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Can New York City market its way to another recovery?

By Jennifer Mason


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MTA #takethetrain campaign image

One of the most memorable marketing campaigns is not for a sedan or a soft drink but for a city. This past summer, on the Q train back from Coney Island, a family of six could be spotted riding back from the beach sporting the campaign’s famous logo on tank tops and baseball caps—a nod to its forty-four years of longevity. The “I Love New York” campaign is credited to the work of Jane Maas and Mary Wells Lawrence, each a pioneer for women in advertising. It was commissioned in 1977 by the New York State Department of Commerce to promote tourism for its largest city that had been on the verge of bankruptcy and needed a little reputation reset and a lot of optimism.

It worked, too. In that year alone, according to the Advertising Research Foundation, the entire campaign, which included everything from bumper stickers and coffee mugs to celebrities sharing what they love about New York, brought in 28 million dollars in revenue in the dollar value of that time. The graphic designer of the logo, Milton Glaser—who reportedly first sketched the red heart with crayon in the back of a taxicab—had long used his work full of psychedelic color and composition to spread a positive vibe. Shortly before his death of a stroke in 2020 at 91-years of age, he told the New York Times, “I’m surprised by how these pieces of art can affect people, and can affect their mood or attitude. Design starts with a desire to change an existing condition, but the shift is something you hope for, and most of the time don’t get it.”

But with the “I Love New York” campaign, Mr. Glaser did get it. After 9/11 he updated the design slightly to say, ‘I Love New York More Than Ever.’ The heart on the revised logo was colored bruised. Mr. Glaser, born in the Bronx, had a lot of pride for his hometown and explained to the Times why New York could not be characterized as just another city somewhere. “New York is full of diversity and complexity, and it’s very hard to analyze because of that. New York is a mind-set, and we’re all arrogantly proud of what that represents,” he said. “It’s a kind of self-contained universe, and by virtue of that, it makes decisions that other places don’t.” Mr. Glaser left this world from Manhattan.

The Pandemic Poses a Challenge unlike Any Other

MTA #takethetrain campaign image

After 9/11, tourists were understandably afraid to come into the city, with even Broadway having trouble making its bookings. A 30-second television ad featuring the ‘I Love New York’ logo helped to boost solidarity and ticket sales once again. “These little town blues are melting away,” Bernadette Peters sang to camera in the middle of Times Square joined by the Rockettes and all of the most recognizable faces from Broadway. Nathan Lane, one of stages’ biggest stars, ended the spot with, “Come to New York and let's go on with the show.” And while it took time, well after the last column of the South Tower was ceremoniously removed from the Ground Zero site, people did come back. The strategic consulting firm, McKinsey, observed that it took five years for international tourism to fully recover.

And although that tragedy remains one of the worst the city has endured, there was at least a sense of a timeline for its end, where the stages of grief—rescue, recovery, anguish, cleanup and then rebuild—played out in a more predictable order and gave the place a chance to rebound. But the pandemic, with its many stops and temporary re-starts, with short-lived hopes quashed by the latest Covid mutation, has left the city in a constant state of upheaval and its businesses are struggling. Convincing tourists to overlook rising case rates and commuters—those with the luxury of working remotely—to resume arduous commutes to a place where social distancing is next to impossible poses a challenge for even New York’s brightest Mad Men and Mad Women.

New York Region Lags Behind the Rest of the Country in Pandemic Recovery, particularly Manhattan

No Stopping New York. Image: Recoveryforall.nyc.gov

The pandemic hit New York very early and very hard. Analysis by economists of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York released in December 2021, reveals that “larger initial job losses coupled with slower job growth much of the past year have led to some of the largest job shortfalls in the country.” While the economy began to recover last spring, job growth in the tri-state area did exceed that of the nation, but a surge in the virus challenged many gains with supply chain issues, labor shortages, and last minute travel cancellations. In a healthy year for the city prior to the pandemic, its official tourism board, NYC & Company, estimates that tourists spend about 47 billion dollars per year and support 280,000 jobs. International travelers spend four times what the typical domestic traveler does and so it makes sense that the leisure and hospitality sectors had the largest impact on job shortfalls in the city. Midtown Manhattan, the central business district with a high percentage of service-oriented businesses, remains the hardest hit as the office workers who would normally frequent those establishments continue to work from home, either in the outer boroughs, the suburbs, or in neighboring states.

