Mission Impossible: Marketing Buffalo, N.Y.

Coming soon, by way of spots on CNN and CNBC and via ads in the Wall Street Journal and sponsorships on NPR, is perhaps the ultimate tough-sell campaign: the promotion of Buffalo, N.Y.

The goal is not to boost tourism but to attract businesses and investment to the area. Members of a nonprofit consortium called Buffalo Niagara Enterprise have apparently committed $27 million to market the region. According to an economic-development consultant quoted in today’s New York Times, the size of the campaign is unusually large and perhaps unprecedented.

Can this sort of thing actually work? The campaign doesn’t begin in earnest until later this year, but there is a fancy little demo (requiring Flash software) at the organization’s Web site. I have nothing against Buffalo, but as the backers of this campaign seem to concede, the area has a pretty bad image problem, and even one of the ad guys involved in the campaign says the region’s residents have “incredibly low self-esteem.”

I don’t think many of them will be bucked up by the Web presentation, which is basically several minutes of obvious euphemism and faint praise. It begins with what I guess is meant to be a forceful bit of text animation, in which the words “Buffalo” and “Niagara” slam together like something from the credit sequence of a Jean Claude Van Damme movie. This quickly segues to a “slide show” backed by inoffensive synthesizer music. “Within 500 miles of ½ the population of North America!” brags one early slide.

The exclamation points taper off quickly after that. A slide about Buffalo Niagara International Airport includes the mysterious declaration, “70 Million Pounds of Cargo.” Another promises, “Only 25 days per year of measurable snowfall.” The arena football team is touted, as is the “incredible architecture.” And in a bit of gloss likely to be particularly painful to the football fans among Buffalo-area residents, there is mention of the “four-time AFC champion Buffalo Bills.” Running throughout is the tame and grammatically suspect catch phrase, “A Climate Where Business Works.”

In fairness future print ads will apparently focus on more bottom-line issues such as higher productivity among Buffalo workers, with a direct slogan: “available. productive. people.”

It seems reasonable for Buffalo–or any locality–to try and “reposition” itself as a product would. What’s less clear is whether flat-out marketing is a better way to go at it than the quiet recruitment of businesses and capital via networking and tax-related incentives. There is a risk in a multimillion-dollar campaign of seeming to be simply desperate, and that is not an effect that either potential newcomers or longtime residents are likely to appreciate.