Community marketing campaign aims to sell Willmar area to itself

WILLMAR -- The face of Ryan Ruhl, flanked by two members of the Little Crow Ski Team, smiles out from the Community Marketing Coalition's latest print ad.

Sam Bowen, chairman of the Willmar Lakes Area Community Marketing Coalition, shows off the latest print ad in the coalition's "Get to Know Your Neighbor" marketing campaign which was launched earlier this year. Tribune photos by Anne Polta

WILLMAR -- The face of Ryan Ruhl, flanked by two members of the Little Crow Ski Team, smiles out from the Community Marketing Coalition's latest print ad.

The ad shares a few details about Ruhl: native of the Willmar area, member of the award-winning Little Crow water ski team, youth instructor in water skiing. He likes the area's friendly people and its absence of traffic jams. He's working on a degree in recreation, parks and leisure services at Minnesota State University in Mankato.

Similar versions of the ad can be heard on local radio stations and seen on the air at Charter Communications.

The get-to-know-your-neighbor advertising campaign represents the Community Marketing Coalition's latest strategy: being proactive at trying to shape local perceptions of the Willmar area's image.

Most community marketing campaigns are aimed at the outside world -- but not this one. In a word, it's designed to help sell the Willmar area to itself.


"The bottom line is what makes a community great is the people. We really wanted to focus more on people," said Sam Bowen, chairman of the marketing coalition. "We're trying to encourage people to stop and ask the question, to try to get to know their neighbor better. We hope by doing that, by knowing our neighbors better, it accentuates that people are what make this a vital community... Word-of-mouth advertising and community pride is the best sort of advertising we can do."

It's a switch for the Community Marketing Coalition, which was formed a decade ago in response to a short-lived spate of gang violence that broke out in Willmar, tarnishing many people's view of the city as a safe place to live and shop and go to school.

"Willmar was in the forefront of a lot of negative news," lamented Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

A survey of how people perceived the city revealed safety, gangs and violence among their top concerns.

The marketing coalition set to work, crafting a campaign emphasizing Willmar as a good place to live and work. When a second survey was carried out a couple of years later, safety had disappeared from the list of top concerns, Bowen said.

The group, whose partners include city and county government, the Willmar Public Schools and large organizations such as Ridgewater College, Jennie-O Foods and Rice Memorial Hospital, spent its first few years focused on damage control. More recently, however, its attention has shifted to being more proactive.

"We've got a pretty darn good place to live and we should be able to give people some good things to talk about," Warner said.

The first print, radio and TV ads in the get-to-know-your-neighbor campaign appeared in March. They've been running in six-week cycles, highlighting three different people each time.


Bowen said the coalition's marketing committee is choosing a cross-section of ages, occupations and backgrounds.

"We want to focus a little bit on the ethnic diversity of the community. We think that's a plus," he said.

The individual stories are meant to help put a human face on the community and invite people to connect with each other, he said. "We never stop to think about someone else's story. Just getting to know them, you realize that's really interesting."

Warner said that based on the feedback he's heard about the campaign, "I think it's been effective."

It'll be somewhat challenging to gauge that objectively.

"Being in a proactive mode is a little more difficult to measure because we don't have anything to benchmark against," Bowen said.

The coalition plans shortly to conduct a survey, however, to find out whether people have noticed the ads and how they've reacted to the message. Data from the survey will help determine the future direction of the campaign, Bowen said.

The coalition also hopes to move into the next phase of its get-to-know-your-neighbor initiative by organizing some kind of community event.


Bowen thinks the campaign is "one of the best campaigns we've done in a long time."

"A lot of what we're trying to do is alter perceptions. We're just trying to open their eyes a little bit," he said. "We realize we're never going to change everyone's minds but we hope it will set an example."

What To Read Next
Get Local