U.S. travel writer and TV personality Rick Steves is -- well, there’s no really kind way to put this -- a weenie.
His on-air persona (on "Rick Steves' Europe") is a mix of high school social studies teacher, khaki-clad accountant cracking Dad jokes -- and the guy you get stuck next to at a museum lecture on 16th century Venetian architecture that your wife made you go to.
According to a recent profile in The New York Times, he’s “one of the legendary PBS superdorks — right there in the pantheon with Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird."
Rick Steves is undoubtedly a nice guy -- Ned Flanders (of "The Simpsons" fame) nice. He’s not the guy you’re going to invite to your stag party in Las Vegas -- not unless you were planning a prank involving prostitutes, illicit drugs and an involuntary neck tattoo. But Ed Helms already had that role.
Despite all this -- or perhaps because of it -- Steves is one of the most trusted travel brands in the U.S. and Canada. His name appears prominently on countless guide books, podcasts, seminars, a weekly syndicated column and the perennially running PBS series.
It was the last of these that brought him top of mind for me recently. He hosted a recent fund-raising marathon on my nearest PBS affiliate, KCTS in Seattle. And as Steves good-naturedly bumbled his way through Tuscany, I asked myself this question: “Could Rick Steves be a start-up brand today?”
Yes, he is a successful brand, but could he become a successful brand from a standing start? In other words, can a weenie still win in today’s world?
Today, everything needs to be instantly shareable. Branding is all about virality. Things that live at the extremes are the ones that spread through social networks. We are more Kanye West and Kim Kardashian than we are Danny Kaye and Doris Day. That was then. This is now.
You can’t ignore the fact that Steves’ target market is well north of their 50th birthday. They are the ones who still remember who Danny Kaye and Doris Day were. So I ask again: Is being passionate and earnest (two things Rick Steves undoubtedly is) enough to break our collective ennui in today’s hyperbolic world?
I ask this question somewhat selfishly, for I, too, am a weenie. I have long lived on the dorkish end of the spectrum. I like me a good dad joke (e.g., People in Athens hate getting up early. Because Dawn is tough on Greece). And I have to wonder. Can nice, decidedly un-cool people still finish first? Or at least not last?
It’s an important question. Because if there is no longer room in our jaded awareness for a Rick Steves, we’re missing out on something very important.
Steves has won his trust the hard way. He has steadfastly remained objective and unsponsored. He provides advice targeted at the everyday traveler. He is practical and pragmatic.
And he is consistently idealistic, believing that travel pries open our perspective and makes us better, more tolerant people. This mission is proudly stated on his corporate website: “We value travel as a powerful way to better understand and contribute to the world in which we live. We strive to keep our own travel style, our world outlook, and our business practices consistent with these values.”
This is no “flash-in-the pan” brand bite crafted for a social share. This is a mission statement backed by over 40 years of consistent delivery to its ideals. It’s like Steves himself: earnest, sincere, thoughtful and just a little bit dorky.
If you ask me, the world could use a little less Kanye West and a little more Rick Steves.