The Push to Demonstrate that the City is Open

Image from NYC & Company

Despite that dismal recap, there are still some positive signs. Last spring began the concerted effort on all fronts to ramp up the city’s reopening and court tourists and New Yorkers fresh off at least one dose of the vaccine. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) began their #TakeTheTrain push to coincide with the subway’s return to full 24-hour service in May. They made a Spotify playlist, “Songs For Your First Ride Back.” The Mayor’s Office commissioned local ad agency SS+K to capture the natural energy of the city coming alive with “No Stopping New York” to rally New Yorkers around the five boroughs in June and inform them of support for artists and small businesses and other recovery efforts. Crowds were permitted back to watch the return of Macy’s 4th of July fireworks and there was a ticker tape parade to celebrate essential workers.

To reach out of state, NYC & Company launched the “It’s Time for New York City” campaign with a 30 million dollar budget from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act. Ads featuring quick cuts to New York cultural activities to inspire a “fear of missing out” were targeted to 23 markets across the United States initially as domestic travel resumed. A partnership with the American Automobile Association (AAA) offered special travel packages to potential visitors from Northeastern states. And Broadway, a crucial economic driver, blitzed the airwaves and a Times Square outdoor stage with live cast performances and free celebratory fan events for three days in September as theaters reopened that month.

As a result, the number of visitors crept up to roughly half of what they were pre-pandemic—when New York City hosted a record 66.6 million travelers in 2019—with international travel having a larger impact in November when the US reopened its borders to Europe and the UK. The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), a trade association, noted in their Fall 2021 retail report that Manhattan remained a top tourist destination and Times Square was still by far the most visited attraction in the country according to foot traffic data and new attractions like Little Island on the west side drew long lines. The report also stated that Manhattan retail sales increased the last two consecutive quarters.

And even with Omicron driving New York to record positivity rates, New York City officially remained open throughout the holidays but the dampening effect of the variant was felt by restaurants and hotels who lost reservations at the last minute. The theater district was also affected as several Broadway shows decided on their own to shut down again and the Rockettes famous Christmas Spectacular did not make it to Christmas, seeing Radio City go dark once more. The outgoing mayor, Bill de Blasio, insisted that vaccinated performers and crowds ring in the New Year in Times Square, despite the strain on city agencies already short staffed. "We want to show that we’re moving forward and we want to show the world that New York City is fighting our way through this. It's really important to not give up in the face of this," he said on NBC’s The Today Show, before New Year’s Eve.

While a visit to SoHo revealed the much more subdued reality of the last few hours of the year, with only a smattering of bars open for a small number of revelers in the popular neighborhood, that was immaterial. What was presented on television was the confetti and the music and the reduced crowd, because—as any good marketer knows—it’s about appearances and, as Mr. Glaser observed, making decisions that other places don’t. “New York City is open,” the former mayor proclaimed.

New Mayor signs “Small Business Forward” Legislation

Image from NYC Health

The new year brought in a new administration to the city’s government and the new mayor, Eric Adams, presents himself as New York’s hype man. Mayor Adams is an interesting amalgam of New York caricatures: A vegan, sartorially adept, former police captain with a distinct Brooklyn accent, who socializes with rappers and tech billionaires at exclusive night clubs and hands out rolling papers to late night talk show comedians. “This is a city of nightlife. I must test the product,” he told The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert on CBS. “I have to be out. I want New Yorkers to come back—we used to be the coolest place on the globe. We’re so damn boring now, man.”

Mayor Adams has spent many of his early media appearances expressing his administration’s intent on keeping the city open and imploring corporate businesses to bring employees back to the office. “It’s time to get back to work. Covid is here, we have to learn to live with it in a smart way. It is dangerous to keep our economy closed, over a million people are behind in their rents,” referring to hourly retail and service workers, who do not have the option of remote work, in an interview with CNBC. “We must open up.” Many of the small businesses that employ those workers are behind on rent themselves. At the height of the pandemic, 3,000 of them closed, according to the mayor’s office.

The Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit organization that acts as a broker between businesses and government, surveyed major employers and reported that in late October, only 28 percent of Manhattan office workers were in the office on an average weekday, with 54 percent still working remotely. The status of the Covid-19 virus ranked as the primary concern for returning to the workplace. If this trend continues, a longer term push to convert office buildings into residential may help revitalize Midtown in the way that it saved Downtown after 9/11. CNBC in September pointed to a 1995 tax abatement program that incentivized converting office space into residential units which helped that neighborhood’s revitalization. They reported that 19.7 million square feet of space has been converted to residential use since that tax incentive was implemented. Manhattan landlords in the meantime are doing their own marketing push to lure remote workers back by creating more amenities like outdoor workspaces with WiFi and electrical outlets, on-site childcare, Ubers to the office, and parking discounts, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While the mayor’s strategy for controlling the pandemic is less defined, his plan for alleviating some of the financial burdens that businesses face is clearer. His first week in office, Mayor Adams signed an executive order for his “Small Business Forward” policy that would require agencies such as the Department of Buildings, Environmental Protection, Sanitation, and the FDNY to review existing regulations that are antiquated and should be eliminated and create a cure period for first time violations instead of issuing an immediate fine. City agencies have long been criticized for using some of these regulations as a means to generate revenue instead of protecting the public. “We think that we have to choose between the health of the public and the health of small business, that’s simply not the case,” said Maria Torres-Springer, the new Deputy Mayor of New York City for Housing and Economic Development at the bill signing press conference. The policy is in keeping with Mayor Adams’ public pledge to market New York as more business-friendly.

Notable openings around the city that persevered throughout the pandemic should not be overlooked—like the world’s largest Harry Potter Store opening in Flatiron after a long delay. The Onitsuka, a boutique for the Japanese shoe company, Onitsuka Tiger, opened in SoHo offering their luxury and athletic lines. Concepts found a home near New York University contributing to the city’s committed sneakerhead culture. The designer goods reseller, Marque Luxury, opened in NoMad emphasizing the importance of the brick and mortar experience for the booming secondhand market, while the RealReal expanded into Brooklyn. Cipriani took over the historic Beaux-Arts style Battery Maritime Building and opened a luxury hotel and social club. Montblanc created their experiential flagship on Madison and 59th with a bar lounge, an Ink Bar, and a plan for calligraphy classes, which remain digital events for now. A few blocks up on Madison, Manolo Blahnik built his new dream shop and Kiton signed a 10-year lease. And Google solidified its home in Chelsea by opening a permanent store as a part of its campus.

Marketing to “Live With It”

Image from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority

As the United States on the whole evolves from trying to beat the virus to learning to live with it, New York as a test case shows how frustrating this challenge will be for highly populated cities. New York City has a high vaccination rate, with 93 percent of adults over 18 years old with at least one dose, and maintains strict safety protocols with proof of vaccination required in restaurants, bars, gyms, theaters, and event venues. In early December, Governor Kathy Hochul reissued a mask mandate for all indoor public spaces, including the lobbies, elevators, and hallways of residential buildings and former mayor, Bill de Blasio, instated a controversial vaccine mandate for private sector employees that mirrors a mandate already in place for municipal and healthcare workers. The mandate for private sector businesses faces at least one lawsuit but, as of publishing, remains in effect. None of this stopped Omicron from upending the holiday season. But if life is to go somewhat normally, communicating all of these measures effectively is key to reducing as much transmission as possible.

The MTA’s ongoing “Safe Travels” multi-channel campaign has successfully nudged riders, in a whimsical way, to follow mask requirements with compliance on buses and subways at rates above 95 percent. The campaign was even a 2021 finalist for PRWeek’s Best in Public Service Award. The characters are updated based on holidays and the time of year to keep the campaign fresh and are a good example of how cities, businesses, and schools can reinforce Covid hygiene, communicate consistently and clearly, and inspire confidence that an environment is as safe as possible.

New York City