The Parks

Until recently the San Francisco Bay Area boasted what was arguably America's best-loved, most visited anonymous national park. Some 20 million people visit it each year. Local residents treat it like an extension of their own backyards. But it took a branding program to make people fully appreciate how impressive the Golden Gates National Parks is and clamor for products bearing its name.

The San Francisco Bay Area is host to the world's largest urban park The Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), a 70-mile chain of park sites that runs along the California coastline from Marin County through San Francisco to the northern edge of Silicon Valley. But if you've never heard of it, you wouldn't be alone. Until recently, even most local residents couldn't tell you that it included Alcatraz, Muir Woods, the Presidio, Fort Point, Lands End, and the Marin Headlands, among other famous sites.

In 1996, this fact was not lost on the board of trustees of the Golden Gate National Parks Association (GGNPA), the nonprofit support group for the GGNRA. Its marketing committee includes the likes of advertising guru Rich Silverstein of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and Gap CEO Mickey Drexler. Silverstein recalls how Drexler summed up the identity problem at one meeting: "Mickey says, 'You know, everyone around this table admits that nobody knows what the GGNRA is. We can't even define it ourselves. We can't even put it on a t-shirt.' That was pretty funny considering Mickey's CEO of Gap."

Mulling over Drexler's comment, Silverstein went back to his office and brainstormed with his partner, Jeff Goodby. What quickly became clear to them was the need to find a way to make people care. "People won't give time or money to something they don't understand," Silverstein points out. "If you told people it was a recreation area, they didn't know what that meant. The difficulty was that the GGNRA isn't one national park like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. It's a collection of about 24 park sites. Our first job was to make people in the Bay Area aware of what they had. That meant building a brand identity for the entire park system."

Goodby and Silverstein decided that the vague and cumbersome name "Golden Gate National Recreation Area" didn't work for marketing purposes [although that remains its legal name]. Instead, they suggested renaming it "Golden Gate National Parks."

Next they decided the park needed a brand identity. That is an area in which Goodby, Silverstein & Partners has had extensive expertise, having created many award-winning ads including campaigns for the California Milk Advisory Board ("Got Milk?"), Budweiser ("Lizard"), Polaroid and Nike.

The need to give the park an identity was not news to GGNPA Executive Director Greg Moore, who had been grappling with the problem for years. Moore explains, "The site identities for Alcatraz and Muir Woods were strong, but the collective GGNRA identity was weak. So, we spent a lot of time trying to make that collective identity known by dealing with GGNRA as one overall park. Rich was fundamental in turning our thinking around. As he looked at the problem, he came to the conclusion that if the strength is from the sites, then you have to build the identity from the sites up, not from a false overlay down."

Based on that strategy, the GGNPA marketing committee focused on giving the Golden Gate National Parks a brand image. "We began to treat the park like a product," Silverstein says. "If you think of great images from companies like Polaroid, IBM and FedEx it's no different. We felt that we needed to promote the Parks in the same way."

As assignments go, that was pretty easy, says Silverstein. "We had the best product in the world to work on. It's not hard to have someone be inspired by seeing Alcatraz or Muir Woods. The sites are illustrative, and I wanted each beautiful park to be boiled down to its iconic self."

To do that he was drawn to the graphic style of illustrator Michael Schwab. "Mike has the ability to simplify an idea and make a bold symbolic image," says Silverstein. "His style also pays a little homage to the WPA era, which seemed appropriate for the park."

Explaining his own approach, Schwab adds, "I want someone to be able to read my posters from a block away. I find that paring away information is more dramatic than giving someone too much. When people have too many shapes, words and colors to look at, they look elsewhere."

The GGNPA's initial plan was to raise awareness in San Francisco through a poster campaign that used Schwab's striking images to brand the Golden Gate National Parks. After creating an overall "brand look" in a poster featuring the Golden Gate Bridge, Schwab went on to create a set of five more posters featuring the Parks' most famous sites. Since then, he has developed a total of 16 site-specific images, with more to come. In every case, Schwab says he "wanted to create something very timeless, very American and very romantic."

More than a short-term promotional image, the graphics for each site were intended to be permanent logos. Visuals had to be contemporary but not topical. To preserve a timeless quality, scenes depicting people or any trendy recreational activity were avoided. Arriving at a single image that captured the essence of each site has sometimes been an arduous process. "Rich and the Parks people have offered ideas on the subject and guidance on what's appro-priate and what's not," Schwab says. At the same time, he adds, "Creatively, they have made me feel like I could just fly. As most creative people know, if you have freedom and people trust you, that is when you do your best work."

