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Business Growth

An Open-Source Brand for Philadelphia

If you feel like you’re seeing the familiar three-letter airport tag PHL pop up in more and more places … it’s not a mistake.


It’s in the Philadelphia Convention and Visitor’s Bureau’s new acronym: PHLCVB. It’s part of the City’s new StartupPHL initiative, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation’s Shop PHL campaign, and the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture’s Creative PHL brand.


And attendees at last week’s World Class Greater Philadelphia Summit saw Mayor Michael Nutter with a pastel-colored PHL pin on his lapel as he called on them to get “more comfortable” promoting the city as a model of innovation and excellence.


“God forbid,” the mayor added wryly, “anyone should find out about us.”


That line earned Nutter some laughs. But it’s serious business to Danielle Cohn. As vice president of marketing and communications with the PHLCVB, part of Cohn’s job is to redefine and promote the city’s national and international image. She and a growing number of partners are behind a new PHL mark and broad-based messaging campaign that aims to put a fresh shine on that image and equip regional leaders with easy-to-use tools to promote Philadelphia.


The roots of the PHL campaign, and its connection to the World Class Greater Philadelphia initiative, go back years. “We’ve been involved in World Class since its inception, probably since the moment [in 2006] when we found out we were not going to be close to getting our Olympic bid. The US [Olympic Committee] told us that Philadelphia’s brand was not well known enough globally,” said Cohn. “It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t well-known.”


In the wake of the failed Olympic bid, research undertaken by partners including the Economy League, Select Greater Philadelphia, the Philadelphia International Airport and the Pennsylvania Convention Center confirmed the city’s image problem. A string of focus groups with national and international visitors followed to tease out the best themes for a proactive messaging campaign.


“The question we asked was, if you had to get a complete stranger, the person on the plane next to you, to come and visit Philadelphia, what would you tell them about?” Cohn said. The answers fell into a handful of broad categories: people spoke of the region’s historical heritage; its innovative educational institutions; its vibrant arts and culture; its outdoor life and sports; its vibrant street life; and its accessibility and friendliness. These six themes or narratives then formed the basis of the PHL messaging effort.


Cohn hopes to see initiatives connected with each of these strengths and narratives using the “PHL” tag in a way that ends up promoting Philadelphia’s image as a “modern renaissance city.” A new website,, offers an introduction to the brand – developed and donated by the local branding firm ex;it – and lays out the simple rules about how to use it. Since its launch last fall, almost 20,000 PHL pins have been distributed to regional business, civic, and governmental leaders.


And while the primary goal is to keep buffing the region’s national and international image, a more subtle goal, in keeping with the World Class approach, is to encourage collaboration and sharing of resources among organizations and initiatives – and to keep it going even as mayoral administrations change and civic leaders move on. The PHL effort addresses two of the six priority strategies called out in the World Class Business Growth GPS released earlier this month to market the region’s success stories and advance its position as a hub for global business.


Cohn describes PHL as an “open source” brand. Anyone who wants to use it can become a “PHL Partner” simply by agreeing to follow some basic usage guidelines. It can’t be used to sell merchandise, for example, but PHLCVB is ready to make it available to anyone who wants to promote the region in some fashion.


That’s how it ended up as part of the city’s StartupPHL initiative. “It’s great,” said Luke Butler of the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development. “They developed this mark as we were developing our thoughts around startups, and it seemed like a natural fit. It’s incredibly important, both in terms of creating a new brand for the city, but also the way they went about it, this ‘open source’ approach. It involved lots of people, and it really was PHLCVB saying, ‘We’ll put this out there and anyone who wants to use it, feel free.’”


Thus, in a hashtag world where messages are measured in characters, Cohn and her colleagues hope “PHL” becomes the shorthand attached to a wide range of initiatives promoting different facets of the city – a symbol of liveliness and innovation that can be equally useful promoting Philadelphia’s historic treasures, global businesses, or walkable neighborhoods.