Despite the criticism, New Mexico True has become a trusted brand that captures the destination’s nuanced, complicated history and gives the campaign space to grow and evolve with new stories year after year.
New Mexico visitor spend jumped more than 30 percent in the past two years, with the state seeing a significant tourism boom partly because of the New Mexico Tourism Department’s longstanding tourism campaign, New Mexico True.
More than a decade after its original release, the state refreshed the campaign in 2021 to rebuild its tourism industry coming out of the pandemic. And while the brand resonates with many tourism stakeholders, including visitors, and locals, there has been pushback from indigenous communities that the campaign encapsulates “colonial ideologies” as well as questions about the darker impact that tourism growth could have on New Mexico.
Before diving into the creative aspects, let’s break down the numbers: The New Mexico tourism economy entered 2020 with nine years of record-breaking growth with visitor spending jumping 29 percent between 2013 and 2019. After the pandemic-induced drop in 2020, visitor spending the following year surpassed 2019 levels as 39.2 million visitors to the state injected $7.2 billion into the New Mexico economy.
The Evolution of a 12-Year Brand Campaign
The New Mexico True campaign was first launched in 2012 with the aim of showcasing the state as a land of adventure steeped in culture. It became a well-regarded brand that was eventually adopted by regional destinations and tourism companies for marketing purposes.
New Mexico’s former cabinet secretary of tourism, Monique Jacobson, led New Mexico True’s original development alongside the department’s advertising agency of record, Talweg Creative. Focus groups the state used during the research phase revealed there was little awareness about New Mexico in general. Tourism Department Cabinet Secretary Jen Paul Schroer is still surprised at the kinds of calls that come through the visitor center.
“It’s unfortunate that people don’t really understand or perceive what New Mexico has to offer,” Schroer said.
When Schroer assumed her current role, she was eager to build on the success of the brand by keeping what worked while looking for improvements. The New Mexico Tourism Department again worked with Talweg and Austin-based public relations and digital media agency Giant Noise on a strategic brand refresh and marketing push. The campaign was put on hold in early 2020 and then released in April 2021.
“We went from a montage creative approach with images of canoeing, skiing, and fishing as our creative to storytelling,” Schroer said. “We had done some longer format video storytelling about the people, culture, and land and received overwhelming engagement, praise, and love for this style. We really leaned into storytelling and attempted to do it in 30 seconds, which is hard to do.”
The department’s research suggested that Los Angeles would be a strong source market for New Mexico following the pandemic, so it launched a $1.9 million ad campaign in the city featuring ads in Los Angeles International Airport’s domestic terminals. That marketing effort helped attract 80,000 trips to the state in 2021, generating $107 million in visitor spending, according to the tourism department.
“We got a great return on investment,” Schroer said. “We took a disciplined approach to really look at consumer behavior coming out of the pandemic, trust that research, and implement a strategy.”
Schroer is looking to further develop the state’s tourism infrastructure with local and tribal governments to ensure tourism can continue to grow responsibly.
“One of the things that we want to be very cognizant of is that not only are we stewards of the New Mexico True brand, but we’re also stewards of the land and the assets here in New Mexico. We want to make sure that we are doing destination management, tourism development, and really looking at sustainability so we can increase our demand without draining our natural resources or communities,” she said.
“We want tourism to be a win-win; not just bring in tax revenue and create wonderful experiences for tourists, but also make sure that it is a wonderful experience for locals as well,” Schroer said.
President Joe Biden appointed Schroer to be on the Route 66 Centennial Commission, which will devise recommendations for celebrating the iconic road’s 100th anniversary in 2026.
Campaign Pushback and Growing Pains
Despite its success, the New Mexico True brand campaign has also received pushback for allegedly articulating colonial ideologies. Stakeholders and advocacy groups have concerns about using certain language and imagery throughout the campaign — and the state’s overall relationship with tourism.
“The tourism industry would be nothing without Indigenous people,” said Christina M. Castro, co-founder of Three Sisters Collective, a Santa Fe-based Indigenous women-led grassroots organization that’s devoted to arts, activism, education, and community building. While tourism is the backbone of Santa Fe’s economy, these women didn’t feel they had any realistic, contemporary representation in their community.
“There’s a lot of talk in our communities around the artistic settler colonialism that started in the early 1900s when Georgia O’Keeffe came to New Mexico. Writers, artists, and elites came from the east coast and Europe with the idea that it was an uncharted territory where they could truly be free from the confines of modernism. But there is never any mention of the Indigenous people who already lived here and are from here,” Castro said.
She believes history is repeating itself with people leaving urban areas, thinking they’ve found a fresh horizon, without necessarily being conscious of the fact that this was someone else’s home first.
“People who are from here have to move because they can’t afford to live here with the whole ‘Zoom boom’ and Airbnb,” Castro said.
A specific 30-second version of the 2021 TV campaign was criticized for using a quote from artist Georgia O’Keeffe. A partial recording of O’Keeffe’s voice melds with a modern voiceover to say, “When I got to New Mexico, that was mine. As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly.”
However, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum vehemently objected to the use of her quotes in association with New Mexico in the ads.
“The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum does not support the use of Georgia O’Keeffe quotes describing the New Mexico landscape as ‘her country’ or claiming ‘that was mine.’ While these quotes are from the artists, it is now clear this is the language of possession, colonization, and erasure. Such language is offensive, insulting, and insensitive. We strongly discourage the use of these problematic phrases, as well as ‘O’Keeffe Country’ to promote tourism or represent Northern New Mexico,” a representative said in an Instagram story.
A member of the Three Sisters Collective created a version of the spot that featured Georgia O’Keeffe’s quote, and it landed on the local news with headlines around the rising cost of living and gentrification.
While critics called out this specific ad, the New Mexico Tourism Department does often feature native artists in its campaigns, and tells their stories in its 30-second spots.
“We are better communicating what we do locally because most of our ads run out of state. Locals might see a 30-second clip without grasping the full body of work,” Schoer said, adding the department works with Indigenous tribes to ensure that tourism dollars are directed to those communities.
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Photo credit: New Mexico tourism authorities have vowed to ensure that tourism dollars are directed to Indigenous communities throughout the state. Pictured is New Mexico-born author Ria Thundercloud. LeRoy Grafe / New Mexico Tourism Department