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On world stage, Chicago is a big unknown

Chicago Tribune, April 27, 2007

By Alex Rodriguez and Kathy Bergen

BEIJING _ While America thinks of Chicago as Daley and Ditka and home of the blues, much of the world draws a blank, not unlike the puzzled wince Beijing's Sun Chen makes as he tries to summon up his image of the Windy City.

"Famous for being the automobile city, right?" he offers, before adding his best guess for where Chicago is. "It's in the western district."

Sun can be forgiven for his dearth of knowledge. The 25-year-old gangly Chinese schoolteacher lives in a capital and culture 6,600 miles away from the Magnificent Mile.

Still, his misperceptions give organizers of Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics an idea of the baseline as they begin marketing Chicago's identity to a world relatively unfamiliar with America's third-largest city.

"Chicago has a good story to tell, but we're not in the same league as (rivals) Tokyo or Madrid in terms of recognition and understanding of what we have," said Irving Rein, a Northwestern University professor and co-author of "The Elusive Fan: Reinventing Sports in a Crowded Marketplace."

To familiarize the world with Chicago, former U.S. Commerce Secretary William Daley, brother to Mayor Richard Daley, will put on a full-court press to enlist chief executives and other senior managers from top Midwestern companies to tell Chicago's story as they travel the world on business.

"There are 100 Fortune 500 companies in the Midwest and we'll drag them in, not only as sponsors ... but in ambassador roles," said Daley, who is heading international-relations efforts for Chicago 2016. "We need to throw a really wide net."

"Whether it's McDonald's, Abbott, ADM or Corn Products (International), there is a whole host of major companies with businesses all over the world," Daley, Midwest chairman of JPMorgan Chase & Co., said in an interview last week. "And there are financial-services firms, and private equity, like Ken Griffin (of Citadel Investment Group), who can be enormous ambassadors."

Helping to craft the message will be World Business Chicago, which has spent the last six or seven years developing a new brand positioning for the city, which has been saddled for years with images of gangster Al Capone and industrial grit. The organization has not yet unveiled the message, said Paul O'Connor, executive director of the economic development agency. But the goal is to meld the descriptive, "with the emotional," around the idea that Chicago inspires.

Chicago "is an inspiring place because of what it's done in the past and what will drive it in the future, an intangible sense of destiny, building the world's greatest city," O'Connor said, "and the narrative proof is in the architecture, the transportation system, the diversified economy, our immigrants, our cultural tolerance."

"We've shared our work with the 2016 people," he said. "It's just-in-time delivery, in a way." Chicago 2016's tagline, "Stir the Soul," is one expression of the new message, he added.

Not every Summer Olympics host has been well-known worldwide. Atlanta in 1996 and Barcelona in 1992 are prime examples. But some observers argue the Olympic movement is now more apt to lean toward a city with worldwide branding, a global household name.

In addition to Madrid and Tokyo, Chicago likely will compete with Rome, Rio de Janeiro and Prague. Beijing will host 2008 and London 2012.

"The days of secondary cities hosting the Summer Olympic Games are gone," said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based expert in sports facility development.

The Chicago 2016 bid team doesn't need every world citizen's vote _ just the majority of the 111 members of the International Olympic Committee who will select the host in 2009.

"It's a pretty small group of people the city has to persuade, and the IOC members are a sophisticated group of people ... mostly pretty prominent business people and government leaders," said Jim Andrews, senior vice president of IEG LLC, a publisher of sponsorship information.

A U.S. Olympic Committee poll of IOC members and international sports leaders early last year indicated Chicago had the best chance of five U.S. cities then in the running for the domestic nod, including Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Still, there is much to do.

"We're not a New York known in the world, but we're not quite as backward a city as some people think," said Daley.

Research performed last year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs suggests that, at least in China, there's a distinct lack of knowledge among executives about Chicago and what the city has to offer.

The council surveyed 200 Chinese executives whose work involves foreign investment decisions and whose companies either have operations in the U.S. or are considering opening offices in America.

While most of the executives had heard of Chicago, less than one-third knew that the city is home to one of the world's busiest airports. The executives also regarded Chicago as less beautiful and culturally rich than New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles.

The executives' remarks about the city were also revealing. "I've heard about the Chicago Bulls team and Michael Jordan," said one respondent. Otherwise, "I don't have a special impression about it."

Chicago 2016 Chairman Patrick Ryan and members of his bid team were in Beijing last week, meeting with key figures from the IOC and other international sports federations, and one of their goals was to raise Chicago's visibility and "go beyond the cliche," said Robert Fasulo, international relations director for the United States Olympic Committee.

"There's a great recognizability of the name, Chicago," Fasulo said. "But you have to be able to delve a little bit deeper than that."

Ryan isn't necessarily convinced Chicago has an identity crisis as it begins to convince the world it's the right city and the right plan for 2016. But he adds that global familiarity with the Windy City indeed needs to be broadened.

"Among the IOC members, the depth of knowledge of Chicago would be much greater than the general public awareness," Ryan said. "There are a lot of business people who are IOC members ... There are Olympians who performed in sport and have been in Chicago.

"So the awareness of Chicago is broader, but we have to expand a lot on that. We understand that Chicago is not nearly as well-known as it needs to be."

Ganis believes the problem runs deeper than a worldwide lack of familiarity with Chicago. Mention Chicago in many parts of the world, and the only images conjured up are outdated ones _ of Al Capone or a cityscape of factories and soot. "There needs to be a game plan," Ganis said, "a script for the next 2 { years to market and promote Chicago to the international community."

Many foreign rivals have the full weight of the national government behind their bids, which is not the case in the U.S., Northwestern's Rein noted.

"Chicago has got to show some heft, some broad shoulders," he said. "It needs more than just the city's appeal."