First-tier travel destinations like Washington, D.C. have the inherent benefit of attracting overnight visitors based on their iconic attractions embedded in the public consciousness over decades in the making, but there’s always the danger of devolving into a collection of cliches.

If a destination becomes a victim of its own success because it’s too stuck to its legacy identity, the visitor economy flat lines and the average age of visitors grows older. The tourism tax base shrinks, hotel occupancy and rate stagnate, and it’s harder to drive increased attendance at conventions. All kinds of bad things happen.

A decade ago, Washington, D.C. was flirting a bit too closely with that scenario because the city had plateaued as a tourism destination known almost solely for its museums, monuments and memorials. But then a propitious marketing collaboration presented itself that would have a significant impact on the city’s identity for both leisure and group travelers.

The following is a textbook case of inspired place branding.

In 2012, the National Portrait Gallery approached the Destination DC marketing organization to discuss a potential partnership to promote an upcoming black and white photography exhibit called “American Cool.” The imagery profiled legendary entertainment figures from Muddy Waters to Steve McQueen to Madonna who all personified the very definition of cool.

Around that time, the nation’s capital was midway through its long transition from a 9-to-5 city full of policy wonks to an emerging center of globally-infused hipness.

Beginning around President Obama’s inauguration, the metamorphosis was driven in part by the city’s re-engagement with it arts and music heritage, the multicultural diversity, the ongoing gentrification of historic neighborhoods, new design hotels, and a disproportionate number of ethnic restaurants.

An April 2009 Travel + Leisure story reads: “Now there’s an influx of artists, students and professionals, and businesses are opening in a collaborative spirit — with one eye toward the global village and the other very much on the local scene — showing what can happen when fashion, art and food mix with politics.”

In 2012, Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC, decided it was time to try and capitalize on that positive buzz to attract a broader and younger visitor base.

He and his team started batting around the idea of developing a new marketing campaign called “DC Cool,” inspired by the Portrait Gallery’s American Cool show. Then they imagined co-opting the same soulful black and white visual narrative of the photography exhibit to give the city something of a more sexy, film noir-ish nighttime vibe.

The DC Cool campaign officially kicked off in August 2013 with a dark and slinky YouTube video describing the most happening spots around town. The DCcool.com microsite launched soon after with a judicious mix of black and white imagery infused with full color social media visuals. Complementing that, the lifestyle content clearly targeted the educated, affluent traveler attracted to hip urban experiences, especially after the sun goes down.

A year later in 2014, Forbes anointed Washington, D.C. with its “Coolest City in America” designation, which is perhaps something of a dubious honor. Houston won in 2012. Still, there was an obvious shift in public perception bolstered by the emergence of hipster neighborhoods, like the U Street Corridor and Eastern Market area, which suddenly sprang into vogue everywhere in the national travel, food, fashion and music media.

All of this had a big impact on tourism arrivals. Washington DC welcomed 14.8 million domestic visitors in both 2002 and 2009, with very little fluctuation in between. Following that, the city recorded five straight years of record growth culminating with 18.3 million domestic visitors in 2014.

Lonely Planet then awarded DC its “#1 Best City to Visit” for 2015.

“I think the key thing for us when people actually come to Washington, they’re always wowed by the things they don’t know about us,” says Ferguson. “That’s where DC Cool comes in, because we can focus on our neighborhoods, cultural diversity, nightlife, shopping, theater and other things that don’t necessarily really resonate when people think about Washington as a destination.”

The Evolution of Destination Content Curation

DCcool.com reached 1,205,439 unique pageviews during its run, which will soon be coming to an end. Destination DC announced yesterday that it’s going to rebuild its primary Washington.org website and integrate the DC Cool brand and content throughout the bureau’s social media platforms. That site is scheduled to launch next spring.

According to Ferguson, the new digital platform is going to include a lot more user-generated content and social media engagement, because Destination DC is shifting its focus more toward the millennial age customer.

“The thing about destination marketing that doesn’t always resonate with most people is that it’s all about economic development,” explains Ferguson. “For us, in terms of economic impact, we bring people into the city who come here for a few days and then leave. As we look at our target audiences, we’re focusing more on millennials simply because they’re becoming the largest populace in the U.S who represent the largest potential of future visitors to our city.”

On September 15, Destination DC hosted about 200 of its 850 members for its first Social Media U event, which took place at the National Museum of America History’s new Innovation Wing. The bureau brought in social media experts to educate their partners about how to maximize the power of social media and what resonates with millennial consumers these days.

For example, there was an emphasis on Instagram best practices. The DC Cool Instagram account has 13,500 followers, with engagement during last year jumping 866% in followers over the year previous.

Through educational sessions like that, Destination DC is building a more cohesive destination brand message by aligning more destination partners with the overarching vision.

That’s important because another interesting thing about DC Cool, there’s a decidedly more elevated range of content than most other tourism bureaus, which is perhaps indicative of the destination. The October 2015 calendar of events, for example, emphasizes art, music and culture, and there’s only a passing glance at trendy food and beverage. It’s somewhat refreshing to not be inundated with endless lists of gastropubs.

Also, DC Cool links to other programming initiatives that Destination DC supports. The first Landmark Music Festival took place last week to raise money to repair parts of the National Mall. The collaboration with A Creative DC is dedicated to supporting the independent arts community in DC.

Ferguson also points out the Women’s Voice Theater Festival showcasing female personalities in the DC theater district. The promotional video (above) was designed in black and white to align with the DC Cool platform.

Lastly, we asked Ferguson if DC Cool in general targets the meetings and convention market.

“Part of our goal is to ensure our meetings have record attendance, so by having a campaign like DC Cool, our visitors are coming to a convention not only because they can go to Capitol Hill to lobby Congress, but they can really diversify their time in our destination,” he told us. “Because we realize strong convention destinations are linked to strong leisure destinations, and for us, it’s important to get that message out. DC Cool allows us to do that.”

Destination DC supplied the following data from its 2014 ROI Study on the DC Cool spring/summer campaign:

  • $3 million spent on the campaign
  • $98 million in visitor spending
  • $33 in visitor spending per every $1 in campaign spending
  • $2.54 in taxes collected for every $1 in campaign spending
  • $7.6 million in taxes collected on visitor spending
  • 31% aided recall rate of the ads in 2014 versus the average 2% recall rate for marketing campaigns. Source: Destination Analysts.

[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included incorrect statistics on pageviews, which applied to the Washington.org portal, originally supplied by Destination DC.]

Photo Credit: DC Cool's "About" landing page includes the original launch video, which defined the campaign's visual delivery from the start. Destination DC