Lightning McQueen, Mater And The Rebranding Of An American Icon

The year was 2006. The marketing medium with the biggest budget was direct mail marketing. Playing in theaters was an animated movie from Pixar about a race car who finds himself on what was once a bustling byway of tourists from around the world that is now a desolate, shell of its once former great self.

The movie of course was CARS and the once bustling byway was and still is, the legendary Route 66. Also known as the Mother Road, it runs from Chicago to Santa Monica and is America’s most celebrated automobile highway and a famous symbol of twentieth-century American culture and history. However, the construction of the interstate highways in the middle of the twentieth century bypassed many communities along Route 66, and subsequently numerous towns and cities along the route have faced economic hardship. It was the inevitable blight which was served as the basis for the film.


(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two years later in 2008, World Monuments Fund, the leading independent organization dedicated to saving the world’s most treasured places, added Route 66 to its Watch List — an advocacy program which seeks to bring international attention to the challenges facing cultural heritage sites around the globe. “A brand unto itself”

That phrase was part of an answer from Erica Avrami, director of research and education for WMF when I queried her as to the rationale behind what was it about Route 66 that attracted it to WMF in the first place. “The construction of the interstate highway system in the mid twentieth-century supplanted Route 66 and bypassed many of the towns through which the mother road crossed,” she told me. “This resulted in severe economic hardship in many communities that depended on travelers for their livelihood, as well as a loss of historic sites and cultural experiences.

Yet, Route 66 remains a brand unto itself. National and state level tourism research demonstrates a keen interest in American road trip travel, with Route 66 being the most iconic journey.” She is absolutely right when she says that Route 66 is a brand unto itself which is exactly what piqued my curiosity when I first became aware of the revitalization/rebranding effort of this iconic American brand.

And as I dug deeper into this story I was told of a groundbreaking economic study done in 2012 entitled the Route 66 Economic Impact Study. Conducted by Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey in collaboration with the National Park Service, Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program and World Monuments Fund and funded by American Express — the study shed light on the importance of heritage tourism and historic preservation along Route 66 as a contributor to local, state, and national economies Among the findings:

  • Tourists spend $38 million per year in communities along Route 66
  • Preservation through revitalization programs and museums add some $94 million in annual investments
  • Economic activities directly related to the route add some $127 million annually to the GDP including 2,400 new jobs

For their part, American Express, which for 20 years has partnered with WMF and in 1996 became the the founding sponsor of the World Monuments Fund Watch — there was a definite sense of national pride when it came to funding the study. “Route 66 is an icon of America —  contributing to our national and local identity, and playing an important role in attracting visitors and revitalizing communities,” said Timothy J. McClimon, president of American Express Foundation.

“We have traveled the globe with our customers for more than 160 years, which is why we’re committed to saving and sustaining this special, historic place and ensuring it’s here for future generations to enjoy.”

Life imitating art

Just how much of an impact the movie CARS had on WMF adding Route 66 to its Watch List and the subsequent economic study is not clear. However, Jay Ward, who holds the enviable title of Cars Legacy Guardian at Pixar Animation Studios, says it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. “The story of Route 66 is a large part of the story of CARS (and vice versa), and that connection is real.,” he said. “It’s exciting for us to hear about awareness and revitalization on the Mother Road happening in some small part because of the popularity of CARS the movie.”

The Road Ahead

To leverage the findings of the study, which Avrami describes as “an extremely powerful tool for demonstrating the positive effects generated by heritage tourism and historic preservation along Route 66” — WMF convened a strategic roundtable event entitled “The Road Ahead” to explore the sustainability of the highway as a cultural and recreational venue and an economic engine for the eight states the route passes through.

Held in November, 2013 at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California, not-so-ironically close to Cars Land, the event was a series of panel discussions focused on case studies of Route 66 revitalization, tourism research demonstrating the demand for the Route 66 experience, financing tools used to support projects and infrastructure development, and community-based approaches to engagement and experience-making.

Greeting all attendees to the event was the video below featuring John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and Principal Creative Advisor, Walt Disney Imagineering.

Among those in attendance was Amir Eylon, Vice President of Partnership and Development Services for Brand USA, a public-private organization established to promote international travel to the United States. “As the destination marketing organization for the United States, Brand USA has the opportunity to promote both our country’s most recognizable icons and the hidden gems, like Route 66,” he said. “As visitors explore Route 66, they go beyond the gateways and connect along a unique set of authentic experiences that they can only get here.”

Chris Thompson, President and CEO for Brand USA, reiterated that Route 66 is one part of a much larger story. “Route 66 showcases one of the most diverse cross-sections of the USA—providing the perfect vehicle for us to pursue our mandate of promoting the entirety of the United States and promoting travel beyond the gateways—all of which supports the accomplishment of the president’s goal to bring 100 million visitors to the USA in one year by the year 2021.

All Ages Welcome

One of the topics discussed at the roundtable event was the median age of the Route 66 traveler/visitor, which according to a Rutgers University and State University of New Jersey survey of 4,200 Route 66 visitors from Illinois to California in 2008-2011, is 55. Avrami says the drop-off begins after the baby boomers. “There was a lot of discussion on ways to use technology,” Avrami said, “so they can experience Route 66 in the way young people want to communicate.”

Bill Thomas, a Route 66 preservationist and member of the Atlanta Betterment group estimates that millennials make up a fourth of the Route 66 visitors to the town of Atlanta, Illinois that is — which was held up at the event as one of the success stories along the famed highway. Thanks to a combination of private donations, state and local funding, sales tax revenue in peak travel months rose more than 40 percent from 2008 to 2012, an increase Thomas attributes to Route 66 attractions. atlanta route 66

Next Steps

While a full report from the roundtable event will not be released until the Spring, Avrami shared some highlights of it with me and they include a list of tasks or priorities and on that list is the topic of branding. “One of the issues we discussed was more effective branding of the entire route,” Avrami said. “It’s hindered by the fact each state has its own tourism promotion.” She added that while obstacles do exist, the timing is right to rebrand and revitalize this American icon. “There are many varied and vested interests along the road, which makes collaboration challenging,” she said. “But the data on Route 66 tourism and its economic benefits compel collective action; the moment is ripe.”

Sources: The State Journal-RegisterRoute 66 Economic Impact Study, Forbes


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