As most local merchants are aware, Santa Fe is crucially dependent on its tourist dollars. The city’s multitude of museums, galleries, shops, restaurants, and other businesses and organizations tied to the art and culture scene in New Mexico contribute $5.6 billion to the state’s economy annually. That number comes from a 2014 report commissioned by the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs and prepared by the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. It isn’t a shock to consider, then, that the city would spend $900,000 on Tourism Santa Fe’s new marketing campaign to draw visitors. To some business owners, the amount, awarded to Boston-based agency Fuseideas, is a relatively low figure, especially if it includes the cost of a media buy. Maybe you get what you pay for.

In June, an early version of the design for the campaign went out to a committee composed of a diverse selection of local merchants, gallerists, and other business professionals (which is to say it went out to just about everyone, because the best way to ensure that everyone knows your business is to put it in the hands of a committee). It wasn’t long before marketing professionals, staff at local design firms, and gallery owners were weighing in, and for the most part, the feedback was far from good. Some saw the design as an appeal to an older, middle-class demographic with nothing to offer the younger, hipper urban set. Others felt it did not go deep enough, reducing the full Santa Fe experience to a few typical activities — hiking, window shopping, dining, a visit to the opera — rather than highlighting what truly sets the City Different apart from all the rest, a core concept at the heart of the campaign rationale. “I felt like it was a pretty sad start,” said Robert Innis of Rinse Design and co-founder with partner Renée Innis of Design Corps, an alliance of local design professionals. “I think any time you’re launching something as important as that for the city, it needs to knock everyone’s socks off. A campaign such as this should ignite the passion in everybody that lives here. It shouldn’t be these clichés of shopping on the Plaza or ‘Here’s a mountain you can go hiking on.’ ”

Others were upset by the inclusion of stock photography in the design, used as placeholders until more suitable photography could be obtained. “You don’t roll out an ad campaign and say, ‘By the way, the images are not really what we want. We’ll get back to you with the good stuff,’ ” said Ivan Barnett, owner of Patina Gallery and one of the campaign’s most vocal critics. “They should not have even put images in there if they didn’t want them to be looked at as final.”

Photographs of such things as Native pottery, cocktails, cowboy boots, and a mountain climber on terrain that doesn’t look remotely like that found in the Sangre de Cristos may have drawn the most criticism, but some folks, such as Alex Ignacio, web designer at Narrative Media, suggested that the problem is twofold. “One, they came up with some really poor concepts. If the concept is going to be, basically, 100-percent visual, then using terrible stock photography is not a great way to initiate the conversation; two, if it wasn’t supposed to be released to the public, then Fuseideas has an issue with their client relationship. It sounds like a challenging situation all around.”

Fuseideas mentioned in its creative rationale for the design that the photographs were meant only to convey the concept and were not final. “When we sent the materials out, we were really testing the creative concept versus the photography, and we did clearly state that,” said Cynthia Delgado, Tourism Santa Fe’s director of marketing. “We’ll be doing a full photo shoot as well as videography work through August.” 

The city advertised its requests for marketing campaign proposals before it granted the contract to Fuseideas, and the submissions it generated included only a handful of local firms. “It was open to everyone,” Delgado said. “We only received one proposal from an agency here in Santa Fe. We did receive one from Albuquerque and one from Las Cruces. The additional proposals were from out of state.” After a period of more than three months, the committee selected Fuseideas based on its proposal and presentation. “The committee was assembled by the mayor to help interview and identify the final candidates,” said David Eichholtz, president of the board of the Santa Fe Gallery Association and co-owner of David Richard Gallery. Eichholtz was on the committee. “We spent a couple of days reviewing the presentations and pitches.” Eichholtz has been supplying Fuseideas with new images culled from SFGA’s stable of members.

“Fuseideas are tourism professionals, and in fact, I think they can offer a solid perspective on identifying and attracting a culturally curious, traveling demographic,” said Mara Christian Harris, marketing manager of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and a member of the ad campaign’s selection committee as well. “It’s important to remember that the media budget isn’t large compared to similar tourist cities, and that much of the buy will be in digital and not these ‘marquee’ showpiece print ads.” 

The idea behind the campaign is to whet the appetites of visitors with stunning photography and tantalizing hints at what they can find in Santa Fe and direct them to Tourism Santa Fe’s website, www.santafe.org. But the stunning photography has yet to be seen, and the tantalizing hints, suggested by statements that form Fuseideas’ campaign rationale, mention potential visitor draws like fine chocolates. I don’t know about these hypothetical tourists, but the promise of fine chocolates wouldn’t spark my interest, much less inspire a visit.

Fuseideas’ clients include HBO, Sears, Roebuck & Company, Adidas, and National Geographic Learning, among others. It has also created destination ad campaigns to promote tourism in Maine and Bermuda. Its reputation as an experienced agency is, in part, why some found the weak design to be so shocking. “I’m not really sure what they were hoping to achieve by putting it out there,” Renée Innis said. “It’s not really a typical practice. I’m not surprised that the city has gotten the sort of feedback that they have. It’s also premature. Unfortunately, it isn’t a strong campaign. It’s really derived from clichés that we don’t think benefit our community.”

Kathrine Erickson, owner of Evoke Contemporary, stressed the importance of including art in the campaign. “Art and culture have been omitted in past campaigns, and this has been a devastating oversight. What happens next in the city’s marketing attempts is critical at this point for the remaining businesses and community.”

City officials maintain that transparency is at the heart of the decision to send out the design for feedback. “A lot of thought and energy went into it,” said Tourism Santa Fe’s executive director Randy Randall. “Whether it had gone out too soon? Well, one could debate it. It would have been easier for us if we had waited, but if you’re really trying to test a concept and you have the final photography done but the concept falls on its face, then you’ve wasted an awful lot of time and money. I feel we got the feedback we were looking for, so I don’t regret doing it. I’d do it again.”

Of course, none of the people I spoke with want to see the campaign fail, and there are a few defenders. Suzanne O’Leary of JLH Media took a balanced, diplomatic approach. “I believe the importance of every branding campaign is to evoke emotion, a pull, a reaction that creates a sense of desire, association or in this campaign, a curiosity. I think the strategy to align with the City Different [concept] is right. Linking the rankings to ads are also good,” she added, referring to the rankings of publications such as Travel & Leisure, who consistently list Santa Fe among America’s best cities. Christian Harris agreed. “I thought that on the whole, the concept was sound, that the City Different campaign affords scalable opportunities to tell the Santa Fe story.”

The question is to what extent the comments that Tourism Santa Fe received will have an impact on the final product. “We wanted to get as much feedback as we could earlier in the process versus later in the process because we wanted to incorporate it,” Delgado said. “I was excited that people were passionate and engaged enough to give us feedback, and that they cared.” ◀