Oprah Winfrey, one of the most successful and most connected people in the world, spent a day in Edmonton. It was snowy and -11 when she arrived. As I write this, it is snowy and -9 in her hometown, Chicago, but alas. Oprah spoke of the weather.
We talk about the weather because it is the easiest thing to talk about, in elevators and at airports. It is inoffensive, unless you happen to live in a city with a confidence problem. When Oprah uses the word “tundra,” it stings. Not because Edmonton on a snowy January day does not resemble the tundra. It does! When the lovely towers of downtown Chicago are obscured by snow it looks like tundra too. It’s flat and white and windy.
This is why we spent a year researching the Edmonton story. What do we want Oprah to think and to say and to see and to feel, when she arrives, so she is not obliged to talk about the weather?
We gave Oprah gifts, as a city. Sausage from Mundare makes sense, and everyone gets an Oilers jersey. But Edmontonians are most proud of things, events, companies that were invented or built here, from the ground up. We have a lot of them to draw from. “If we don’t grow it, we don’t own it,” as Shirley Lowe, historian laureate, puts it.
So why did we give Oprah Winfrey “truck nuts”?
Truck Nuts were invented in the southern United States as an emblem of redneck pride. What someone might say in response, as I worry aloud about giving truck nuts to Oprah Winfrey, is that I don’t have a sense of humour. That may be true. But I do think, in my humourless manner, that you can be funny and smart at the same time. This is marketing. We’re leaving someone with over 16 million Twitter followers with an image, a memory, of our city — of us. Randomness is wrong. An empty joke is wrong.
It’s an act of failure, of desperation, of stupidity, and it’s why no traditional branding agency could solve this problem. This is why we took the approach that led to Make Something Edmonton.
What might we have given Oprah?
- A game from Bioware. Even a custom-made game.
- We might have asked her, a few months ago, for her measurements. Then Poppy Barley could have made her some boots.
- We could have given Oprah a lifetime pass to the biggest and best Fringe theatre festival on the continent. Read what Fringe veteran T.J. Dawe recently wrote about Edmonton.
- One of our designers, like Malorie Urbanovitch, might have created a dress for her. Or a very warm jacket. Mittens!
- Oprah made the book club what it is today. Edmonton writers have won national and international prizes. A few novels might have been nice.
“Oprah: Live your best life” might have met “Edmonton: What are you making?”
I know this stuff is hard, but it’s also so, so easy.