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Screen shot of Yonge and Dundas in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on the Trending is Toronto website.
Screen shot of Yonge and Dundas in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on the Trending is Toronto website.

Revealing the inner charms of a wallflower Add to ...

Toronto has a problem.

No, not the $700-million-plus looming budget shortfall, or the head-crushing summertime road construction, or the dreadful state of the city's so-called professional sports teams. No, according to research, Toronto is a wallflower whose sweetest charms usually stay hidden from visitors.

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And for the city's tourism bureau, that's a challenge.

"The thing we're dealing with, always, is Toronto is underrated as a destination. It feels a little beige. Average. Nice enough, I suppose," said Shelley Brown, the CEO of Crispin Porter + Bogusky Canada, which is the new lead marketing agency for Tourism Toronto.

While residents love the city, tourists have a hard time penetrating it on a first visit, and therefore don't become evangelists for it after they leave.

"Montreal comes with a certain reputation for already being different, certainly unique in North America. But Toronto doesn't have that reputation, so what we're really dealing with is this kind of obscurity that Toronto has, this beige-ness; North American tourists are all a little bit vague about it."

The city's tourism numbers are creeping back up after the recession, with 3.2 per cent more overnight visitors in 2010 than 2009, and spending by those visitors rising 5.5 per cent; but both figures are still below 2008 levels. Crispin Porter believed that, if the city could speak for itself, visitors might better access its attractions, and leave far more satisfied.

So they created Toronto Trending, an online tool that seeks to capture the city's life as it is lived at the street level. When people check in on FourSquare to a restaurant, a store, a sporting event, a nightlife spot, or an arts and entertainment attraction, TorontoTrending.com will capture that information and display it on a satellite-view picture of the city. When they tweet about something going on using the hash tag #torontotrending, the website will pull that in from Twitter and push it out to those looking for a real-time view of what's going on in the city.

In its attempt to make the opaque life of the city more transparent, the project echoes the redesign of the free downtown newspaper Eye Weekly, which was rechristened The Grid two weeks ago. That paper also spotlights regular people in their natural habitat and places them on a map, literally bringing the city's street grid to life.

Both efforts highlight the city's diverse offerings, from arts and culture to sports, outdoor events, and community activities. "One of the things we've really learned, working on the brand that is the City of Toronto, is we shouldn't try to define it," explained Ms. Brown. "The second you start to define it, you're actually cutting off an aspect of what the city really is, and therefore cutting off some people from the city and what it could mean for them."

"We can define what it's like to experience the city, but we shouldn't try to tell people what Toronto is, because Toronto will be for them whatever they make it. Our job is to simply make it as easy, as exciting, as interesting to consume the city as possible."

Just up the road, Montreal is taking a different, if similarly offbeat, approach to highlighting its own diverse offerings. It's in the midst of a $25-million marketing campaign created by the agency Sid Lee, featuring animal mash-ups - characters like the bullguin, a half-bulldog-half-penguin, and the half-bear-half-toucan bearcan - to represent the city as a place that offers "a new breed of culture."

"We had some hesitation" about the characters, acknowledged Charles Lapointe, the president and chief executive officer of Tourisme Montréal. But the bureau felt a strong need to break through the sameness of most tourism marketing: the glossy shot of a gleaming downtown skyline, or of smiling people living it up on a restaurant patio. "Every city does that, every region," observed Mr. Lapointe. "A nice landscape in Tuscany is as nice as a nice landscape in the Muskokas, I would think, so we have to become more creative and original." He paused. "I'll tell you next year if it was successful."

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A BONDING TREND

The Toronto Trending project is part of a wave of marketers seeking to forge strong relationships with people by becoming useful, rather than being mere purveyors of goods and services.

This week, Canadian Tire took the wraps off a website loaded with how-to videos that were shot at a house the company had purchased and is in the midst of fixing up. HouseOfInnovation.ca currently has about 20 short videos offering step-by-step demonstrations of some of the improvements the Canadian Tire team has made to the house, from installing a touch-sensitive faucet to using a portable handheld nailer and stud finder to install baseboards in the kitchen.

The website of Procter & Gamble's Pampers brand diapers seeks to form a bond early in pregnancy with mothers-to-be, with a section walking them through the entire nine-month development of their fetus: from the early formation of the placenta to advice on what happens if the umbilical cord gets wrapped around the baby's neck. The website continues the relationship with parents by offering additional advice and tools - such as .pdf files of certificates that can be printed off for children who are successfully potty trained. (There are, of course, enough links to P&G products, such as training pants and wipes, to make it worth the company's time and effort.)

"There is a real movement from marketers and agencies to make brands as meaningfully useful for people as possible," noted Shelley Brown, CEO of Crispin Porter + Bogusky Canada, who acknowledged the change was not being driven by altruism. "You have to [become meaningful] otherwise they'll shut you out of their space: 'What are you doing for me other than selling to me?' "

Now, rather than merely pushing out a message, Ms. Brown noted that marketers are trying to decode, " 'What do they need from us? How can we help? How can we be useful? What can we give them? How can we be generous?' I think there's a whole notion of brands now just being generous. And that doesn't necessarily mean 50-cent-off coupons."

Follow on Twitter: @simonhoupt

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