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'Life's good here,' but how good is Portland's new tagline?

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'Life's good here,' but how good is Portland's new tagline?

PORTLAND — The city's new marketing slogan, "Portland, Maine. Yes. Life's good here," is producing divided opinions.

"It doesn't do much for me," East End resident Samantha Miller said Sunday. "Life's good here? Anyone can say that."

Deering Center resident John Tilgner was more upbeat. "I think it's great that Portland is finally marketing itself this way," he said. "Yes, I agree, life really is good here."

The city unveiled its new tagline at a press conference on June 18. The words echo the title of an essay by John Preston, author of more than 30 novels, former editor of national gay-life magazine The Advocate, and a civil rights pioneer. Preston moved to Portland in 1979 and died here in 1994.

In "Portland, Maine: Life's Good Here," Preston explained his affection for the city. "Portland, Maine, fit all my criteria," he wrote. "... I always call it the toy city, because it's so small, but it is a city. It has all the urban accoutrements that keep it from being just a place where a lot of people happen to live."

The slogan is the first step in a branding campaign intended to promote Portland as an attractive place to live, work and visit, according to Mayor Michael Brennan. The campaign was called for in the city's 2011 economic development plan, authored by city staff, the Portland Community Chamber and Creative Portland Corp.

"The brand system's versatility brings diverse groups together under one umbrella because it confirms what many of us already know, life's good here," Brennan said in a written statement.

The slogan is already visible on the city's vehicles and website, and on signs at Portland International Jetport. At the press conference, businesses including Coffee By Design and the Portland Sea Dogs displayed placards showing how they might adapt the words in their own marketing. "Portland. Yes. Coffee's good here," a sign read.

Online and on the street, residents have been debating the merits of the slogan – and composing alternatives. But its ultimate success or failure will depend on how it's used, said Eric Swartz, a branding consultant who specializes in developing catch-phrases for clients including FedEx.

"A great, smart, clever tagline that's not used is much worse than a mediocre one that's applied consistently," he said on Friday. "A tagline is just an aspect of a brand, the beginning of a conversation. Now Portland has to do some reverse engineering and figure out what makes its brand real."

Creative Portland Executive Director Jennifer Hutchins agreed. "If we don't invest in (the slogan), it's not going anywhere," she said.

Over the next three months, a strategy will be mapped out for deploying the slogan, she said. That plan will be based on input from marketing professionals and other business people who volunteered with Creative Portland to develop the brand.

Her "wish list" for communicating it could include advertising in markets such as Boston and New York, Hutchins said. But next steps such as that will require careful decisions and funding the city doesn't have.

"This was always going to be a rolling phase-in," City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said Monday.

Still, some people wondered whether the slogan was quite ready for prime time last week.

Portland's slogan was never market-tested or vetted publicly before its launch – unlike slogans Swartz has developed for other municipalities, he said.

"Of course people are going to react. That's why it's good to have the buy-in of residents at an early stage," he said. "People aren't going to start really believing (Portland's slogan) until they start seeing it. This is all about saturation."

Brennan hinted at the creation of the slogan in an April speech at the Greater Portland Business Expo. After that, curiosity quickly grew.

"There was a really high level of interest; people were excited," Clegg said. "But it's always a challenge of finding the right moment to introduce something like this."

She said the city waited to announce the slogan until it received a trademark for it – a potential obstacle since two companies, Life is Good and LG Electronics, use similar taglines.

While the companies didn't object to Portland's use of the phrase, residents have not all been as receptive. Clegg said that's not surprising.

"When you're talking about a city's identity, people are going to have strong opinions," she said. "We knew from the get-go that this wouldn't please everyone."

A form on the city's website invites the public to describe their reactions to "life's good here," Clegg noted.

One person who gave the slogan a mixed review is Dusk Peterson, founder of The Preston Project, an online archive of Preston's work, reviews and biography. Created in 2004, the project is one of the few public sources of information about the writer. Most of his books are now out of print, although some are kept at the Preston Archive of Brown University's library in Providence, R.I.

"I imagine it takes a certain amount of courage for a government body to admit it's borrowing the words of a gay man, so this does seem to be a step forward," Peterson said. "My caution comes from whether the branding campaign will be conducted in keeping with Preston's own concern for publicly acknowledging human diversity.

"In order to do the phrase 'life's good here' full justice, Portland's branding campaign would need to embrace the diversity of its population," he said, "not merely focus on the most mainstream elements."

As to how Preston himself would feel about his words being used to market the city, Peterson said he could only speculate.

"Preston certainly wasn't one of those artsy types who disdains publicity and commercialism," Peterson said. "My guess is that, on the whole, Preston's concern would be less with whether money was being made than with how the money was spent."

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.