Multimillion-dollar campaign touts the city’s history, beauty
In order to change the negative narrative about San Francisco and attract more businesses, a group of local business leaders and billionaires is launching a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to repair the city’s image.
The “It Starts Here” campaign, which will feature iconic Bay Area companies such as Levi Strauss & Co., Apple Inc., and Pixar, will blanket the city with billboards, video, and storefront posters in advance of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in early November.
The campaign, spearheaded by business group Advance SF and supported by local corporate leaders such as Ripple co-founder Chris Larsen and Gap Inc. board member Bob Fisher, is intended to inspire entrepreneurs to start businesses in the city while also reminding residents – and the rest of the world – why San Francisco is special in the first place.
The fact that San Francisco has to promote its entrepreneurial history is an unusual position for a city that has long relied on its natural beauty and dominance in the technology industry to attract people and businesses. However, since the pandemic, it has faced population loss, company departures, record commercial vacancy rates, and a reputation for crime that has made headlines around the world.
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It is “imperative” for the city’s cultural and business leaders “to come together and begin reinforcing a story that a lot of people understand about San Francisco, but has been lost in the discussion,” said Larry Baer, CEO of the San Francisco Giants and co-chair of Advance SF.
The two-minute video, which begins with a shot of San Francisco’s infamous fog, is a love letter to the city’s history of innovation, from street cars and the juke box to brands like Gap, Waymo, and OpenAI. Other aspects of the campaign will highlight some of the Bay Area’s educational assets, such as Stanford University and the University of California Berkeley, as well as, in a playful nod, Monsters University, a reference to the 2001 film Monsters, Inc.
“I wrote this as a welcome mat for the future,” said Rich Silverstein, a 50-year-resident and founder of the advertising firm Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which created the campaign. “We’re ready for business.” “Go for it.”
San Francisco, and particularly its elected officials, haven’t had to pursue companies in years, according to Fisher, a Gap board member and campaign supporter. In comparison, the mayor of Miami is leading the charge to bring venture capital and startups to Florida.
“The city has long had the benefit of not needing to talk much about itself,” Fisher, who has lived in San Francisco for six generations, said. “Over the last year the drumbeat of negative press just got to a point where I got to a personal breaking point.”
Nonetheless, an image campaign will not be able to mask the city’s problems, which include a fentanyl epidemic and a lack of affordable housing. Salesforce Inc. founder Marc Benioff threatened to pull the company’s Dreamforce conference from the city in September due to safety and homelessness concerns. He eventually persuaded the city to clean up its act in advance of the gathering, much like San Francisco is doing now in preparation for APEC.
The advertisement also fails to address some of the challenges of doing business in the city, such as its high tax structure. According to a report released this year by the San Francisco Controller’s Office, a hypothetical tech company with $30 billion in sales and 10,000 local employees would pay at least 20 times more in San Francisco than in other Bay Area locations, with the exception of Oakland.
“I don’t think we’re looking for things to be sugar-coated,” Fisher said, recognizing the city’s challenges. Nonetheless, he and many other business leaders believe the narrative has become exaggerated and must be challenged before tales of San Francisco’s demise become self-fulfilling.
“There’s a lot of people who want San Francisco to win,” that’s what he said. “Forget the doom loop, it’s the boom loop.”