ST. LOUIS • From lovely photos of the Gateway Arch to fake kidnapped Chicagoans, the St. Louis region has been trying to boost its image for a long time. Now, a new effort is asking for your help.
This week, two local marketing executives are taking the wraps off a project they call Rally St. Louis, a crowd-sourced, crowd-funded bid to find new ways to send the message that the oft-beleaguered Gateway City is, in fact, pretty cool.
“Too often, this city doesn’t get represented in the ways we know it to be,” said Aaron Perlut, a partner at Elasticity, a downtown marketing firm behind Rally St. Louis. “People outside St. Louis don’t get what we have going on here.”
Elasticity is trying to change that, by tapping the ideas — and money — of everyday St. Louisans to come up with creative approaches to marketing the city.
Rally will combine crowd-sourcing — popularized by efforts like PepsiCo.’s Refresh Project, which offers grants to civic proposals submitted on its website — with crowd-funding, which seeks donations from the public. It will focus on marketing St. Louis the way St. Louisans see it in a wide variety of ways — from Web videos to statues to a festival — whatever draws people’s support.
“It kind of cedes control of the asylum to the inmates,” Perlut said. “That’s a good thing.”
The idea sprang from a blog post Perlut wrote last year for the Forbes website titled “St. Louis Doesn’t Suck.” It was a retort to the endless litany of stories and studies pointing out St. Louis’ problems, and laid out a modern-day marketing approach to turning around the city’s image. The post was a hit, especially here, passed around for days on Twitter and Facebook. And before long, Perlut was getting phone calls asking, “So what are you going to do about it?”
“We heard from a lot of people who had the same frustrations we did,” he said. So Perlut and Brian Cross, his business partner, sat down with their co-workers at Elasticity and came up with Rally St. Louis.
The idea is pretty simple. Regular St. Louisans post their ideas on how to better market the city and vote on their favorites. Every month, a panel figures out a budget for the top five vote-getters, and fundraising begins. People can donate as much or as little as they want, to whatever projects they like. Those that raise the money they need get funded.
“This isn’t a ‘big economic development’ thing,” Cross said. “This is grass roots.”
But this is still St. Louis. To make it work, they needed the blessing — and support — of the civic establishment. Perlut and Cross spent months meeting with potential donors to raise money to set up the website and buy advertising. They needed people to promote it. Crowd funding, after all, is far more effective when the crowd knows what’s going on.
They got some support from big names in the St. Louis business world, checks from Fusz Automotive and Hardee’s parent CKE Inc., and $75,000 each from foundations run by the Kempers and Taylors — the families behind Commerce Bank and Enterprise Rent-a-Car, respectively.
“The message immediately resonated with us,” said John Kemper. “It’s a grass-roots way for the community to pick itself up and promote itself and do some neat, interesting, quirky things.”
Perlut and Cross raised $250,000 in all. They also did a lot of talking with many groups that already work to promote St. Louis, from economic development agencies to the Convention and Visitors Commission to the Regional Chamber and Growth Association. Several agreed to help.
Rally St. Louis is a new approach to touting St. Louis, said RCGA President Joe Reagan, and when it comes to growing the economy, that can only help.
“We’ve not always been as good about telling our story in our own authentic, positive way,” he said. “When we’re out competing for jobs, and people can be anywhere they want in the world, we need to be clear that St. Louis is a great place to be.”
The goal of Rally is not to supplant the region’s traditional approach to marketing, be it the RCGA’s efforts to lure companies here or the CVC’s tourism programs. Indeed, some of those — like the CVC’s “Kidnapped Chicagoan” campaign that depicts a missing Windy City man having a great time in St. Louis — have generated creative buzz for the city. Rather, it’s designed to complement those official efforts, and generate new ideas.
As Reagan and others pointed out, the masses can sometimes do things that the buttoned-down civic establishment simply cannot. Cross pointed to a crowd-funded project to build a life-size statue of RoboCop in Detroit. It raised $67,000 and won the city a lot of good press for being the kind of place where something that weird might actually happen.
“If the RCGA or the mayor wanted to erect a statue of, say (“Mad Men” star and St. Louis native) Jon Hamm in Kiener Plaza, they’d get raked over the coals,” he said. “But if regular people come up with it and pay for it themselves, it becomes this great idea.”
Of course, there have been lots of efforts to boost St. Louis’ image over the years. Some have fizzled. Just a few months ago, the RCGA shelved its “Perfectly Centered, Remarkably Connected” tagline and adopted the CVC’s “St. Lou...is” slogan. “Rally St. Louis” could easily fade, too.
But unlike a pricey, top-down branding campaign, Perlut and Cross point out that their effort will rise or fall with participation. The corporate and foundation money that’s helping to launch it won’t be used to actually fund ideas. Nor will it be given again next year. The money to keep Rally going will need to come from the people, just like the ideas.
Perlut and Cross say they have no idea what kind of ideas will bubble up, or which ones will win the funding to become reality. And it’s far too soon to know yet what it will mean for the way St. Louis is seen out there in the rest of the world. But they’re looking forward to finding out.
“If nothing else,” Perlut said, “I think it’ll be a very interesting social experiment.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: The name of Kiener Plaza was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. This version has been updated.