Forecast Unclear for ‘757’ Regional Brand

As the newest effort to define and grow southeastern Virginia is met with criticism and confusion, some community leaders promise to deliver blue skies ahead

Regional Branding

Take a deep breath, Tidewater.  Hold your horses, Hampton Roads. Cool it, Coastal Virginia.

Southeastern Virginians clinging to these names can continue to do so, says the Envision 2020 Regional Branding Initiative Task Force. They’d just like everyone—at least everyone locally, for now—to also embrace “757.” But why? And why so much confusion about our name? Or is it our brand? Or both?

On Dec. 10, 2019, John Martin, CEO of SIR (Southeastern Institute of Research), a Richmond strategic management consulting agency that worked with the task force, stepped onto the stage at a Hampton Roads Chamber and Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce joint meeting.

“What we’re recommending is that we go with ‘757,’” he said. “There are many reasons why.”

Along with slides highlighting his agency’s research, Martin presented a slick, black and white promotional video featuring area leaders praising “757” as “bold” and “where we’re going” and pushing aside other names as “where we’ve been.” They hammered the need to empower young people and to capitalize on our culture, as demonstrated by Pharrell Williams’s Something in the Water festival.

Local media—traditional and new—jumped on the announcement: While a WAVY reporter correctly mentioned the initiative was a pride-building campaign and “the beginning of the effort,” the two anchors introducing the story focused on what names they use for the region and said “leaders want one cohesive name.”

WTKR interviewed Hampton Roads Chamber President and CEO Bryan Stephens and noted that “757” sounds “new and catchy and fresh,” but would there be emotional buy-in? Stephens said he hoped so, that young professionals have been using it for a long time and that he sees it as a unifying name and that he wanted to bring all 1.7 million people in the region together in one unifying brand.

WVEC noted “#757” had significantly more hits on Instagram than “Hampton Roads,” “Tidewater” and “Coastal Virginia.” They also referred to 757 as a “name” as they mentioned that the Envision 2020 Regional Branding Initiative was behind it.

Inside Businesss headline: “757 selected as new name…” Their first sentence: “It turns out the best new name for Hampton Roads is one some people are already using.”

The Virginian-Pilots headline had Hampton Roads, Coastal Virginia and Tidewater crossed out, followed by “757” with a question mark.

Facebook and LinkedIn posts and comments included:

“It says nothing about this area.”

“Wasn’t the idea supposed to be to direct people who don’t know about this area to this area?”

“I’m supposed to say I’m from the 757? No one will know what the heck I’m talking about.”

“This sounds more like older people trying to be cool.”

“What happens when we get a new area code?”

“Gloucester is 804.”

“The people who live here might know that reference, but if branding is for marketing, it’s like a politician with no name recognition.”

“How do you expect to lure business and visitors with three numbers?”

For days, people balked. Experts, when asked, did as well.

“I’ve heard ‘757’ used in the sports world, and here and there. I’m not disputing that ‘757’ is used by a younger age group,” says Joel Rubin, CEO and president of Rubin Communications, and a respected advocate for the area who worked on the “America’s First Region” branding campaign for the Hampton Roads Partnership and on TV news. “I haven’t heard ‘757’ much, though, and I’m with people of many different ages. Google it, and you don’t find anything.”

(Try “757” and Boeing dominates; “#757” produces similar results; “757 VA” lists a few local businesses. Search ‘#757’ on Instagram, and you find 1,431,732 posts. Elaborate manicures and cool hairstyles dominate.)

For Rubin, “757” isn’t southeastern Virginia’s name or brand. “A brand is what you are,” he says, “a compilation of experience and knowledge of an area. Here, it’s water. Military and history, too.” The name—if one must be chosen, he says—should be Norfolk-Virginia Beach.

“Whatever airport you’re at, that’s what you see,” Rubin says. “They’ve decided our name.” As a local for 45 years, he’s seen the ongoing struggle to unite the region. The challenge, he believes, is that each city and county has their basic needs met—places to work, live and shop—so there’s no do-or-die reason to band together. Except for brain drain.

“Our best and brightest leaving is a problem,” he says. “A large, four-year university in Virginia Beach or a major entrepreneur is what we need. Pharrell (Virginia Beach-raised), who I’ve heard could be involved with this effort, might be that person—if he adds ‘757’ to ‘Something in the Water,’ and does more with it and his support of Virginia. But there are a lot of factors involved in growth, beyond a collective name which we can’t agree on.”


Is It a Name? Is It a Brand?

So again, why? Why “757” as our name? Or as our brand? A tagline? A slogan? And what are we supposed to do with it?

In early 2019, Reinvent Hampton Roads and the Hampton Roads Chamber formed the 30-plus-member “Envision 2020” task force and a 100-member strong stakeholders group with community leaders, all of whom volunteered their time. They also hired SIR to support the task force. The investment was $145,000, according to Jim Spore, president and CEO of Reinvent Hampton Roads.

