The ongoing disaster of the new Toronto Unlimited city brand is something to behold.
It began innocuously enough with a bad logo coupled to a meaningless phrase, then snowballed into an epic boondoggle as Tourism Toronto, the agency managing the branding process, followed the debut with a series of advertisements so inept that jaws dropped across the city.
The first big ad that ran in The New York Times wasn't even written in English; the second promoted events that had already occurred. Even Mayor David Miller, who had until then gamely urged Torontonians to give their new identity a chance, finally had to admit it had become a terrible embarrassment.
With that, it degenerated (or escalated) into a nasty political turf war. Convinced that the mayor's expression of displeasure revealed a dark conspiracy at City Hall, Tourism Toronto chair Lyle Hall fired off an urgent letter to his members alerting them to an "organized campaign" to dispossess the agency of its multimillions and to put the job of promoting tourism back in public hands.
"Now is not the time to destabilize our tourism industry for political gain," he declared.
In fact, there is no "organized campaign" to dispossess Tourism Toronto, nothing more than well-founded disgruntlement candidly expressed by many, including the mayor. But as Mr. Hall's paranoia unwittingly reveals -- and in light of his agency's mishandling of its first big job as an independent actor -- there probably should be.
One reason the agency is so touchy is that it just recently tapped a gusher of hard cash -- more than $20-million a year in voluntary "destination marketing fees" from the hotel business -- and nervously senses that it has become the object of envy.
Yesterday's neglected weakling is today's stumbling giant. If its first big stumble hasn't inspired interlopers to raid its hoard, as the agency fears, it has certainly raised legitimate questions about where the money goes.
This week, Mr. Miller argued that Tourism Toronto's new millions should be spent on the arts and on freshening the city's "tired" tourist attractions, not only on promotion. That, he insisted, is the most appropriate use of a "hotel tax."
But them's fightin' words to the authors of Toronto Unlimited. They would far prefer complete ownership of fees to a share of taxes, with all the lines of accountability that accompany such devices. Thus they are lobbying Queen's Park to prevent their fees from being replaced by a new city-administered hotel tax in the coming revisions to the City of Toronto Act. Mr. Hall insists that the fee "model" is superior.
But it is politics, not policy, that created it. Worried that it would be seen to break a key campaign promise if it allowed the city to impose a new tax on anything, the McGuinty government instead let Tourism Toronto levy voluntary fees on its members.
The fact that the suddenly fee-rich agency's first big effort embarrassed and annoyed so many Torontonians can't fail to make an impression at Queen's Park, however. The agency's biggest problem is its own performance, not the "tax grab" Mr. Hall fears.
Whatever the outcome of the dispute, it is clear that the branding exercise has failed in its larger purpose of creating an identity that Torontonians can be proud of.
Instead, it's just another unambitious, dispensable slogan designed solely to fill hotel rooms, similar to many that preceded it and subsequently disappeared without a trace. After the initial flop, there is no chance that it will move beyond the pages of a few paid advertisements and into the public realm.
One result is that Toronto will continue to lack a city brand and miss out on the magic the best of them create.
With narrowly focused hotel interests continuing to control the necessary resources, the opportunity to do the job properly could be forestalled forever.
Perhaps now would be a good time to get that "organized campaign" going in earnest.