgerman, a native New Yorker who lives in WeHo, calls Southern California’s “plasticity.”
“The people coming from New York or London, they embrace the plasticity of Southern California. David Hockney is the first one to really embrace how plastic it is,” Morgerman said, referring to the famous British pop artist who has a studio in WeHo. “I wanted to acknowledge that. The models that we cast, the shots, the colors … we don’t care if it looks fake. It is fake. That’s what people come here for. We are kind of crazy… We are not Portland, we’re not San Francisco.”