Sonoma County uncorks new tourism campaign

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“We are all storytellers,” suggested Todd O’Leary, last Thursday evening, during a presentation at Keller Street CoWork, in downtown Petaluma. As Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Sonoma County Tourism, O’Leary was in town to give local business folks and trade groups a sneak peek at the county’s newest tourism “branding” campaign, and at its core, he explained, is the notion of telling stories. “Tourism is an intangible product, of course,” he said. “We’re not selling widgets. We’re selling stories. We’re selling experiences. And experiences are personal, their emotional. So developing a campaign that helps build that emotional connection to our brand of Sonoma County helps establish what those emotional connections might be for any traveler considering coming to spend some time with us.”

Supported by a slide show that included a number of “creatives” — visual and text-blended memes and graphics that help tell such stories — O’Leary used the event to roll out Sonoma County Tourism’s latest effort to draw folks to partake of the many pleasures of Wine Country. As was evident from the presentation, wine is very much the focus of the new branding campaign, revolving around the slogan “Life Opens Up.”

“It’s a slogan that resonates well with those who associate Sonoma County with the wine industry,” O’Leary explained. “But it also has an emotional association that goes beyond just wine.”

“Opening up,” of course, is “wine speak” for a wine’s process of becoming aromatically and flavorfully expressive and tasty as it is exposed to the air. In one piece of the campaign, the phrase “Life opens up” appears in large letters against an array of different images, from a colorful shot of a vineyard green with leaves to a long landscape view of Sonoma Lake, with mountains in the background and a vineyard in the foreground. Other “creatives” in the campaign include some graphics that become almost pun-worthy, in the way they pair visuals with other wine-centric phrases, as with the graphic that puts a picture of tourists romping beneath towering trees alongside the words “Big and Bold,” or shows a couple cuddling on a wave-misted beach with the words “A Cool, Crisp Finish.”

Sonoma County Tourism (SCT) is a private, nonprofit marketing organization with a mission of promoting tourist interest in Sonoma County, increasing overnight visits, conferences and events, while strengthening a “sustainable hospitality economy” throughout the county. The organization is funded through various income streams such as Transit Occupancy Taxes (paid for by visitors booking hotels and other lodgings). As with any product, O’Leary pointed out, Sonoma County is competing with other areas, and not just other wine destinations like Napa or Paso Robles, but places like Lake Tahoe, various ski resorts, and other strong tourism magnets.

“So it’s important,” O’Leary continued, on the phone a few days after the event at Keller Street CoWork (, “to be out there in the marketplace with our stories of what sets Sonoma County apart from those other destinations. Our job is to take those experiences we’re trying to convey, in our messaging, and put them in front of people who might be planning a trip, and are trying to make a decision where to go. Having a brand message, a slogan or a campaign, really helps give us a guiding principle, if you will, in how we will message about Sonoma County.”

Wine, food and breathtaking scenery, he allowed, are the primary pillars the Life Opens Up campaign is built on. Asked about those local elements that don’t yet get much attention in the still evolving campaign — attractions such as local theater companies, the county’s colorful music scene, and Petaluma itself — O’Leary admits that the branding message is strategically focused on wine, food and recreation.

“Those kinds of things are what we call ‘destination differentiators,’” explained O’Leary. “Wine, obviously, is one of those, because it’s something we are known for. Do we have other things to offer? Certainly. But when you say ‘Sonoma County’ to people from outside the area, oftentimes they are going to think of wine as their first response. And when you think of wine, the next thing you think of is food. We do have a great, vast variety of culinary options here. We are a very rich agricultural destination, of course, so there’s a bounty of food and food-related products that come directly from this land. So the land itself, the pillar of outdoor adventure, and all the scenery associated with it from the coast and the redwoods to the vineyards and lakes and rivers, that’s very much intertwined with our food and wine experiences as well.”

According to O’Leary, SCT did a great deal of research in developing the campaign, speaking with what he calls “our core customer groups,” including meeting planners, tour operators, business owners and the visitors themselves. They also spoke with local residents with strong ideas about what makes our county special.

“We did a residence survey of people who live here, from all over the county including many from Petaluma,” says O’Leary. “We’re actually not trying to create a new brand. We’re simply trying to bring to the surface what our brand, as Sonoma County, already is.”

It is O’Leary’s hope that Petaluma businesses will take advantage of the effort, and will work to find inventive ways to employ the slogans and artwork being developed by his team. SCT offers a number of services for local businesses, including offering help in capturing the attention of tourists, all at no fee to the local businesses and organizations.

“Something like 77 percent of our tourism-face businesses in Sonoma County have 25 or fewer employees,” O’Leary notes. “There are so many special experiences to be had, so many great stories to tell, stories about what makes a place like Sonoma County, and a town like Petaluma, worth exploring. And our small businesses and arts groups are a big part of that story. Not only is it incumbent upon an organization like ours to find those stories, and present them to our visitors, but it’s also important for such groups and businesses to reach out to us, to tell us those stories so we can share them. Folks within our organization want to know everything we can about what’s happening in the county, and we want to share how people in the community can best integrate their businesses with the work of Sonoma County Tourism.”

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