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Lightfoot’s ‘authenticity’ to be center of plan to re-brand Chicago

“If you look at the mayor and what she represents — her history, her background, her personality — people are very intrigued by that. They might not agree with everything. But, they’re intrigued and believe she’s authentic,” Michael Fassnacht, the city’s chief marketing officer, said Thursday.

Chicago’s Chief Marketing Officer Michael Fassnacht speaks about the art installation “Boards of Change” during a press conference at Daley Plaza Tuesday morning, Oct. 6, 2020.
Chicago’s Chief Marketing Officer Michael Fassnacht speaks about the art installation “Boards of Change” on Daley Plaza earlier this month.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her “authentic” personality will be a cornerstone of the plan to “rebrand” Chicago and help the city recover from the economic havoc wreaked by the coronavirus, the city’s chief marketing officer said Thursday.

Michael Fassnacht, a former commercial advertising whiz, donated his time to work on former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s failed pitch to attract Amazon’s second corporate headquarters.

Now, he’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s $1-a-year chief marketing officer, charged with developing a “master brand” for Chicago to rebuild a convention and tourism industry decimated by the pandemic.

That would be a mountain to climb even if Fassnacht had an advertising budget to support the rebranding campaign. But a city struggling to close a record $1.2 billion shortfall doesn’t have, as he put it, “the luxury to spend a lot of media dollars to try and buy eyeballs.”

So the former CEO and president of FCB said Chicago needs to be creative.

That means taking advantage of the celebrity image he helped build for Lightfoot by embracing the memes triggered by her decision to shut down the lakefront.

“If you look at the mayor and what she represents — her history, her background, her personality — people are very intrigued by that. They might not agree with everything. But, they’re intrigued and believe she’s authentic,” Fassnacht said.

A meme of Mayor Lori Lightfoot guarding the lakefront trail has gone viral.
A meme of Mayor Lori Lightfoot guarding the lakefront trail went viral.
Danny Martinez on Facebook

“Look at just the stay-at-home, save lives campaign. Millions of people have seen that. It changed behavior. We talked about Halloween when she dressed up with our health commissioner. Millions of people saw that. It’s the ideas and the creativity that, ultimately I believe will, step-by-step, rebrand Chicago.”

For decades, Chicago was known around the world as the home of mobster Al Capone. That was thankfully supplanted by Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan and the two three-peats he engineered during the 1990s.

The rebranding of post-pandemic Chicago will highlight the city’s diversity without sweeping under the rug its ugly underbelly as one of the nation’s most segregated cities.

“I really would love to be known for [being] a creative, innovative city that has honestly addressed the sins of its past to build a much more equitable city that everyone can enjoy,” he said.

Fassnacht acknowledged it won’t be easy to erase the black eye Chicago suffered during two rounds of looting. The fear factor was exacerbated by a 50% surge in homicides and shootings.

“You can only overcome this by being honest about what are the root causes of some of these issues and not ignore them,” Fassnacht said.

“I walked Michigan Avenue after the second wave of looting. It was one of the most challenging days of my professional life. None of us at City Hall wants to hide these things. We have massive issues. That’s part of rebranding. We have to be honest about this.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s health commissioner, dress up as anti-coronavirus-themed superheroes for a news conference Thursday on the city’s plans for Halloween.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s health commissioner, dressed as anti-coronavirus-themed superheroes for a news conference earlier this month on the city’s plans for Halloween.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The next three months will be critical to the rebranding.

It will feature a series of what Fassnacht calls “tentpole events,” centered around the “emotional moments” of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Using social media, earned media and heavy doses of humor and creativity, the events will “set the tone for how to celebrate” those holidays in “COVID-safe” ways and while demonstrating “optimism in the world of 2020.”

“You will never look at Black Friday the same way. I promise you that,” Fassnacht said, refusing to reveal specifics.

McCormick Place is shut down. So is Navy Pier. The airline industry has been devastated. Many hotels, if open at all, have huge vacancies. It’s likely to stay that way until there’s a vaccine for the coronavirus that’s proven, safe — and widely distributed.

But, Fassnacht argued Thursday there are “huge opportunities on the leisure side” of travel because of cabin fever.

“There is a pent-up demand for people going out of their house, their area, to whichever city has shown that they have managed COVID well. … Marketing will play a role because we will tell the story of how you can come to Chicago in a safe way and experience diversity in a way that not too many other cities are able to do,” he said.

On a conference call with business executives Thursday, Fassnacht said, some discussed employees starting to ask about returning to work.

“I’m optimistic that people will want to come back to work. But it will be a more hybrid world. And we have to be ready for that. We have to enable it,” Fassnacht said. “And there will be some opportunities for neighborhoods. People might spend two or three days in neighborhoods instead of coming downtown five days a week.”

Fassnacht acknowledged conventions and business travel will be slower to recover. But, he argued, there is a “huge opportunity to elevate” McCormick Place as a center for “hybrid” conventions — partly in person, partly virtual.

“Will it be easy? No,” Fassnacht said.

“But every crisis has an opportunity to reinvent yourself and look at things in a new way.”

Chicago Police stand guard on the Magnificent Mile and the Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River is lifted after looting broke out overnight in the Loop and surrounding neighborhoods, Monday morning, Aug. 10, 2020.
Chicago police stand guard at the Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River in August. The bridge was lifted to control access to the Loop after looting broke out late the night before in the Loop and surrounding neighborhoods. A marketing campaign to re-brand the city must deal with the issue civil unrest and looting, Chicago’s chief marketing officer said.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times