My City's Brand On Crack: Facing Up To The Face Of Toronto

A Toronto resident dives into the Rob Ford crack-smoking fiasco looking for a way to fix a battered brand.

Many successful brands have a “face” they employ to represent them to the public, a face that could belong to any one of a number of diverse personalities, such as Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Richard Branson (Virgin) or The Most Interesting Man in the World (Dos Equis). As a matter of fact, the face of a popular and profitable brand can even belong to a clown, a rodent, or a legume. But, as in everything in life, there are some choices that perhaps should not be made in this regard.

For example, a crack-smoking maniac who’s threatening first-degree murder on camera.

For those of you who have been living under a rock (or, at the very least, shunning the internet and all TV news), the current mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, has admitted to smoking crack. More recently, he was caught on video threatening to murder some unidentified target. Municipal life hasn’t been this exciting since 1990, when Marion Barry, then-mayor of Washington D.C., was arrested on crack cocaine charges.

Lucky me, I make my home in the Toronto area—and only a month ago, I was allowed to feel a swell of pride in the fact that my city’s “brand” entered the Top Ten of all the world’s metropolises. Okay, Paris and London still have the edge on us, but we surged past Melbourne and Vienna to achieve this elite standing.

Now, however, I can’t help but think that our less-than-trustworthy mayor has tarnished that newfound shine. Even though he had a viable excuse for being caught smoking crack (his explanation was that he was in a “drunken stupor”) and even though his family insists he’s not an addict (his sister did admit that when he drinks, he goes “full tilt”), how will Toronto’s image fare as Ford continues to make international headlines due to his talent for acting like a thuggish buffoon?

And what of America, which has traditionally done everything in its power to ignore its neighbor to the north? That ship has definitely sailed, as their hugest comedy stars are tripping all over themselves making fun of this unpleasant situation that, to be honest, generates enough unfortunate humor all on its own. What a way to finally penetrate the consciousness of the USA!

I’m not alone in my concern; Gabor Forgacs, professor at the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University, says of the ever-growing scandal’s effect on Toronto, "It weakens the brand, it distorts it, and it gives us media [coverage] all over the world that is undesirable.” He added that this kind of negative publicity creates a situation in which "what you're known for is not how you’d like to be seen."

And yet…

Even though Rob Ford will most likely continue to say and do the most incredibly outrageous things, Toronto voters are ready and willing, should the mayor successfully undergo rehab, to return this man to office in 2014, when his term is up. Sounds unlikely? Well, it’s not - as his fellow crackhead mayor, the aforementioned Marion Berry demonstrated. He was returned to office by citizens of Washington D.C. after he served his prison time.

But perhaps all is not lost. Nicolas Papadopoulos, who teaches marketing and international business at the Eric Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, believes that mayors generally don’t impact a city’s reputation, unless they create positive change. "This is not typical Toronto behavior…It would not come anywhere near to symbolizing Toronto the way that some of the landmarks or achievements of the city symbolize it."

He has a point. The fact of the matter is that while corporate icons such as Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald serve as eternal mascots, Rob Ford and any other elected official is simply a temporary caretaker. Perhaps we can simply trust that the “product,” which is Toronto in this case, is good enough to survive this kind of temporary firestorm. After all, this controversy is more about one man’s personal problems rather than any failures of our fair city itself – except, perhaps, when it comes to the judgment of its voters.

However, on that point, America, you may be pointing your finger at Toronto, but, as we used to say on the playground, there are four more pointing back at you. Remember the president you (almost?) elected before Obama? Remember how he endeared himself to the rest of the world? Despite all his past misdeeds, Rob Ford still hasn’t attempted an unjustified foreign invasion.

But if he hits the crack pipe again, watch out.

[Image: Flickr user Alison Postma]

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