How a (slightly) unscripted rap video put this Newfoundland city on the map

By Chris Powell from The Message

Issued on Sept. 5, 2018, Mount Pearl, Nfld. RFP number 18-041, a request for a “marketing, communications and economic development campaign,” didn’t appear destined to produce work that would gain international renown.

But the resulting video, an endearing “rap” performed by a local realtor named Jason Piercey that humorously highlighted the city’s key “selling points” (automated garbage pick-up, a museum that’s open Tuesday to Friday 10-4, a local business named Peter’s Pizza, and numerous sports fields), has helped put this small town 15 kilometres southwest of St. John’s on the map.

Assembled on a shoestring budget, the three-minute video is the first step towards cultivating a brand image for the municipality, which Mayor Dave Aker admits had become over-reliant on organic growth.

“We took economic development a little bit for granted, but the environment has changed,” says Aker (that’s him fist-bumping a baby and performing a “gavel drop” in the video). “The economy’s not as robust as it used to be with the reduction in oil prices. Instead of relying on growth, we wanted to rely on branding.”

Created by St. John’s agency Target Marketing & Communications Inc., the “Mount Pearl Anthem” debuted on June 25 and quickly became an internet sensation (by municipal marketing standards anyway), with coverage from media outlets across the country and blogs as far afield as Japan and Australia.

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Mount Pearl Mayor Dave Aker

The U.S. trade magazine AdWeek named it “Ad of the Day” on July 3, while Oli Pettigrew, one of the hosts of Right This Minute, a syndicated U.S. show that features viral videos, visited the city on July 15 to recreate some of the scenes featured in the video.

Target has pegged the potential audience exposure for the video at 84 million people, with more than $300,000 in earned media value within the first 10 days through radio airplay of the song and other media coverage.

“It was meant to get people’s attention in a non-traditional way, and I have to tell you it’s exceeded our expectations,” says Aker. “I’m just flabbergasted by the distance it’s travelled.”

In many ways, the objectives stated in that September RFP were straight out of the municipal marketing playbook: Position Mount Pearl as “the best place to do business in the province” with a focus on the start-up, technology, and innovation sector, and promote the city as a “unique destination to live, work, and play.”

The city of 23,000 people has been experiencing some growing pains, grappling with a combination of a shrinking, aging population, and an economy the RFP described as being “in transition.”

Any resulting campaign would be required to do some heavy lifting, with the RFP spelling out the ambitious goals city leaders hoped to achieve by 2023. They included lowering the median age, increasing the population by 5%, increasing the commercial tax base by 10%, and renewing the urban landscape and transforming the city “through technology and innovation.”

“It is time for Mount Pearl to transform itself, and work towards building a city that will attract new growth and investment while leading the way as a progressive, family-oriented and business-friendly city,” stated the RFP.

One of the campaign’s primary objectives is to expand Mount Pearl’s commercial tax base beyond retail and the industrial and warehousing businesses that support the oil and gas industry, particularly as that industry is in the midst of a slowdown.

“We need to pursue tourism, but we also need to pursue high-tech and innovation,” says Aker. “We have a good, young, well-educated workforce who are starving for jobs in Newfoundland and Labrador, and we’d love to see them stay in Mount Pearl as opposed to moving away.

While not overtly stated in the RFP, Aker says it was understood in subsequent conversations with responding agencies that the campaign should employ an unconventional—and unexpected—approach.

“There is a bunch of traditional ways you can go about doing that, but what we were describing is a 180-degree turn,” says Aker, who says that preliminary research indicated that Mount Pearl wasn’t top of mind with the business community, particularly as it related to investing or locating within the municipality.

A growing number of North American cities are actively engaged in marketing efforts designed to promote tourism and/or business development, but creating work capable of engaging multiple—and widely disparate—stakeholders can be a tricky proposition.

Will Ketchum, president of Jacksonville, FL-based North Star Place Marketing + Branding—which has conducted branding initiatives for more than 200 municipalities including Fargo, N.D., Lodi, Calif. and Lancaster, Penn.—says that Mount Pearl has done a “great job” with the video.

“Capturing the essence of a community authentically, including leaning into your signature quirks, is a great way to gain attention and build momentum,” he says. “The key next step for them will be maintaining an enduring, competitive brand message and experience beyond the terrific video. They’re off to a great start.”

Best known for its long-running work with Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism that marries stunning visuals to evocative copy, Target leapt at the chance to provide an offbeat marketing campaign for Mount Pearl.

“They were open to non-bureaucratic, non-linear ways of doing things in the city,” says Target president Noel O’Dea. “The ask was ‘Put us on the map and make us famous,’ so we took them at their word.”

Many economic development campaigns follow a “predictable and boring” formula, says O’Dea, “serving up a laundry list of forgettable facts and features” while focusing on tax and financial incentives. “Most places say they’re different, they’re exciting, they do things differently,” says O’Dea. “Their ads, however, unintentionally demonstrate the opposite.”

The primary objective with the video, he says, was to showcase the humanity and personality that are the city’s hallmarks. “It doesn’t have infrastructure that’s superior to other places, or well-known landmarks, but it’s got a heart that it seems to wear on its sleeve, and that is a really positive thing,” he says.

Shot over two 16-hour days in mid-June, O’Dea says that up to one-third of the anthem video was unscripted, with a series of happy accidents contributing to the finished product.

“When you’re trying to capture the feeling of a place, you can’t have a shot list rule the day—you’ve got to take advantage of the things that are spontaneous,” says O’Dea. “We were out there to see what might show up spontaneously, almost like osmosis.”

“The story progression was laid out in the script, but there were a lot of oddities and quirkiness and magic that happened along the way that we had our radar on for.”

The Mount Pearl firefighters, for example, were enlisted after responding to a fire alarm at City Hall—set off by a smoke machine being used to create what Aker describes as “ambiance” in the council chambers.

And perhaps the spot’s signature shot, a colourfully dressed woman leading a pony down the street, came about when the crew spotted her walking past as they were filming a scene inside the Landwash Brewery. “She wasn’t identified for possible inclusion, but everybody dropped everything and went out and made friends with her,” says O’Dea. “It was very free-flowing and spontaneous and captured as it happened.”

Beyond helping Mount Pearl attract a lot of internet attention, it’s too soon to say if images of a pony and a rapping mayor will help the city attract more business. But Aker is pleased his city was willing to step outside the sometimes staid environment of city marketing.

“There’s no doubt that other communities will look at it and say ‘That’s a better way of doing it,’” he says. “Typically what you see [in municipal marketing efforts] is images of your community that are very peaceful. With this video, we shook the place up.”