Lou Thompson can still remember the first ads he wrote for Santa Fe some 50 years ago—and he'll never forget the death threats he got the day he stopped writing them.

Thompson was the first advertiser to promote the brand called Santa Fe to the world. "We didn't call it branding, though," he scoffs. "That's some new age name somebody thought up."

Among Thompson's earliest taglines were: You can drop Santa Fe into a London-Paris-Rome conversation and you will not be asked to leave the room, and, Only one person per square mile, and already we're getting boom jitters.

This second one wasn't too far from the truth. After several successful years of Thompson's work, tourism in Santa Fe had grown tenfold. Thompson then approached officials with an outrageous proposal: Lay low. Stop advertising and donate the annual revenues—which topped $500,000—to The Old Santa Fe Association, where it would be used to preserve the city's architecture and heritage.

Needless to say, Thompson never wrote another ad for Santa Fe. But his proposal wasn't exactly ignored by the city's many tourism-dependent waiters, clerks and shop owners. By the time he'd walked back to his office that day, his secretary was in tears.

"I asked her what was wrong," Thompson says. "She said, 'There have been threats on your life!'"

Decades later, the City Different is a decidedly different city, but Thompson is still here and so is the contentious debate over who owns and controls "the brand." At times, it seems as if Santa Fe's current 1,800 people per square mile are caught in a temporal tug-of-war—half of them eager to embrace a modern city with a larger airport, a high-speed train and a spacious conference center; half of them desperate to hold on to a past when less was more.

The man caught in the middle is Keith Toler, executive director of the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau. An affable smile at the ready and a head of thick brown hair parted at the side, Toler is today's Thompson—a conflicted ad man simultaneously driven to promote and drawn to preserve the identity of Santa Fe. His first test—the city's tagline.

"My first thought when I heard 'The City Different,' was, 'Oh, we need to change that,'" Toler recalls, laughing. "Then you find out the phrase has been around since 1912…" Since then, the tagline's disordered charm has grown on him.
Of course, as Toler understands, a tagline does not define a city.  In recent years, the practice of branding places has gathered momentum all over the world, from New Jersey to Jordan. In many cases, branders are hired to cover up something negative.

In the face of constant strife in the Middle East, the Brand Israel Group focuses its efforts on "downplaying religion and avoiding any discussion of the conflict with the Palestinians," according to the Jewish Daily Forward. In New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, branders spent millions to promote the city's party atmosphere, despite rampant crime and chronic civic problems. ("New Orleans is Open. To Just About Anything.")
Elsewhere, branding efforts just seem designed to rack up advertising bills. Branders suggested changing the name of Galveston, Texas, to "The City of Galveston Island" and embracing Talk Like a Pirate Day. The cost: $76,000. Rebranded twice in recent years, Seattle has evolved from See@L to Metronatural, molting several hundred thousand dollars in taxpayers money along the way.

In light of the galaxy of regional icons at his fingertips, it's a credit to Toler's judgment that he hasn't attempted to leverage Route 66, the Old Santa Fe Trail, aliens or any of the other recognizable brands that advertisers typically trot out to evoke the region. Instead, Toler's campaign—promoted in places like San Diego, Dallas and New York—contrasts Santa Fe's past and present. "We want to hold on to the Old West," Toler says, "but show people that it has evolved." Beyond changing how tourists see the city from the outside, Toler is attempting to modernize how younger tourists engage Santa Fe.

Mayor David Coss says it was this balance of judgment and style that appealed to him when he hired Toler last year.
"Branding can lean toward exploitation instead of celebration," Coss says. "It has been a repeated issue for us over the years."

Indeed, previous city leaders have struggled to define the difference between exploiting and celebrating Santa Fe. In years past, former Mayor Sam Pick was known for shilling Santa Fe cologne and mixing margaritas on Live with Regis and Kathy Lee. Despite declaring, "This town is not for sale. It belongs to the community," Pick's replacement, Debbie Jaramillo, had to drop her own national branding initiative—Mi Casa Es Su Casa—when prospecting out-of-towners drove up real estate prices, inspiring locals to interpret the phrase as "My house is your house because I can't afford it."

Having seen it all over the years, Thompson, Santa Fe's original advertiser, believes the branding of Santa Fe need not be as complicated or contentious as we let it be at times. "The best thing that could happen to Santa Fe," he says, "is for people to go on discovering it as if they were discovering it on their own."

A community united by its appreciation for diverse perspectives? Perhaps we're already there. It might not provide for a concisely marketable brand, but it has managed to keep the city different.

Lucas Conley is the author of OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder, out this month.