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McAllen City Manager Roy Rodriguez speaks to city commissioners and staff at a retreat at Quinta Mazatlan.

McALLEN, RGV – The decision by thousands of Central American refugees to enter the United States through the Rio Grande Valley last year has inadvertently given the City of McAllen a chance to rebrand itself.

The City won national acclaim last year for providing humanitarian relief to the refugees, many of whom were women and children. Working with Hidalgo County and Catholic Charities, the City of McAllen provided food, clothing, shelter and healthcare for the refugees.

“We think we have got a unique opportunity because we have been in the national spotlight really for positive things in the recent past. I think it is a great opportunity to take advantage of that,” said McAllen City Manager Roy Rodriguez.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling has a similar view. “In the last 18 months our community has been branded nationally, because of the immigration crisis, the border surge, the humanitarian efforts,” Darling said, pointing out that he had received a call from someone from Arizona who planned to travel down to McAllen from Austin “because he had heard such nice things about us.”

Darling added: “We have had a national spotlight for the last 18 months. How do we capitalize on that?”

Darling and Rodriguez made their comments at a City of McAllen retreat at Quinta Mazatlan. The mayor, city commissioners, and city departmental heads met informally to discuss various policy issues. First on the agenda was the city’s brand.

The discussion started with Yajaira Flores, manager of sales and events services at the McAllen Convention Center, giving an overview of what a brand is. Flores teaches marketing at UT-Pan American. She said a brand should not be confused with a slogan, a logo, or a marketing campaign.

“What do we want to be known for?” Flores asked city commissioners and staff. “How can we stand out from the crowd? What thoughts and feelings come to mind when people, residents and people outside of our community are exposed to our city’s name?” Flores said the McAllen’s brand already exists. “It is made up of what people think of the city.”

Assistant City Manager Joe Vera said that currently there is no cohesiveness when it comes to marketing McAllen. “The city spends a lot of money marketing the city, so does the Chamber, CVB, the airport. Yet it does not really connect.” Vera said one of the ideas being discussed is to get a private company from outside the city to help conduct a branding exercise.

CVB stands for Convention and Visitors Bureau.

City Commissioner Richard Cortez pointed out that the city conducted a marketing exercise a few years ago. He said it was conducted by consultant Brian Godinez and cost the city $30,000.

“I don’t want to pay for something twice. If what we paid for before brings no value to you then we have to pay for it again. But if what we had before does bring value then I would hate to pay for it again,” Cortez said.

The earlier study contained a lot of useful information, Cortez recalled. “You need to get hold of that, not to do what it says but to add the weight of the evidence you are going to compile,” Cortez told Vera and Flores.

Vera responded: “We still want to go through with this exercise. We don’t want people to be telling our story. We want to make sure we are telling our story.”

Flores said the previous study was conducted seven years ago. “When somebody asks us, what are you known for, what is your message, what are you striving for, (the goal is) that we can all have that same message, city staff, chamber, EDC, all the stakeholders,” Flores said.

Flores said city staff has talked to several companies that help develop brands. She said one company, called Mirror Branding, gets clients to hold up a mirror and instead of having a company tell the client what the brand is, all the stakeholders tell the company what the brand is. “There should be through this process a thread that communicates to everybody, that everybody can have an input and share that vision to get to where we want to go,” Flores said. “We do have a brand. We want to be able to manage that brand. We need to know what that brand is.”

City Commissioner Trey Pebley said a brand should be viewed as the foundation. “You have got to have the brand first or you have to recognize what your brand is first in order to build the logo, in order to build the slogan, in order to build your marketing campaign.”

City Manager Rodriguez said if ten people were asked what McAllen’s brand is there would probably be ten different answers. He said people in Reynosa would have a different answer to people in Monterrey, McAllen or Harlingen.

Mayor Darling said he believes all city residents “have a sense of pride” in McAllen. “I think we have got that. I ask myself, would I take a vacation in McAllen, Texas, for a week. I don’t think so. I think people love living here. That is a great message but it is not going to bring anyone on vacation,” Darling said.

City Commissioner Veronica Whitacre said a lot of people come back to McAllen to raise a family. She said she was perfect example of this. “It is a small town with a big city feel,” Whitacre said.

Flores wrapped up her remarks by discussing the possibility of bringing in what she called a corporate psychologist.

“What we are recommending is to bring in sort of what I call a corporate psychologist. That corporate psychologist will ask you what does McAllen mean to you, what is your vision, where do you want to be in ten years? Then we will continue to ask questions like a psychologist would, and say, how does this make you feel? When you hear this, how does this make you feel? When you hear that, how does this make you feel? More than the message of what we are, is how do we feel? How does it make our residents feel?”

Flores said the goal is to find the “underlining factor” that unites stakeholders. She said it may or may not be what the City of McAllen has had in the past. “But it is something that everybody who participates can agree on,” she said.

“More than just the message it is the thoughts and emotions and perceptions that are underlying what that message is. That message could be different to every single person but they have that sense of connection,” Flores added.

“So there is this study that was done eight or nine years ago that is a fantastic tool to go on but how does that make us feel today and should we do something today to make sure that we all have that buy-in and we can say this is who we are with 100 degrees of confidence?”

Commissioner Cortez then pointed out that at a previous retreat city leaders had agreed that they want to market McAllen as a destination city. “That is the goal you all selected some time back. So, how do we brand ourselves to accomplish that?” Cortez said. “We keep redefining the problem. We need to start solving it.” He said he agreed with the idea of branding McAllen as “a good place for tourists, family and business.”

Mayor Darling added that from what he has heard, only five percent of branding works.

Assistant Manager Vera said city staff would come back to the city commission with a recommendation regarding branding. “We feel like we can go in a positive direction and accomplish the things we have discussed here,” he said.

Darling responded: “Don’t be discouraged.”

Vera said: “We’re not.”