Reinvent and the Chamber share the goal of a booming region—and the frustration of a blundering one. “Hampton Roads is way behind cities in the 1- to 3-million population size,” wrote Doug Smith, president and CEO of Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance, in an email. “This is in terms of population growth, private-sector economic growth and business investment, including expanding companies and new companies.”

He cites statistics from the U.S. Census, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission:

  • Our population growth is projected at 5% over the next 20 years. Regions similar in size, such as Richmond, Charlotte and Raleigh, are projected to grow at least twice as fast.
  • We rank 35th for employment growth, out of 39 regions of similar size.
  • 36th for income growth.
  • 37th for gross regional product growth.

Could our name—or names?—be negatively affecting us, wondered leaders at Reinvent and the Chamber.

Another committee had said “yes” in 2018. Initiated by Reinvent, as part of the statewide organization GO Virginia, the committee of seven local business and tourism leaders including Coastal Virginia Magazine’s Randy Thompson, president and publisher, VistaGraphics, Inc. They called for regional collaboration, fueled by a name that they saw as geographically descriptive, indicative of the area’s culture and reflective of market perceptions. Recommending “Coastal Virginia,” they spelled out a plan for uniting the region.

Reinvent and the Chamber seemed to be going back to the drawing board a year later. Writing in the Envision 2020 Regional Branding Initiative draft report, they asked:

“Are people outside the region aware of our name? Do they know where Hampton Roads is located and what it offers? Does the name have positive associations? How about residents and business leaders: what do they think about the Hampton Roads name? Does the name, without a large, well-known city name as a geographic anchor, hold us back? Fundamentally, is what we call ourselves helping move the region forward?”

The goal presented to the Envision 2020 task force, as written in the draft report: “Better understand the Hampton Roads brand and how the region can best effectively advance a shared, compelling story.” There’s a switch there from talking about name to brand.

The switch happened in traditional and new media reports and posts when “757” was announced, too. The words were used interchangeably, perhaps creating—or adding to— the confusion and the criticism.

The report tries to clarify the difference and the assignment on page two: “…the Envision 2020 Task Force leaders stated emphatically that this would be a branding initiative, not a naming assignment…pointing to a name, existing or new…wasn’t the only goal…purpose was…a …brand refresh planning process. Any decisions about names…would come at the end.”

SIR CEO John Martin elaborated when asked, “What is the difference between a name and a brand?”

As he sees it: A brand is a relationship that people have with a product, service or company. The brand evokes associated images or emotions. A brand name—his word for “name” in this case—is one of the tangibles that represents a brand.

“Interestingly, 757 is both a brand name and a brand. 757 is a place name that transcends its origins as an area code,” Martin wrote in an email. “As a brand, 757 is how we express ourselves in arts and culture. It’s a nod to our propensity for producing top-tier professional athletes. It celebrates our diversity and our region’s young generations. It’s how we celebrate our remarkable coastal environment and the pride we have in our military. It is our cultural flag.”

Martin would prefer we focus on two facts: 757 is a pride-building campaign, and we can continue to use Coastal Virginia, Tidewater and Hampton Roads if we like.

“All of these names can and should coexist as part of the 757 campaign,” he emphasizes.

Given our history of resisting name changes, one wonders if the task force considered communicating from the get-go that there is still room for “Tidewater,” “Hampton Roads” and “Coastal Virginia.” The initiative might have been more understood if someone had clearly stated, from the first announcement, that “757” is not meant to replace any regional name. Ditto for “757” not yet being considered for an external marketing campaign. Reviewing the initial announcement, early media interviews and soon-to-follow social media posts and comments by involved and invested parties, you cannot find such an announcement or an asterisk.

Clarification did come, but confusion persists. Also beneficial might have been an illustration of how “757” as a brand—or a brand name—will be incorporated in a regional pride-building campaign or possibly an out-of-region marketing campaign.

Or even a smaller example might have helped: Perhaps share how Reinvent Hampton Roads, one of the Envision 2020 sponsors, will adopt “757.” Will they change their name to include “757” or add it in some way? Maybe a “757” logo or a tagline?

“The effort going forward is yet to be determined,” Reinvent Hampton Roads’s Jim Spore wrote in an email. “The Reinvent Board has not met since the branding project results were announced, so no direction on brand/name/tagline, etc.”

Another possibility: Wait until everything is finalized to make an announcement.

