Gold Star Chili campaigns for Chilitown USA

Gold Star Chili’s hometown of Cincinnati may be known as “the Queen City,” but the 95-unit chain has spent most of the year lobbying for a new designation: Chilitown USA.

The multifaceted effort includes an online petition to the mayor and city council of Cincinnati hosted at the www.chilitownusa.com microsite, a “Cincinnati Chili Chat” blog and a “nondenominational” Facebook fan page imploring fans of Cincinnati-style chili everywhere to get involved on behalf of the city’s chili scene.

Gold Star acknowledges that the Chilitown USA campaign, which is meant to call attention to any restaurant that sells Cincinnati-style chili, potentially could lift all boats, said director of marketing Charlie Howard. Yet even if competitors like the Skyline Chili and Dixie Chili chains or independents like Camp Washington Chili benefit from the campaign, Gold Star tries to stand out by implying through the campaign’s messaging that it understands best what makes Cincinnatians love their signature item.

“Being an advocate for the Cincinnati chili category is something that nobody can disagree with,” Howard said. “The thought there was, maybe we’re gaining some market share or some trial, because there are people in town who grew up on one brand and never actually tasted the other. We hope they’ll say, ‘Those Gold Star people understand how I feel, so maybe I’ll give them a try.’ So it raises all boats, but maybe it’ll raise ours a little higher.”

Howard said social media was the clear way to go with the Chilitown USA program because the argument over which restaurant has the best Cincinnati-style chili rages on constantly, especially between Gold Star and its larger competitor Skyline.

“If you go on either brand’s website, you can see the chatter all the time,” Howard said. “But the whole nature of this dynamic is that, while we might not agree on preference, we all agree here in Cincinnati that chili is one of the things that defines us. With the community that’s online and on social media, there’s an opportunity to keep it going long term.

Gold Star also is using traditional media to bolster the Chilitown USA campaign, such as using the Chilitown USA term in its latest commercials along with billboards and other out-of-home materials, Howard said. The chain has staked out “gateway locations” to the city for billboards, such as the Interstate 75 bridge crossing the Ohio River from Northern Kentucky into downtown or the terminal at Cincinnati’s airport, where a 25-foot “Welcome to Chilitown” banner hangs. Gold Star also has Chilitown signage up at Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals football team plays.

And more attention could be coming to the city, as the Travel Channel is exploring an episode of “Food Wars” around Cincinnati’s chili restaurants, Howard said.

Gold Star already has agreed to participate, he added, and if Skyline opts not to take part, producers of the show have considered a three-way battle among Gold Star, Kentucky-based Dixie Chili and Camp Washington Chili, a one-off chili parlor that has been recognized as an “American Regional Classic” by the James Beard Foundation.

Even as competition for the devotion for Cincinnati-style chili fans remains as hot as ever, Howard said, all the players would continue to benefit from greater national exposure for the Queen City’s culinary crown jewel.

“Building a movement as a marketing strategy seems to have gotten legs for us,” Howard said. “Even though everybody has their own opinion, we’ve found something everyone can agree on. Before, it was us saying Cincinnati is Chilitown USA, trying to bring it into the local vernacular.

"But as we come across people out of our marketplace, the people are saying it, not just us," he continued. "That’s the point of all this word-of-mouth, social-media phenomena. It’s not Chilitown until the people say it is, and we’re starting to see that.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected]