San Jose’s Tattoo-Worthy Destination Branding

Author: David McMillin       

San Jose branding

International attendees of a Silicon Valley company’s employee event “proudly paraded” San Jose-branded caps during a walking tour of downtown San Jose.

With close to a million residents, San Jose is the 10th-biggest city by population in the U.S. However, when Justin Watkins took his first trip to the city, he discovered something surprising: San Jose’s residents may be numerous, but many didn’t even refer to their home by its name.

“City leaders were seeing chambers of commerce and pillar institutions change their name from ‘San Jose Blank’ to ‘Silicon Valley Blank,’” said Watkins, CEO and founder of Native Digital, a Kansas City, Missouri–based design and marketing firm. “When I would ask people where they were from, they would say the Bay Area, South Bay, Rose Garden, or some other neighborhood,” he told Convene. “They would just skip the city altogether.”

Watkins couldn’t think of one other city in America whose name was being replaced with something else. “The city’s identity,” he said, “was being taken away.”

The city’s economic development group — which includes the Visit San Jose CVB — hired Watkins to address an issue, he said, that was “not a tourism problem.” Instead of focusing on increasing room nights from business and leisure travelers or attracting convention attendees, they wanted to market to a more permanent cohort. “They wanted to determine how to get talent and businesses,” Watkins said, to move to San Jose.

San Jose branding

Justin Watkins

Leaning on the Locals

Watkins turned to a group of 20 local tastemakers — art gallery owners, local entrepreneurs, and other trusted members of the community — to learn what makes San Jose tick. During this process, they uncovered some tensions about rising costs of living in the city due to the high-tech explosion, but they also found a group of people who were passionate about helping to play a role in the making of San Jose. “One of them told us, ‘San Francisco already has one of me, and San Jose doesn’t,’” Watkins said. “He was most excited about the chance to put his thumbprint on what the city will look like in the next 10 to 15 years.”


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All those conversations helped Watkins realize that one of San Jose’s characteristics that city leaders felt was a downfall — that the downtown felt undeveloped — was actually a strength. “Philadelphia is already built. San Francisco is already built. Los Angeles is already built,” Watkins said. “But San Jose isn’t.” He told them: “You’re the only city that gives people the chance to come and put their stamp on it.”

After listening to insights from tastemakers, Watkins channeled those words into a visual identity that aimed to convey that the city was a place where people could help create its character. “We started working on a mark that represented the idea of being able to make your mark,” Watkins said. “The layout mirrors the actual geographical valley, and the letter forms weave into each other as a nod to the churning of ideas in San Jose. The type looks like it could fit in at a tech campus or in a bike shop.”

Shirts, Stickers, and Signs of a True Movement

When he showed the idea to the stakeholders at city hall, it was a resounding hit. However, city officials were not the audience Watkins really needed to win over. “We said that the worst thing you could do is stand on the steps of city hall and say, ‘This is who we are. Now, we’ll do an ad campaign around it,’” Watkins said. “It will not be accepted.”

San Jose branding

It took many iterations to arrive at the final San Jose logo, which mirrors the city’s geography.

Instead, testing the design took a more casual approach — a live screen-printing at a craft fair. “We set up a booth with shirts that had the mark and three different mantras that represented our ideas of the brand,” Watkins said. “Then, we sat back and made note of who bought it, how old they were, and their genders and ethnicities. Two of the mantras sold really well,” he said, and they “decided to move on to step two.”

That second step was even less formal than the first. They created stickers with the logo and dropped them off at skate shops and cafés. “We dropped off around 50,” Watkins said, “and the next week, we returned to see if they were still there.”

People were taking them, and Watkins discovered that the experiment had come full circle. “We had a meeting with the mayor after a few weeks,” he said, “and one of his aides came up to me and said, ‘Your sticker ended up on my 16-year-old son’s phone case. That is sacred territory.’”

The new identity, Watkins said, “had infected the high school.”

The San Jose logo continued to spread in an organic way with posters hanging around the city, and eventually, the organizations who invested in the work adopted the mark. “About nine months later, that’s when we started putting it in more formal places like city hall and the airport,” Watkins said. “About a year after we had initially started, the tourism group adopted the logo.”

The logo even made its way from signage to body art. Jake McCluskey, a San Jose resident, decided to tattoo the logo on his leg after running every street in the city. The ink had a big impact on Watkins. “A lot of people in marketing use the word ‘movement,’” he said. “They’ll say that they’re going to create a movement. To me, it’s not a movement if you’re the one doing it. This was a case where it took off and has a life of its own. We didn’t have any control over it, and honestly, we couldn’t have dreamed up a guy getting a tattoo of our design.”

A Lesson for Identity-Building Initiatives of All Kinds

San Jose’s effort to seek hometown adoption of its branding is akin to what Jack Johnson, Destinations International’s chief advocacy officer, spoke about at the organization’s 2019 Annual Convention. DMOs, he said, must realign their missions from serving outsiders to prioritizing the people who live and work there. “Your residents,” Johnson said, “are your customers.”

Visit San Jose has been giving out-of-town guests a chance to share that hometown pride. T-shirts, hoodies, hats, and stickers with the San Jose logo are sold at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center. Frances Wong, director of communications and marketing at Visit San Jose, told Convene that the organization hopes that taking home that merchandise is a chance for attendees to “remember that successful connection they made in San Jose, that ‘a-ha’ moment that catapulted their next great idea, or that creative energy they experienced first-hand while doing business here.”


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In addition to offering a post-event reminder of the city, the logo has found a place in the programming of some groups. For example, Wong said that she recently partnered with a local artist to host a walking tour of downtown San Jose for international attendees of a Silicon Valley company’s employee event. “They proudly paraded the San Jose identity caps around the city,” Wong said. “Afterward, on social media, they posted photos of their tour and their San Jose caps with personal visitor recommendations and history tidbits they learned on the tour. Seeing the San Jose identity outside of San Jose is a great conversation starter and helps San Jose visitors become genuine ambassadors to our great city.”

While San Jose’s success story resonates in the destination marketing field, Watkins believes that the approach of rallying internal stakeholders — whether those are residents, employees, or members of an organization — to create an authentic identity is the basis for any brand. “I feel like we are approaching it from the inside out and the bottom up,” he said. “In some cases, that requires more patience, which is why a lot of people don’t do it. They want the fast thing immediately. A lot of people might think that the approach is kind of risky because it’s different. I would say the old approach is risky. Think about how many brands launch and get rejected very quickly. To me, that’s risky.”

Instead of looking for fast results, Watkins likens strong brands to strong bodies. “I always think of trainers at the gym who stress the importance of working on your core, the center of all your strength,” he said. “It’s the same with a destination or a company, you’ve got to work on your core first. Then, you can work on everything else.”

David McMillin is an associate editor at Convene.


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