Santa Clara got a brand overhaul for the Super Bowl. Will anyone notice?

The Silicon Valley town is working hard to remind the world just who is hosting the game this year

Santa Clara, Calif., a former farm town turned upscale suburb, is about to become the fourth-smallest city ever to host a Super Bowl. Eager to seize the moment, the municipality spent about $500,000 — no minor sum for a city of 130,000 — on a large-scale rebranding in 2014, hoping the coming media frenzy might lure some outside investment dollars. 

But here’s the problem: Everyone from the Super Bowl Host Committee to the world’s media are talking about the "San Francisco Super Bowl’ or the "San Francisco Bay area Super Bowl." Santa Clara’s name is barely mentioned. This is not entirely an accident. Santa Clara, because of its small size, teamed with other Bay area municipalities to bid for the games. And it’s getting a pretty good deal out of it, too. San Francisco taxpayers are the ones picking up the bill for the weeklong celebrations leading up to the game. (Though Santa Clara residents will be the first to remind you that they picked up the tab for the new Levi Stadium, where the game will actually take place.)

But with most of the action so far taking place 45 minutes north, Santa Clara is struggling to get noticed. What’s an ambitious ‘burb to do to keep its new brand from being pushed to the shadows?

The answer:  elbow your way into the limelight. For instance,
on Jan. 24, just after the NFC Championship game, Santa Clara sent out a press release and video of mayor Jamie Matthews, in suit, tie and sunglasses, welcoming the Broncos and the Panthers to the Super Bowl and encouraging visitors to check out Santa Clara’s attractions while in the area.

There was a smattering of press coverage of the video, and afterwards some players from both teams tweeted "See you in Santa Clara" as they geared up for the game, according to Jennifer Yamaguma, Santa Clara’s public communications manager. She said her city got the idea for the mayor’s welcome video from Glendale, Ariz., the Phoenix suburb that hosted the Big Game last year and dealt with some of the same publicity challenges as Santa Clara.

Because Santa Clara took the regional approach to winning the Super Bowl, it tried to stake out its territory early, Yamaguma said. "We made an informal agreement with the Super Bowl host committee that when the stadium is mentioned, it is presented as Levi’s Stadium in the city of Santa Clara," she said.

The city also hired marketing agency Articulate Solutions to handle PR and social media hyping Santa Clara as the site of the game and to promote Super Bowl-related events, such as concerts by Heart and Huey Lewis and the News, as well as the Pro Football Hall of Fame Gridiron Glory museum exhibit. (Of course, while Huey Lewis is playing in Santa Clara, Alicia Keys will be playing in San Francisco.)

Super Bowl mania is a perfect vehicle for the town’s new identity, officials said. Back in spring 2014, Santa Clara had just won the stadium for the San Francisco 49ers; knew it was going to host Super Bowl 50; and wanted desperately to stand out from neighboring areas where Facebook, Google and Apple are located. It hired brand strategy and marketing agency Red Peak to spearhead a rebranding effort.

Santa Clara was tired of being "overshadowed by places like Palo Alto and Menlo Park and wanted to remind everyone of its centrality in Silicon Valley and the world," said James Fox, CEO of Red Peak. Along with Santa Clara University, the town is home to California’s Great America amusement park and was the birthplace of the silicon chip, which ushered in the modern computer era. Its rebrand is built around the new slogan, "Center of What’s Possible," with modern imagery designed to foster tourism, economic and residential growth, Fox said.

Apparently the brand and the outreach are working.  While many media announcers insist on referring to the San Francisco Super Bowl, the phones at the Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau have been ringing off the hook with Super Bowl-related calls from reporters, said David Andre, the Chamber’s vice president of marketing.

Initially the Chamber was going to run ads tied to the game, but it later changed its mind. "Why would we buy ads when we’re getting as much media coverage as we can possibly handle?" Andre asked on a harried afternoon last week.

Red Peak’s Fox said other mid-size cities could learn a thing or two about rebranding from Santa Clara. "This is a good example of a municipality using branding to tell a story that resonates with their most important audiences around a tent pole event that will come once in a lifetime for them."

The city had an incredible opportunity, Fox said, but a limited budget "and instead of using a big ad campaign or direct mail, they saw branding as a mechanism" to spread the word effectively.


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