The effort paid off and then some. The graphic images were an instant success when they were premiered in bus shelter postings donated by the Gap. San Franciscans loved them. Unfortunately, some people liked the posters so much that they even vandalized bus shelters to steal them. Further phone calls from people wanting to buy the posters confirmed the GGNPA's goal of developing a line of identity branded products to raise money for the Golden Gate National Parks.

For years, the GGNPA had operated both retail and publishing programs to develop and sell park-related merchandise, maps and books at Parks' visitor centers. More recently, it has operated stores at San Francisco's Pier 39 and Embarcadero Center shopping complexes and has established a wholesale program to market products to other retailers.

Clover Earl in charge of GGNPA's retail program explains, "We have a dual mission to generate revenue and provide interpretative and educational information to the public." In addition to park-branded products, GGNPA's merchandise line includes original park-themed products such as the soon-to-be introduced children's blocks that stack into the shape of a redwood tree and an Alcatraz 2000 calendar featuring the penitentiary era. All of the merchandise includes interpretative information about the Parks.

The rollout of Parks-identity products in 1997 had an immediate and significant impact on retail sales. "When we opened our Embarcadero Center store, people expressed excitement over having a place to get their hands on this merchandise," says Earl. Not just a contrived means to garner donations to the Parks, these products had merit as objects that people local residents and tourists alike wanted to own. "People understand the difference between high-quality and low-quality items. It's important to put your best foot forward to get people to take notice and have faith in who we are as an organization," Earl explains.

That faith was affirmed by a boost in GGNPA membership. "Once people understand what it's about, they have shown overwhelming interest in becoming a member of the Association," says Earl. "We've signed up hundreds of people.".

Through retail sales, membership dues, corporate gifts and donations, the GGNPA has raised close to $30 million since it was founded in 1981 nearly $4.9 million in 1998 alone. The money has been put back into special projects and programs for the Golden Gate National Parks, including a $25-million shoreline restoration effort underway at the Presidio's historic Crissy Field, the building of a new visitors center at Muir Woods, and a shoreline access trail on Alcatraz. "At this point, we've completed 30 Parks projects of various sizes," says Moore. Working with the National Park Service, the nonprofit association also oversees the Parks' native plant nursery program, scientific and historical research about the Parks' resources, preservation projects and volunteer conservation programs, among other good deeds..

Moore acknowledges that part of GGNPA's marketing success is due to its location in one of the nation's largest metropolitan areas. This has given it the ability to draw on top-caliber local talent who feel a personal and civic commitment to sustaining the Parks. For instance, Silverstein, who heads one of the nation's leading ad agencies, donated his time as creative director for the Parks' identity program. Schwab, a much sought after illustrator, developed the poster images at a significantly reduced fee. Countless other leading firms and individuals also have contributed their expertise and services. All of this would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars if charged at regular rates.

Although many nonprofits have tried to follow GGNPA's lead, attracting the same professional support often proves difficult. Moore says gratefully, "We have a board of trustees that is really charged up. I think part of the reason for their commitment is that where we can, we allow them to take their professional passion and utilize it in a public service capacity."

Another reason, Silverstein adds, is that GGNPA looks for people who feel passionate about the cause. "If you're doing it for a job or because you think you'd like to just do a little pro bono project, it's not going to work," he says. "You have to love it. I ride my bicycle through the park everyday. This is my way of giving something back and contributing to the legacy of saving and making the Parks better.".

In lending their skills and talent to a cause, top professionals also feel that a finished product for which they can feel proud is its own reward. "The detail and quality that GGNPA demands on everything is represented in the symbols we're doing," says Silverstein. "You don't see that attention to detail in public service or nonprofits very often."

Schwab adds, "Most creative people in the commercial arts world are willing to donate their time and services to a good cause. In lieu of money, creative freedom is very valuable. So is the commitment to create a project with an aura of integrity and prestige.".

For his part, Moore feels it is important for nonprofits to show an openness to what a professional can bring. "With that openness comes a little bit of willingness to let go," he says. "Let everyone enjoy using their creative talents toward your cause. If you remain open, they may come up with something you may have never dreamed of, and that's probably what makes it right for you."