Friday, July 13, 2007

Branding Saipan... er, the CNMI... um, the Commonwealth

Here's my column from today's Saipan Tribune


Every time I travel and meet new people, I’m at a loss when they ask “Where do you live?” I can’t quite figure out what to call this place, nor where we are. It seems to be a common problem. At the last general membership meeting of the Marianas Visitor’s Authority, the ad hoc committee on branding acknowledged the difficulty in naming ourselves, and thus branding ourselves.

Officially, we’re the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands. That’s a mouthful. And if you try to abbreviate it, “CNMI”, that doesn’t really mean anything to anyone who isn’t from Micronesia.

So, I propose it’s time for a name change. Name changes can be painful. I went through one myself. I grew up in a coal-mining town in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky. There, before the era of “political correctness,” no one wanted to make the effort to learn the name of some foreign kid, so in the first grade the principal called the immigrant family into his office and told us that my name, the one my parents had given me when I was born, “just wouldn’t do in these parts. Pick another.” David is the name I picked. As it turns out, in America, “David” is a much more marketable name than the one I was born with.

Our group of islands, what is commonly now known as the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, ought to be known either as “The Mariana Islands” or “Saipan.” And we need to boldly state that we’re located in the “South Pacific.”

Here is my reasoning.

For option A – Mariana Islands – it’s part of our current official name. The word “Commonwealth” doesn’t really add anything to our brand identity. It’s a political designation, but a confusing one. Guam doesn’t market themselves as the “Territory of Guam,” California doesn’t call itself the “State of California,” and members of other commonwealths, like the “Commonwealth of Kentucky” or the “Commonwealth of Virgina” don’t include that in their designation. With branding, the shorter the better.

I also suggest that it’s time to drop “Northern” from our name. Where are the “Southern” Mariana Islands? Is that Guam? Is that how we define ourselves – the place north of Guam?

I don’t think that the word “North” has any role in the name of a tropical island. When people want to know where we are, I say, the “South Pacific.” I am well aware that we are north of the equator, but the equator isn’t the only frame of reference. Alabama is also north of the equator, but it’s in the “South,” even the “deep South.” Most of our tourists and business partners hail from regions north of us. The North Pacific sounds like a cold, even inhospitable place -- maybe somewhere up around Alaska or Vladivostok. Say “South Pacific” and people think palm trees, warm breezes, sandy shores and swaying hips. That’s us! If I’m talking to a cartographer, I’ll say “just north of the equator.” The South Pacific is a concept and we’re conceptually in the South Pacific.

Now someone is sure to squawk that Guam is part of the Mariana Islands also, so we can’t usurp the name for ourselves. Sure we can. Guam doesn’t need the name. And there is precedence. A few years ago, what used to be known as “Western Samoa” changed its name to “Samoa,” much to the chagrin of the people who live on “American Samoa.” The implication is that Western Samoa is the real Samoa. I think the same can be said for us in relation to the Mariana Islands. If someone asks, “Isn’t Guam part of the Mariana Islands too?” we simply say, “They’re the Southern Marianas, we’re the Marianas.” They’ll live.

There is of course, also, option B – change the name of the island chain to “Saipan.” Or the “Saipan Islands.” Think of Hawaii. The archipelago is called Hawaii (or the Hawaiian Islands), and each island has its own name, including one of the islands which is known also as Hawaii (or more commonly as “The Big Island”). The same would work well here. There are two disadvantages to the “Saipan” designation. First, for some reason people think Saipan sound’s Asian, maybe because it sounds a bit like Taipan or Taipei or Sampan, and so they think we’re part of the continent of Asia. So that may not be the best idea. Why change one confusing name into another confusing name. Also, it might be better for us to go by Mariana Islands, and just ruffle the feathers of the folks in Guam, rather than go by Saipan and upset the people in Tinian and Rota and the Northern Islands.

I’m from the Mariana Islands. It’s in the South Pacific. I live on the island of Saipan. I just wish it were official.


dave said...

As a former resident I can assure you that the folks from Saipan do NOT want to be associated with Guam ... ask around and you'll find out why.

Saipan is in the WESTERN Pacific.

I always said I was from Saipan - about 12o miles from Guam. That always seemed to work.

Deece said...

I've thought for a long time that we could use some branding. Great column.

And you've been tagged. Check out my July 13 post.

Bruce A. Bateman said...

Great column, David. If we would only break away from the false hopes that political alliance (colinization) with the USA offers and become an independant nation, your renaming would be all the more valuable.

Mona said...

Great post. Why do we need lobbyists when all we need is a great marketing strategy, particularly one that does not involve horned pandas.

Sean said...


Excellent column. A good common-sense suggestion! Regardless of what the powers-that-be decide, I'm adopting The Marianas Islands from here on out.

Jeff said...

Makes a lot of sense doc.

The Saipan Blogger アンジェロ・ビラゴメズ said...

I prefer:

Las Islas Jedi

scubatripp said...

Nice Job David.
I've tried the "just North of Guam" thing and it rarely works. South of Japan seems to be just as effective or not effective but there again at least you feel warm.

Thinking competition with other dive destinations in this part of the world and I always get people thinking I work on Sipidan (North Eastern Coast of Borneo Malaysia). This quote is taken of a Sipidan Website.

One of the best dive spots in the world !!
Green and Hawksbill turtles are regular inhabitants of the island, coming ashore in season to lay their eggs on the pristine beaches of Sipadan

Any thoughts on the Play Enjoy Relax slogan?


Marianas Eye said...

Thanks, Mike.

Any slogan has to be memorable, unique and descriptive. The concepts are there, but I can't remember the slogan. The Hyatt hotels have a similar three word slogan that I also can't remember.

There has been a lot written about marketing and branding. Ultimately, business is all about comparisons. We have to be able to clearly define what we stand for and what sets us apart. What is our USP - unique selling point? There has to be some direct reference to water, warmth, paradise. Plenty of places like that in the world -- so that leaves cultures, history, the people. Visitors always comment on how friendly the people are. I'd like something like, "The Mariana Islands -- Meet the People of Paradise." Or "Where Asia Meets Paradise."

What do you think?

Anonymous [#2708] said...

As noted above, Saipan is in the Western Pacific. Hundreds of thousands of Navy men know about WestPac.

To the geographically challenged, I mention that we're at the same latitude as the Philippines, the same longitude as Japan and New Guinea, about 120 miles north of Guam.

Some day this century we will be admitted to the Union as a state with Guam as part of "Islas Marianas", with U.S. postal code "IM".