While there are many examples of cities around the world that have attempted to transform their image through city branding, perhaps the most impressive and remarkable has been Las Vegas, a city in Nevada in the United States. In order to understand both the need for the transformation and the nature of that transformation, one must first understand what Las Vegas was. Las Vegas was founded by people who were associated with the famous mob families of the American East Coast. What this means, then, is that Las Vegas was originally a place where corruption and organized crime reined supreme. Many people can remember the idea of Las Vegas as a place where mobsters buried their opponents or enemies in the desert. As Las Vegas became more corporate-owned, the city attempted a re-branding campaign. It wanted to appear to be a place where all people could come to have fun (Kavaratzis & Ashworth, 2005). With that in mind, the city went with the “What Happens in Vegas…” branding slogan. From there, the city’s reputation has improved, its image has transformed, and popular culture has helped to re-enforce the ideas that the city planners put out there.
The “What Happens in Vegas” campaign was a full-on marketing campaign. The city went at it with a number of different marketing approaches (Lim, Chung, & Weaver, 2012). For one, they used traditional marketing, including mailers and television advertisements (Hudson & Ritchie, 2009) . The ads were meant to show that no matter what a person does in Las Vegas, the news of their activity would stay in Vegas. This appealed to many different kinds of travelers. Gambling and decadence is what Las Vegas is all about, and for most people, this is not what their normal lives include or celebrate. Some might live modest lives surrounded by a family or otherwise modest means. Las Vegas, then, was branding itself as an escape for these people. It was a place where they could come in order to get away from their normal lives and do some things that might be questionable where they come from.

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Likewise, there is a risqué quality to this branding. In addition to suggesting to the average dad that he can come to Vegas and play roulette without anyone finding out about it, this branding campaign was a suggestion that Vegas is the kind of place where people can get really rowdy if that is what they are looking for. Las Vegas advertises its gambling, its shows, shopping, and food, but it does not advertise some of the other things that most people think about when they think about Las Vegas. It is a city where many people overdrink and many take drugs. It is also a city where prostitution reigns supreme. Prostitution is the great taboo in American culture, but just outside the city limits of Las Vegas, one can visit one of the few legal brothels in the United States (Brents & Hausbeck, 2007). Likewise, Las Vegas hotels have plenty of illegal sex options for people who want to take the risk and go that route. This branding campaign was a way of suggesting to these people that Las Vegas can offer the type of fun that they are looking for. All of this is said discretely, of course. Just as the advertisement’s message suggests that Las Vegas overall is discrete, the ad campaign also suggests its message in a very subtle way.

Popular media has picked up on this, and “What Happens in Vegas…” has become more than just a city-branded slogan. A popular movie starring Cameron Diaz actually had the same name, and it was about a couple that went to Las Vegas, met one another, and got married within the course of a few minutes. “The Hangover” also seized on these themes, playing into the “What Happens…” mindset with its entire storyline. Vegas, it seems, has become a code word for fun and debauchery, and it is something that is universally recognized as a place to go for bachelor parties and the like.

There are, of course, some negatives to this kind of branding. It makes Las Vegas a more difficult sell for families. In the 1980s, Las Vegas tried to attract families by building themed resorts like The Excalibur. Today, though, families understand that this is mostly a place for adults. If the city needs to go back to the old mode of marketing, they may have some difficulty, but that is a part of the sacrifice that one makes when going with this kind of specific re-branding. Overall, the branding appears to have been successful for Las Vegas. While some people may still associate Las Vegas with the mafia from a historical perspective, most understand that things have changed. It is now a safe place run by legitimate people, and more than that, it provides legitimate opportunities for rare fun for people who will take advantage of it.

Overall, the Las Vegas branding campaign has featured many of the fundamental elements of city branding. It has sought to re-image the city after the city went through a period that would not be good for its current image. It has used multiple channels, including new media, traditional media, and the like. It has even leveraged the popularity of the branding campaign with popular culture, which has helped to re-inforce the image of Las Vegas as a fun place to spend a week for a person who is looking to have a great time. “What Happens in Vegas…” has been a major success and can serve as a model for how other cities should operate in this regard.

  • Brents, B. G., & Hausbeck, K. (2007). Marketing sex: US legal brothels and late capitalist consumption. Sexualities, 10(4), 425-439.
  • Hudson, S., & Ritchie, J. R. (2009). Branding a memorable destination experience. The case of ‘Brand Canada’. International Journal of Tourism Research, 11(2), 217-228.
  • Kavaratzis, M., & Ashworth, G. J. (2005). City branding: an effective assertion of identity or a transitory marketing trick?. Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie, 96(5), 506-514.
  • Lim, Y., Chung, Y., & Weaver, P. A. (2012). The impact of social media on destination branding Consumer-generated videos versus destination marketer-generated videos. Journal of Vacation Marketing, 18(3), 197-206.