Tim Steller: 'Old Pueblo' our essence, not our future

2013-07-14T00:00:00Z Tim Steller: 'Old Pueblo' our essence, not our futureTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 14, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The amazing thing about "Old Pueblo" is that people still use it at all.

Local historians say the name was coined in the last years of the 1800s or the early 1900s. Then in the 1920s, the Tucson Sunshine Climate Club - yes, that was the name of our civic boosters' group - started using Old Pueblo in marketing campaigns.

Today usage has declined, but there are still 93 licensed businesses in Tucson whose name begin with Old Pueblo, city records say. We in the local news media also keep the name alive, usually when we have to write or say "Tucson" twice in the same sentence and use the nickname to avoid repeating.

In the debate that has surrounded the recent call by the Tucson Metro Chamber to move beyond Tucson's Old Pueblo mentality, it's interesting to realize this nickname was a contrivance that caught on. A city's slogan or nickname may mean little or nothing about its economic future, but "Old Pueblo" became authentic and has endured. Its century-long run will end only when Tucsonans stop using it.

We'll see how long the new marketing slogan invented for Tucson lasts - "Free Yourself."

I talked with Rob Weiss on Friday, and I think he captured the local meaning of the old nickname when he explained how he ended up naming his business Old Pueblo Coin.

He moved to Tucson from the East Coast in 1971, still a heyday of "Old Pueblo" usage.

"I totally loved this place, decided to make it my home and never left," Weiss said.

"Thirty, 40, 50 years ago, 'Old Pueblo' was certainly a more common phrase in this town," Weiss said. "I'm sure it's not as prevalent as it used to be, but the feeling is still here."

That feeling, he said, is of the small Western town at the heart of Tucson's million-person population. I'd add it's also the feeling of an American town that embraces its history, including the Mexican and American Indian roots.

"People who have been here for a while understand that, and people who are new to Tucson don't," Weiss said. "That's OK - they don't have to."

Perhaps because of the area's perpetual population growth, fewer and fewer residents know of or use the nickname.

In preparing a marketing and branding strategy for Visit Tucson, the MMGY Global agency interviewed more than 100 local people, and none mentioned the nickname Old Pueblo, said Chris Davidson, executive vice president of the Kansas City-based firm. Neither did it come up in interviews with focus groups in Tucson's feeder cities for visitors - places like Denver, Chicago and Minneapolis.

That confirms that Old Pueblo is not useful for marketing anymore, something marketers have known for decades.

"You're going to want a name to be relevant in the minds of consumers," Davidson said. "We didn't see any evidence of that."

"If you were to talk to people in Las Vegas, the name Sin City would come up quite a bit," he said.

So, while the Old Pueblo nickname may be hanging on, it's not nearly as prominent or useful as, say, The Big Apple.

Anyway, that's not really the argument Mike Varney, the president of the chamber, was making when he and the chamber's chair wrote last month, "The 'Old Pueblo' is great for history buffs, but a new mind-set and attitude toward prosperity is long overdue."

Last week, Varney elaborated on the topic: "I don't care what the motto is, but I don't want a mind-set and attitude about the future that gets us stuck and forces us to resist change."

It's a real issue for a city that ranked among the poorest in the nation last year, and we should thank Varney and others for hammering that point.

But in the end, our destiny doesn't have much to do with a timeworn nickname that has captured a bit of Tucson's essence.

If you think it does, then you should "Free Yourself."

"You're going to want a name to be relevant in the minds of consumers."

Chris Davidson, executive vice president of MMGY Global, marketing strategists for Visit Tucson

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter: @senyorreporter.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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