November 12, 2013

Marijuana vote raises marketing questions for Portland

While the effect on the city's 'brand' is not yet known, some businesses see opportunity.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

Portland is a quaint, seaside city with cobblestone streets and a working waterfront. It’s known for its vibrant restaurant, music and art scenes.

Today's poll: Marijuana vote

Will the vote to legalize marijuana help or hurt Portland's image?



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Alysia Zoidis owns East End Cupcakes in Portland.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Now Portland is known nationally as the first city on the East Coast to vote in favor of legalizing marijuana.

The vote was largely symbolic because state and federal prohibition laws supersede local ordinances. Proponents of the ordinance said the vote sends a strong signal to state lawmakers that marijuana should be legal.

But that message is extending far beyond Maine’s borders. Portland’s overwhelming support for legal marijuana has made national headlines, making marijuana part of the city’s national brand.

Some individual businesses – including a cupcake bakery in the Old Port – are optimistic that the vote will be good for their bottom lines. Whether the image is good or bad for the city overall remains to be seen.

“Voters added a new thread to the fabric of Portland’s brand,” said David Goldberg, a partner at Kemp Goldberg Partners, a local advertising, public relations and marketing firm.

“It’s going to take time to know whether this ordinance plays out as a branding issue for the city.”

Unlike a business, a city does not fully control its image or its brand, so a vote like last Tuesday’s could go a long way toward branding the city, given the national attention it drew, he said.

The attention comes as Creative Portland Corp. has been working on branding the city in an effort to attract young professionals to Portland. “Whether we like it or not the vote is real,” Executive Director Jennifer Hutchins said. “We have to wait and see what that means and what type of people are attracted by that.”

Hutchins said one of the biggest challenges of selling the city is getting national attention. The marijuana vote certainly accomplished that goal, she said.

Earlier this year, Creative Portland unveiled a city motto that would be used to market the city: “Portland, Maine. Yes. Life’s Good Here.” It was designed to be versatile so local businesses could tailor it to their industries, whether coffee, sports or restaurants.

That concept has stuck with at least some local people.

On Election Day, 51-year-old Gillian Greenwoods gave her version of the motto on her way to the polls to vote in favor of marijuana legalization.

“Yes. Smoking cannabis is good here,” she said.

Hutchins said it will be up to the Creative Portland board of directors and community partners to decide whether to highlight the city’s trailblazing vote on its website.

“I think we’ll have a hearty conversation about that,” she said.

When Denver voted to legalize marijuana in 2005, there was no noticeable effect on people’s willingness to move to, or visit, the Mile High City, according to business and tourism officials there.

“It doesn’t mean we’re not the brunt of a lot of jokes,” said Kelly Brough, president and chief executive officer of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Brough said the chamber has not been promoting Denver’s pro-marijuana stance when recruiting businesses and workers to the region. Instead, the chamber markets the city’s quality of life and workforce.

Denver’s vote in support of legal marijuana didn’t seem to affect tourism, according to Rich Grant, the communications director for Visit Denver, which promotes tourism.

Even with Colorado’s statewide vote to legalize marijuana and the ongoing effort to regulate the industry, Visit Denver is not investing any money into marijuana tourism for at least a year, Grant said, noting there is little research on whether marijuana marketing will pay off.

“Everyone is open-minded, because things change. We have a responsibility to get the best return on our marketing dollars and not to experiment, so we’re continuing to promote Denver as a young active city at the foot of the Rocky Mountains,” Grant said.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Marijuana vote

Will the vote to legalize marijuana help or hurt Portland's image?



View Results