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SocietyMay 27, 2017

How Hamilton fell in love with #LoveTheTron


It’s New Zealand’s most successful city slogan by far, and the council had nothing to do with it. Angela Cuming finds out how a grassroots social media movement created an explosion of civic pride.

A hot November afternoon, 2012, and a lime green picnic bench flashed up on my computer screen.

It was from a Twitter handle I’d never seen before – someone or something calling themselves @lovethetron – and it seemed fairly innocuous.

“Lime green picnic benches appearing in the middle of what used to be Ward st! Great place to have lunch in #hamilton,” it read.

Little did anyone realise that tweet, and the mysterious person or persons behind Lovethetron, had just started a quiet revolution in Hamilton.

LoveTheTron had arrived, and it changed people’s lives.

‘”It is a citizen-led movement, a reaction to really bad politics and its about the people of Hamilton reclaiming their city,” says Iain White, Professor of Environmental Planning at the University of Waikato. “There’s really nothing quite like it in the world.”

Professor White moved to Hamilton from England in 2013 where he was a senior academic at Manchester University, one of the world’s top schools for city planning. As he settled into his new Kiwi home he began to notice the #lovethetron hashtag.

“I was looking for things to do in Hamilton and someone told me about LoveTheTron and I just, well, loved it,” he says.

LoveTheTron had been born a year earlier in 2012 over a bowl of plate of polenta chips in Hamilton’s Momento Cafe. A group of friends – the won’t say how many or reveal their identities – were sitting round a table and musing about how much they loved their home city but how frustrated they were that it continually copped a ribbing from the rest of the country.

“We were frustrated that no one was publicly making it OK to tell the world how great the city was,” they say in an interview granted on the condition of anonymity.

“It was a different landscape back then. People didn’t openly and shamelessly go on about how great Hamilton is, or, if they did, it was self-consciously or ironically.”

Reluctance from locals to be out and proud Hamiltonians was understandable. It’s the butt of countless jokes (“You’re from Hamilton? I am so sorry”) and has struggled to find an identity as it grows from a regional hub of dairy farming to New Zealand’s fourth largest city, and one of its most rapidly growing urban centres.

So the group set up the @lovethetron account and started tweeting, quickly adopting the #lovethetron hashtag.

“2012 was such a different time. We didn’t even have proper cameras on our phones so we would go out on these shooting trips and come home and write tweets. Our earliest tweets were about places in Hamilton people may not know.”

Underpinning everything they did was a simple philosophy: to connect people to each other based on the idea of loving Hamilton. “We thought if we could do that then we may have a chance.”

Soon locals began tweeting and Instagramming their own #lovethetron moments – a photo of autumn leaves or the Waikato River at sunrise, a cool and quirky piece or street art or simply fun banter about how cool it was to live in the Tron.

Media personality and Hamilton boy Jesse Mulligan was an early and high-profile convert to the LoveTheTron movement (#JesseWatch was an official @lovethetron game). Later, when LoveTheTron started a blog, Mulligan would write for them about how much he loved the Tron.

Things kicked up a gear, though, when Steve Braunias penned a piece titled ‘O Hamilton! O Yay!’ in which he hailed the virtues of the Tron. It was noticed by LoveTheTron and marked a turning point for the movement.

“If a genius and legend of New Zealand like Steve Braunias could love the Tron then it was suddenly okay for lot of other people too as well,” they say.

And while Braunias himself isn’t keen on the name “The Tron” – “Hamilton is a good name” – he loves the city.

“For sure, I really like Hamilton – the river, the shops in Frankton, the Ibis, Victoria St, the Wintec campus, the bridges, the Chinese restaurants, the sky in early winter at dusk  – but it goes deeper than that. It’s been a really important part of my life coming here and I’m really grateful for it. The single best thing has been the people – the staff and students at Wintec, so many of them have been just terrific. I’ve made some close friends during my time here and it’s been exciting to come across brilliant students such as Josh Drummond, Brooke Bath, Taylor Sincock, Don Rowe, Corey Rosser, Olivia Johnstone, and many others.”

And despite his reservations about calling Hamilton “The Tron”, he loves LoveTheTron. “It’s very lively – I think it’s great. I hope it keeps going,” he says.

While social media users primarily express their feelings with the #lovethetron hashtag, the LoveTheTron group’s own Twittter account now has more than 2000 followers and its empire has extended to an Instagram account and Facebook offshoot The Hamilton Mafia Project.

Local businesses began to jump on board the #lovethetron train too, using the hashtag in social media messaging and even adverstising. Craft beer label Good George – itself born in Hamilton – even used the hashtag on a billboard, which served a dual purpose of poking fun at Hamilton City Council’s official, forgettable marketing campaign (“HamiltON”).

Even Auckland appeared to take notice and may or may not have been inspired by #lovethetron to come up with their own, official hashtags: #loveyourblc (big little city) and #loveakl.

But marketing aside, the real pull to LoveTheTron comes from people who are increasingly frustrated and angry at the way Hamilton City Council is running the place, says Professor White.

The council has in recent years lurched from one PR disaster to another – the failed V8s, voting out fluoride (a referendum put it back in), trying to hike rates by 18 percent – and it doesn’t even have an official city slogan to drum up a bit of civic pride.