The Envision 2020 group anticipates another mining of the research—which showed Coastal Virginia as the most preferred formal name by prospective visitors—at a later time, when they work on a marketing campaign aimed at those beyond Southeastern Virginia. Prospective millennial visitors, the group Envision 2020 most hopes to engage, also preferred Coastal Virginia, more so than other age groups. When asked about “informal names,” prospective visitors preferred names in this order:

  1. NVB
  2. BayVA
  3. 7 Cities
  5. COVA
  6. 757


Point of Departure

John Kelsh, owner of Great Destination Strategies in Peoria, Ariz., has crafted placemaking branding and marketing campaigns worldwide for 40 years. After reviewing the Envision 2020 branding draft report, he found the process of gaining input from leaders, citizens and potential visitors reasonable and applauds building regional pride first and later using the same brand externally. In this case, it remains to be seen if the same brand will be used externally.

“Locals, who will make it happen (delivering on the promise of a brand), need to be on board,” he says. “I always recommend this to clients.”

He pointed to potential pitfalls, however: “The 757 report does not mention a brand promise. Determine a succinct brand promise and how to verbalize it and visualize it. Show differentiation—how is 757 different from its competitors? Brands are built on product first, then marketing. Deliver on the brand promise.”

What might he have done? “Since Hampton Roads has currency and recognition outside of your region, I would consider that before ‘757,’ which is somewhat esoteric, locally known and has little currency…If Hampton Roads does not carry with it a negative connotation, but simply has little ‘brand’ identity, then I would build it rather than start with a less-known name.”

Another leader in place branding expressed concerns with “757”: “I’m struggling with it,” says Todd Mayfield, principal and creative director of Avia Design Group in Wellington, Fla. “Maybe ‘757’ could be a cute logo. It’s not a brand. My first impression is that people won’t get it.”

Mayfield has worked on more than 50 campaigns for localities and partners with Bill Blake, author of the book Place Branding for Small Cities, Regions & Downtowns.

He points to brand guidelines that his group creates for clients, complete with images, copy and fonts that instantly convey a feeling. Looking at sample guidelines, you see a consistency that ties promotional elements together and understand the promise—whether it’s nature, food, music or something else—that pulls people to a place.

“You have to establish the foundation to start,” he says.  He followed up with a question: “What is the budget?” The unfortunate answer, going forward, is currently $0: The Envision 2020 draft report reads, “Line up initial funding to support regional marketing efforts.”

Toward the end of the report, the writers share more ideas on regional messaging. A keyword identified is “connect”—as in “to one another, our coastal environment, our country and the world.” Highlighting our “place assets”—history, diversity, quality of life, water, military, global port and future (growth opportunities related to technology)—is noted. “757” is mentioned as a regional name and the centerpiece of a pride-building campaign.

Inspiring ideas cram that section of the report. Also recommended is partnering with local young creatives and national friends, such as Pharrell, to harness their vision and power. Yet, there is no commitment to specifics nor a timeline. But, wait: We’re told the exact plan is coming.

“I’m really proud of our work,” says Cathy Lewis, a task force member as well as a speaker/trainer, broadcaster and facilitator/former president of Civic Leadership Institute, “and I think of it as the very beginning of a regional pride campaign where we’ll know and tell our story as part of a process to come up with a name or brand by which we want to be known in the wider world.”

Another task force member continues to lean toward “757,” but knows there’s more to be decided. “The lead of ‘757’ [during the announcement] buried the story,” says Bob McKenna, CEO and president of the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. “The ‘757’ brand is a small part of all that work we’ve been doing. A marketing campaign is being developed.”

McKenna is as anxious as anyone to see it. He’s lived all over the world with the Navy and, after being stationed in this area on and off for 20 years, he chose to settle here. Now he’d like to maybe lure back his grown children. He believes in the potential of the moniker “757,” as his children use it.

“If our goal is to attract young, talented people to the region, and compete against places like Raleigh, Jacksonville and Nashville to do so,” McKenna says, “it makes sense to capitalize on something like ‘757’ that is popular.”

Until then, the tall task of a local pride-building campaign is being tackled by Alisa Crider, director of investor relations and development at Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance, an Envision 2020 task force member and former chair of tHRive, a young professional Hampton Roads Chamber group. Envision 2020 group members and other volunteers will assist. First up: Ongoing presentations to organizations in the 17 southeastern Virginia localities to build support.

“Since the announcement, we have probably given 50-plus presentations,” says Crider, “and we’ve seen a significant shift of non-supporters to supporters once they understand this a pride-building campaign, and they do not have to stop referring to this area by their regional name of choice, be it Hampton Roads, Tidewater or Coastal Virginia.”

A 2010 graduate of Virginia Wesleyan University and a Virginia Beach native, Crider relates to “757,” having said it for much of her life.

“The Envision 2020 research confirmed that ‘757’ is already a brand that transcends borders. It already connects us,” she wrote in an email. “People use it when they are saying positive things about what it’s like to live, play and visit this area. Moreover, it’s especially appealing to younger age cohorts, the very people we need to attract and retain.”

She expects to unveil a comprehensive, two-year local marketing campaign in the coming months. A timeline for an out-of-the-region campaign, with or without the “757” name/brand, has not been determined.

Read the Envision 2020 research reports here.

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