The fundamental function of a chamber of commerce is to promote the growth of businesses in its community. For the Cincinnati Chamber, in the epicenter of the branding industry in the twentieth century, that necessarily takes on all the trapping of a modern marketing campaign.
Between 1979 and 1983, the 13-county Cincinnati region lost 34,000 jobs. In addition, the region faced new, more aggressive competitors from the cities on the so-called I-85 corridor—Atlanta, Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham.
The spark for formulating a response came from Charles Mechem, the CEO of Taft Broadcasting. As the outgoing chair of the Cincinnati Chamber, Mechem told the Chamber’s annual meeting in January 1978 that “we are not as good as we like to think we are,” and challenged everyone to be more competitive and pull together. Charles Puchta, his successor as Chair of the Chamber Board, asked Mechem to head the effort. He immediately reached out to Ed Harness, the retiring CEO of P&G to join him in leading the effort.
Research began in 1979 with a survey that found that beyond a 250-mile radius, Cincinnati had no image, either positive or negative, among business decision makers. Cincinnati needed a brand. Working with the Lawler Ballard agency, the Chamber developed the Blue Chip Campaign which officially launched in 1984. The “Blue Chip” theme was selected to convey an image of the business community that was “solid, stable, dependable, high quality, steady performer,” like a blue chip stock.
Initially, the campaign was intended to be five years in length and have a $5 million budget to coordinate economic development efforts across the region, promote the retention and growth of businesses already located here, and attract new businesses to move into the area.
Not everybody was thrilled. Enquirer columnist Frank Weikel polled his readers and found that 410 favored keeping the traditional “Queen City” nickname compared to just three who preferred the Blue Chip image. Naysayers argued that the historic image conveyed a sense of dignity and distinction, while the new one made Cincinnati seem like a gambling city.
Jim Sluzewski who worked on the campaign at Lawler Ballard pointed out that the criticism missed the point. The campaign was not trying to displace the Queen City designation, but to create a brand for a specific audience, business owners and decision makers.
When the campaign officially launched in 1984, the Chamber redesigned its newsletter, ChamberVision, to feature the Blue Chip logo a prominently on the front page as the Chamber logo. The staff also sponsored a Blue Chip City song contest that selected “America: You’re at Your Best in Cincinnati,” by Jay Gilbert who said he “went deep inside myself for it” to create a “kind of love song.”
They awarded a Blue Chip to boxer Aaron Pryor as an athlete born in Cincinnati who had risen from adversity to success, and hosted the annual “Chippies” for the best public access programs on the new cable system.
Companies and community organizations spontaneously picked up the theme. The 101-year old Big Four Building & Savings Company changed it name to the Blue Chip Savings Association. Oldsmobile dealers ran a Blue Chip promotion in local papers and in Cincinnati Magazine.
Ultimately, the campaign was renewed every five years through 2000 and regularly reported success in growing the number of jobs through local business expansions and the attraction of new businesses. In the end, this effort matured into the Partnership for Economic Development which recently became REDI, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber’s separately incorporated regional economic development initiative.
By Dan Hurley, local historian, host of the weekly “Local 12 Newsmakers” program and former director of Leadership Cincinnati for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.
This is the tenth in a series of 12 essays about the history of the Chamber and Cincinnati business, to commemorate the Chamber’s 175th anniversary.