That’s where LoveTheTron has stepped in, Professor White says, allowing residents to feel good about living in Hamilton and giving them an outlet to overcome the council’s failings, one hashtag at a time.

“LoveTheTron has more in common with a protest movement than city branding exercise,” he says. ”Sort of like the anti globalisation people who take direct action and hide their faces due to dissatisfaction with recent politics, for example the poor attempts to promote Hamilton.

“(And) while every city has a formal marketing role, LoveTheTron is highly unusual, if not absolutely unique globally, in that it’s grass roots led, an undoubted success, and secret.”

Professor White says it’s extraordinary that not only has LoveTheTron kept their identity a secret, they have never made a red cent from all their hard work. “Think about what they have turned down to keep it secret. Whoever did it has gifted the city a brand probably worth in excess of six figures [LoveTheTron puts their total wo/man hours at about $500,000]. And has never claimed credit for it. Or billed the city. Or sold T-shirts to monetise it.”

“It’s run on a shoestring and it’s actually created more economic benefit than anything that would have been really resourced.”

Even more extraordinary is the apparent reticence of Hamilton City Council to embrace the LoveTheTron movement.

“LoveTheTron is a gift from citizens to the city but the politicians don’t appreciate what they have been given –  that other cities would love to have,” Professor White says. “It’s bizarre that they haven’t jumped on it, which I guess takes us back to maybe LoveTheTron being justified in their critique of the shortcomings of the current political class.”

For their part LoveTheTron say they are happy to be likened to anti-globalisation protestors. “Instead of guerrilla bombing with explosives or angrily marching on the streets, we take our frustrations out through twitterbombs of positivity, love and humour,” they say. “Call it cheesy but hey, it works.”

They too seem puzzled by the council’s reluctance to jump on board the LoveTheTron train. “In fact, the ordinary people of Hamilton have taken up the LoveTheTron movement in a way that the council has not,” they say. “That’s one thing we will never understand.”

Theirs is not a baseless concern. The last time Hamilton was national news (Sevens tournament aside) was when Hamilton City Councillor Siggi Henry, a well known fluoride-denier and anti-vaxxer, wore a tin foil hat to meet Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne.

Then there’s the whole issue of Hamilton’s official slogan. It doesn’t actually have one.

The old one was the forgettable and confusing hamiltON and before that the city was “Hamilton – Fountain City”, “Hamilton – Where It’s Happening” and “Hamilton – More Than You Expect!” The affectionate nickname ”The Tron” comes from “Hamiltron: City of the Future”, which was an unofficial slogan dreamed up by a radio station in the late 1990s.

So why no LoveTheTron love from Hamilton City Council? “I think if the council touched LoveTheTron then [the slogan] would be absolutely rooted,” says newly elected councillor Mark Bunting. “I don’t think half the councillors understand it anyway.”

“I love LoveTheTron and I am really grateful for all it’s done…(but) now is not the appropriate time for a marketing campaign.”

Professor White agrees. “I don’t think Hamilton City Council could so something like this, it would just look very different. I think you would get 40 and 50 year old men sitting around a table who would say things like ‘What we need is a big poster’.”

But aside from a quirky hashtag that gives the city a free plug, what else has #lovethetron done for the people who live here?

Quite a lot, says Professor White, who believes LoveTheTron helps newbie Hamiltonians like him settle into the city and connects young creative types, helping to stem the brain drain to Auckland and Wellington.

He’s talking about people like Jess Molina, a writer and actress who moved to Hamilton from the Philippines in 2009 when she was a 18 and fresh out of a conservative Catholic girls’ school.

”I had to set about rebuilding my life in Hamilton, in a city where I didn’t know anyone and where everything was so different to what I was used to,” she says. ”I mean, I remember driving into Hamilton and seeing cows.”

Fast forward a few years and she discovered LoveTheTron, or rather they found her. “I was walking through the CBD and I got a tweet from this @lovethetron handle and it said ‘Nice jacket!’ so they were watching me,” Molina says. “It was kind of weird, but super nice and fun.”

Soon she was thrust into a social whirl of meeting fellow creative types and LoveTheTron whanau, joining the #lovethetron monthly book club and their famous ‘Coffee Mafia Club’ – where LTT types meet up in a local cafe. (LoveTheTron itself never attends, they simply tweet a time and location and whoever turns up comprises the club).

If Jess ever met the people behind LoveTheTron what would she tell them? “I would say thank you. Simple as that, thank you. Thank you for helping me create such a wonderful life here in Hamilton, for helping me find such wonderful friends and such a fantastic support network.

“Thank you for bringing people together and making this about so much more than just a Twitter handle.”

So where to from here for LoveTheTron?

“We will continue to grow and spread the message,” they say. “We would love people across New Zealand to know there are people who love the Tron because it’s the best city in the country. Good things in Hamilton have always happened as a result of its hard working citizens but we tend to only be judge by our council decisions, like the (failed) V8s races and voting to get rid of fluoride.

“It’s really important that those other stories get told too. Our cafes are the best in the country, developer Matt Stark and architect Brian Squair build buildings more beautiful than anything on the Auckland waterfront and we gave the world Rocky Horror.

“Those stories need to be told somehow.”

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