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Pioneer Valley or West Mass? Regional rebranding is fraught

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FILE - In this May 31, 2002, file photo, children from a local elementary school, dressed as the character Cat in the Hat, perform songs next to a newly installed sculpture of Dr. Seuss characters, Thing 1 and Thing 2, during a memorial dedication in author Theodore Geisel's hometown of Springfield, Mass. Tourism and economic development officials in February 2017 re-branded the western Massachusetts region known as the "Pioneer Valley," which includes Springfield and generally covers the Massachusetts portion of the Connecticut River Valley, as "West Mass." (AP Photo/Nancy Palmieri, File)

BOSTON (AP) — A new nickname for the river valley in western Massachusetts isn't sitting well with some residents.

Tourism and economic development officials have rebranded "Pioneer Valley" as "West Mass." They argue the region's old moniker, which originated in the early 20th century, is outdated and confusing.

Pioneer Valley generally refers to the Massachusetts portion of the Connecticut River Valley. It includes Springfield, New England's fourth largest city, and the college towns of Amherst and Northampton. The Berkshires, the state's mountainous western edge bordering New York, isn't part of the region.

"You hear the word 'pioneer' and it conjures up images of the Wild West and covered wagons," said Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, which helped pay for the rebranding. "Our research showed people had absolutely no recognition of the name. If anything, they thought we were located out West, like Nevada or Utah."

An online petition calling on officials to keep the old name was launched after the new name was unveiled in February.

"If they really thought this was going to be a game changer, then they fell flat on the execution," said Dylan Pilon, a Springfield resident who started the petition, which showed online that it had attracted more than 1,000 signatures by Saturday.

The debate is the latest reminder that rebranding can often be a fraught exercise for communities.

"Cool Britannia," an attempt to rebrand Great Britain in the 1990s, may not have won over all its detractors but seemed to hit the right note just as London was coming into its own in the 2000s as a dynamic and modern city, said Ian Cross, a marketing professor at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Closer to home, Rhode Island quickly scuttled its "Cooler & Warmer" slogan and the state's chief marketing officer resigned last year after the $5 million campaign was widely panned and promotional videos mistakenly included a scene shot in Reykjavik, Iceland.

The uproar over "West Mass" hasn't reached "Rhode ICEland" levels. But as in the Rhode Island promotion, there's a disputed video . Unveiled as part of the rebranding, the segment has been criticized for its liberal use of snippets of Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan at his 2009 Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Springfield.

Tourism officials stress the video, developed by a local firm, wasn't envisioned for use beyond an initial launch event.

"The bigger issue is that they don't seem to have a clear idea as to what the purpose of the rebrand is," said Anjali Bal, a marketing professor at Babson College. "If the purpose is to find an easier name for people to remember, then 'West Mass' is easier, but less distinctive and less differentiated. The Pioneer Valley has a play on the 'pioneer,' which is clearly connected to the origins of Massachusetts."

Opponents also have criticized local officials for hiring an out-of-state firm to develop the $80,000 campaign.

Wydra said officials received 23 proposals, of which seven were from area agencies. They picked Cubic Creative because the Tulsa, Oklahoma, firm has done similar work for several communities, including Vail, Colorado; Iowa City, Iowa; and Tupelo, Mississippi.

"We know we have great, creative local talent," she said. "Sometimes, you need an outsider looking in and telling you about all the great things you have that sometimes an insider takes for granted."


Follow Philip Marcelo at twitter.com/philmarcelo. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/philip-marcelo