Rebranding with Pooh

Commentary, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

According to the OECD, tourism will be the number-one economic activity of the 21st century. Higher living standards will enable people to lead healthier, longer lives and enjoy more leisure time and spending power. Why not travel and see the world?

How many would come to Winnipeg, easily the most under-rated city in Canada? If typical outsider perceptions and stereotypes prevail, not many. Remember the TV commercial in which hapless passengers think they are Hawaii-bound, only to discover the plane is on the way to… Winnipeg? Over the years, media reports have often sensationalized our town as Canada’s child-poverty, gang and arson capital. These stereotypes square neatly with a narrow news focus on brutal winters, catastrophic floods and sub-tropical mosquito swarms.

Poverty, gangs and crime are highly localized issues that will be conquered by substantive policy reforms, at some point. Still ritualized journalistic spin around them has soured many potential tourists on the Winnipeg “brand”.

For now, Winnipeg’s greatest marketing opportunities lie abroad. The vast wilderness on our doorstep is a natural draw for stressed-out Europeans. Similarly, Manitoba’s lakes, rivers and beaches should appeal to the planeloads of Japanese who flock to Banff or Whistler for the big outdoor experience every chance they get. This potential, however, remains undeveloped.

Another Japanese favourite is little Prince Edward Island, the home of Anne of Green Gables. The story of a wholesome girl growing up in an idyllic turn-of-the-century setting attracts 350,000 tourists a year, creating millions in economic spin-offs. One can visit author Lucy Maud Montgomery’s birthplace, the Anne of Green Gables Museum, Green Gables House the original story setting and another locale called Cavendish House. All these tourist shrines sell souvenirs and related “Anne” products. There is even an Anne of Green Gables Society that publishes a magazine, offers ticket discounts and other benefits.

The PEI phenomenon lends credibility to the hard work of community-minded leaders whose vision for Winnipeg capitalizes on some valuable heritage. Partners in the Park, a non-profit group of volunteers and philanthropic interests, has raised millions to develop the northwest corner of Assiniboine Park through such projects as the Pavilion restaurant and gallery, the Lyric outdoor stage and the Leo Mol Gardens. Their goal is to provide free public access to the visual and performing arts.

The particular heritage they want to build on is Winnie the Pooh. Based on an orphaned cub whose adoptive owner, one Lieutenant Colborne, named him after Winnipeg, the bear became a World War I mascot and ended up in an English zoo. Author A.A. Milne wrote a whole series of children’s stories around the friendly bear in the 1940s to amuse his son. Today the Disney Corporation controls the brand and millions of people around the world enjoy the character.

Earlier this year, Partners in the Park led a public campaign to buy a famed portrait of Pooh from Britain, which is now on display in the Pavilion Gallery. Public interest was high: over a thousand donors, many of them children, chipped in $285,000 for the painting. When it was officially unveiled a few months ago, a Japanese tourist family was on hand. That bodes well given the goodwill associated with Pooh and the ambitious vision Partners has expressed for the project’s future.

With the blessing of Walt Disney Canada, the group plans a campaign to build a $6 million “Poohseum” next to the Pavilion, with the potential for an adjacent “Hundred-Acre Woods” development for children’s entertainment. Its long-term plans will link the cuddly bruin recently designated “friendship” ambassador to the world’s children by the United Nations — to Winnipeg as a centre for international friendship.

Handled properly, this Partners in the Park project will confer myriad benefits on the city, not the least of which will be a long overdue recasting of Winnipeg’s civic image. Working with a global brand, pilgrims and tourists from London, Japan and the United States will discover a pleasant city in the middle of North America, through a reference point framed by such themes as friendship, nature and happy children. The effort will have guaranteed quality assurance since it has the blessing and the involvement of the Disney Corporation, probably the most talented marketing company in the world. It is an enormous opportunity.