Branding has become an important aspect of business success. Branding involves creating a distinct and unique image for a service or product that, in time, becomes uniquely identifiable, particularly in a way that speaks to excellence and quality, with a particular service or product.

Successful branding attracts customers, and having a high-quality service or product keeps them. This combination has brought success to businesses and like endeavors, both large and small.

The essence of branding is storytelling. It’s a method by which a person or entity identifies who or what they are, and then conceptualizes and presents that to potential customers in a way that is powerfully appealing and exceedingly relevant to the needs of a potential client base. This type of storytelling takes more than just creativity, it also takes business savvy and astuteness of the highest order.

Even cities need storytellers. According to the latest statistics, travel and tourism is one of the biggest industries in the United States, adding over $1.4 trillion to the U.S. GDP in 2014. That number is forecast to be even higher for 2015. It’s a lucrative enterprise for cities all across America, and Mobile’s chief storyteller is committed to seeing Mobile’s share of those tourism dollars grow exponentially in the coming years.

That person is Al Hutchison, who has been at the helm of “Visit Mobile” since July 2014. If the name of the organization itself doesn’t sound familiar, that’s because it used to be known as the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. Being the storyteller and brand expert that he is, Hutchison saw the importance of the name of the city/county’s central marketing agency comprehensively, yet simply, communicating the agency’s mission. The name, in essence, introduces the story.

Hutchison’s own story in the art of community storytelling began after he earned his bachelor’s in marketing from the University of Alabama. He saw a job advertised with the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau in the newspaper of his hometown, Richmond, Virginia, and took a chance on applying. A position he says he “stumbled into” has developed into a distinguished 23-year career that has now led him to the Port City, a place he says has a story he is excited about telling.

The story itself needed new packaging, a new branding. Hutchison noted Mobile has unfortunately been known as a “drive-thru” destination — in other words, a place where people stopped for gas or food on their way to somewhere else. Additionally, over the past 10 to 12 years the city suffered from the “lack of a consistent message,” having been through more than half a dozen slogan or motto changes. To be a true destination, a city must have an identity uniquely its own, and it must constantly and consistently broadcast that identity.

That identity was hammered out through the input of stakeholders from throughout the city and county, a process Hutchison saw as absolutely indispensable: the identity of a city should be shaped by its people, and those community interests most vested in it. This collaborative process, facilitated by the travel and marketing destination company BCF, gave birth to a new identity, a new brand for the city: “Born to Celebrate.”

According to Hutchison, this new catchphrase or slogan, which has been in use since the end of 2015, precisely encapsulates the essence of the city of Mobile: we are people who love to celebrate. “The true DNA of a Mobilian is someone who likes to celebrate life …
Mobilians like to have a good time, enjoy life, family, food, nature,” Hutchison said.

As the city readies itself for a second opportunity to be a Carnival Cruise Line departure point, packaging Mobile’s story and communicating its identity has become a real priority. Far from being a place people drive through, it’s time, Hutchison says, to let people across the country know Mobile is a place you should want to visit.

Hutchison notes he was in Charlotte, North Carolina, before it became the tourist hotbed it is today. The transformation, he says, all came with a commitment to branding: to telling the city’s story in a compelling, attractive and consistent fashion. The rest, as they say, is history.

The same is true of places like Savannah, Austin, Birmingham, Memphis and others. At some point the cities made a commitment to their identity, stuck with their message and stuck with a plan to grow as a destination city. Mobile can do the same.

In 2014 Mobile had 2.9 million visitors (the 2015 numbers will be out in June). Mayor Sandy Stimpson has set a goal of, within the next few years, having at least 6 million people visit the city of Mobile annually. It’s a number Hutchison thinks is reachable. “I’m in it to win,” he said, “win for the residents, and win for the business owners.”

As summer approaches, Mobilians are used to bumper-to-bumper traffic inching its way through the George Wallace Tunnel as hordes of travelers make their way east and west. The goal now is getting those travelers to see Mobile as more than an inconvenient traffic bottleneck, as a destination in its own right. A place whose story is as inviting and welcoming as the downtown night lights that illuminate our fair city.