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Who Are We?

OC's muddled, murky brand is in need of a little clarity.

You don’t have to travel very far from Orange County to discover a remarkable ignorance and confusion about where the OC is and what’s special here. In an age when brands matter to everyone, ours is weak, murky and even a wild mischaracterization of life here.

It might not matter much to many, but a case can be made that a compelling brand drives up real estate values, attracts economic enterprise and is a magnet for the best and brightest.

But more than anything else, we’ve been defined by “reality” television: “The OC,” “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” “Arrested Development,” “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County,” and now, “Scrubbing In” – MTV’s saga about nine traveling nurses who come to Orange County to work and play for the summer.

Holy bedpans.

The young and hip believe these shows paint an irresistible picture of the good life amid the surf, sand, palms, and great weather along our coast populated largely by self-absorbed rogues and babes.

The older crowd – maybe not so much the few wild, obnoxious, rich, and self-absorbed rogues and babes – cringes.

Among those who care, there’s a sense that we’d like the picture filled out with recognition of the county’s most positive attributes beyond its weather: our entrepreneurial spirit, our economic and academic engines, and the generous and imaginative among us. Sprinkle in our theme parks, our athletic teams, our elegant shopping and dining centers, our cultural venues, and neat mix of distinctive places to live.

But the OC brand doesn’t get much help. Consider: Disneyland markets itself as a creature of Southern California.

The “Los Angeles” Angels acknowledge only in passing on their website that they play in a baseball stadium in Anaheim.

South Coast Plaza’s brand positioning suggests a place unto itself, floating majestically somewhere out there.

The recent name change of the Orange County Performing Arts Center added to the luster and considerable legacy of the Segerstrom family, but erased a recognizable institution that advanced the OC brand.

(To its credit, South Coast Rep prominently acknowledges that it is part and parcel of Orange County.)

The new LA Kiss arena football team will play in the Honda Center, but the team’s initial, breathless news release led with the notion that it’s a creature of the Los Angeles media market. Four paragraphs later, it informed the interested that Honda Center is in Orange County.
Even LA Fitness was founded and is headquartered in Irvine.

San Diego’s civic mantra is that it will never become another LA. The OC, where the northern half of the county was created by the post-World War II ooze of southern LA, seems OK with the blurred lines.  

Outsiders may be vaguely familiar with Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Anaheim, and Irvine, but don’t know that these cities are in Orange County.

Marketing that showcases the best of Orange County tends to proudly describe our enticing coast, starting with our best coastal hotels: Montage Laguna Beach, The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Coast, Island Hotel Newport Beach, The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel and St. Regis Monarch Beach in Dana Point, the Hyatt Regency in Huntington Beach, and others.

Their advertising and websites not only describe their exceptional properties, but the Orange County coastal beaches and bays, recreation, shopping, and dining that surround them and reflect the incomparable lifestyle advantages we enjoy on our perches along and above the Pacific.

The visitor bureaus of our coastal cities do the same, but struggle with modest budgets that result in small thinking. The state’s tourism website breaks out Orange County and paints a sweet picture of our diverse areas of interest.

We also get a big lift from our home-grown and proud surf industry that has a global reach and global audience, and promotes its roots in the OC.

A few years ago, our coastal hotels created an imaginative campaign to promote the Orange County coast as every bit as stunning and interesting as Italy’s Amalfi Coast with its distinctive towns and coastal accommodations.
It is a powerful and compelling story. A big idea. But it was difficult to sustain in an economic downturn, and it required that highly competitive properties and cities hang together for the greater good.  

Maybe the lesson is that brands for large sophisticated cities and counties emerge from a crazy blend of activities, institutions and individuals that are beyond the ability of a top-down marketing entity to control or influence, no matter how much it spends.

After all, New York spent nothing for Frank Sinatra’s signature “New York, New York.”

Tony Bennett did more for San Francisco’s long-standing worldwide appeal than almost anyone or anything else.

Without a crooner to define us, perhaps our array of local papers and magazines paint the most authentic portrait of who and what we really are.  

Another reason to turn off the TV.

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