Selling the city: Columbia’s still ‘famously hot,’ but its tourism brand is evolving

An example of Columbia’s new tourism brand, featuring a block “C” as a visual window displaying Columbia experiences.
An example of Columbia’s new tourism brand, featuring a block “C” as a visual window displaying Columbia experiences. Provided photo

Columbia will forever be “famously hot” to everyone who holds the slogan near and dear.

But the city is evolving, and the way it sells itself to outsiders is evolving as well.

Nine years after branding Columbia as “The New Southern Hotspot,” the area tourism authority is rolling out a new, $150,000 campaign to sell the capital city to potential tourists: Columbia is now “The Real Southern Hotspot.”

The change of just one word – “real” replacing “new” – represents “this concept of Columbia’s friendliness, and not just in the Southern hospitality type of friendliness, but even one step further,” said Andrea Mensink, director of communications for what formerly was known as the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports and Tourism. With the new branding initiative, the authority has adopted a new, simpler name: Experience Columbia SC.

Columbia has “the genuine, approachable, laid-back type of friendliness,” Mensink said. “It’s a come-as-you-are destination.”

The slight branding change is accompanied by a new visual campaign, with a new Columbia, SC, logo and block “C” graphic to represent the city in advertisements, billboards, brochures and other tourism promotion materials that began rolling out Wednesday.

A new navy blue and red color scheme ties together the brand materials, accented by a mustard yellow, light blue and gray. The block “C” serves as a visual window to highlight images of the Columbia experience.

“There’s a list of things that people are talking about in a positive way” – from the rivers to the Soda City market to the Columbia Fireflies baseball team, said Matt Kennell, president of City Center Partnership and the Main Street District downtown. “I almost never hear people bashing Columbia like I did even four or five years ago. I think the new brand expresses that it’s, ‘Hey, we’re Columbia, and we’re proud of that.’”

Accommodations taxes, paid mostly by out-of-town visitors staying at area hotels and which must be used for tourism purposes, footed the $50,000 bill for a market research study by San Francisco-based Destination Analysts to lay the foundation for the new branding initiative.

Another $100,000, funded by private fundraising and by the S.C Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, went to a company called Foxtrot of Austin, Texas, to analyze the market research and develop the new Columbia brand.

With an annual budget of about $4.5 million, Experience Columbia SC produces a return on investment by bringing some 14.5 million out-of-town visitors to the Columbia area each year, driving a $1.9 billion tourism industry, according to Bill Ellen, president and CEO of Experience Columbia SC.

Columbia is growing into an identity as a true destination, Mensink and Kennell said, as a midsize city that offers a variety of attractions without the high price of bigger cities and the inconvenience of smaller, more rural destinations.

“We’re not trying to create anything, we’re just celebrating who we are for maybe the first time,” Kennell said.

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.