WILDWOOD CREST - For decades, tourism officials have worked to create a brand in Cape May County collectively called "the Wildwoods" - a barrier island that actually includes five municipalities.

Now, two of those towns want to carve out their own identities as Jersey Shore towns. Wildwood Crest is touting itself as "better" than the others. North Wildwood wants to drop "Wildwood" from its name entirely and be known as Anglesea.

Could these moves ultimately wash away the carefully crafted "Wildwoods" brand like a sand castle on a beach at high tide?

Some are hoping the changes will inspire a legacy of loyalty to the individual towns the way slogans such as Ocean City's "America's Greatest Family Resort," or Avalon's "Cooler by a Mile," have over the last 30 or 40 years.

As for Wildwood, the true reasons behind the changes in the neighboring towns are debatable.

In the words of Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano, "If you just don't want to be associated with Wildwood, my not politically correct response is, 'You can go to hell.' But that's not the most diplomatic way to put it, I guess."

"The slogan 'It's Better in the Crest' has been a long evolution for us. . . . Wildwood Crest never had a slogan before, and it was time we created our own brand identity," said Wildwood Crest Borough Commissioner Don Cabrera, who led the effort to create the marketing strategy, which was ready in time for the start of the 2016 summer season and includes a sleek, three-color wave logo.

The new look appears in brochures, ads, borough-owned vehicles, signage, and equipment such as lifeguard stands and public-works trucks.

Cabrera said the idea was to bring a unifying look and sentiment to a place where - unlike its neighbors to the north - there is no boardwalk. Alcohol isn't served in its restaurants, and the quiet, residential nature of the town differs from its more raucous neighbors, Wildwood and North Wildwood, where there are many places to obtain alcohol and boardwalk amusements that some contend rival even Disney in number.

"We're not trying to knock down any other town a peg, we just want to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the island communities and have our own identity," Cabrera insisted.

Barring earthquake or tsunami, the towns of Wildwood, North Wildwood, West Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest, and the Diamond Beach section of Lower Township will likely remain geologically linked. The towns, situated on a coastal island known as Five Mile Island, will also stay economically connected, thanks to a 2 percent tourism tax collected in the Wildwoods. The tax helps fund marketing and tourism reinvestment through the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority (GWTIDA).

Last summer proved to be the most lucrative for the Wildwoods since the tax was created and GWTIDA was formed in 1993, collecting a record $4.5 million in tax revenue in 2015 from hostelries, restaurants, and bars in Wildwood, North Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest.

But could presenting itself as different or better than the rest of the collective Wildwoods backfire on a town like Wildwood Crest when it comes to attracting tourists?

"It could . . . but sub-brands can also be good," says Diane F. Wieland, director of Cape May County's Tourism Department. "People really do want to have a sense of ownership about where they vacation."

Wieland said GWTIDA and the county will continue to market "the Wildwoods." While vacationers may not ultimately be drawn to a place because of a slogan, they may return to a place - and continue to for generations - based on the concept of a place that sets it apart from all the rest.

And in an age when website views and social media play huge roles in promotion, such monikers may help set a beach town apart from other places, Wieland said.

The county found that to be true when its tourism department conducted its own study on calling the southern Shore region "Cape May County" vs. the "Jersey Cape" and saw reduced search engine optimization, she said.

"In other words, as a region, using 'Cape May' in our name, we lost our identity to the city of Cape May," Wieland said. "By using 'Jersey Cape' in our promotions, we moved higher in the search, and ultimately more potential visitors found us."

Joe Tenaglia, whose family owns the Jolly Roger Motel in Wildwood Crest and has been involved in the hospitality industry here since the 1970s, said he thinks unique branding for the town will ultimately be a good marketing tool for the entire island.

"I think the idea that we can present a place called the Wildwoods to visitors with towns that each have such distinct offerings is something that makes this place, overall, a very attractive place to vacation," Tenaglia said.

North Wildwood is considering officially changing its name to Anglesea - what it was originally called when it was founded as a fishing village in the 1880s. It was renamed North Wildwood in 1906, when neighboring Wildwood was experiencing a kind of heyday.

But over the decades, Wildwood has sometimes garnered an unsavory reputation as a party town.

Ed Wheaton, whose great-grandfather was once mayor of Anglesea, has started a petition drive with his father, James, to reclaim the Anglesea name. So far, they have collected 100 signatures, and the city's council is considering placing the question as a nonbinding referendum on the November ballot.

The Wheatons and local officials say consideration of the idea isn't so much a plan to cut ties with Wildwood, but more to honor the town's historical roots.

North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello said that since the name Anglesea has remained around town in the 110 years since the municipality was incorporated as North Wildwood, the name change merits discussion.

"The name Anglesea never went away," Rosenello said. "You even see it in Realtors that still list selections as being in Anglesea. It's just still so much a part of the community."

Rosenello said the idea isn't so much to distance North Wildwood from the Wildwoods as it is to create a heightened identity for the town.

"Ultimately, we don't want to disassociate ourselves with Wildwood, but we want our own identity," he said. "I think as a healthy exercise of local government, we owe it to our constituency to see how they feel about it through a nonbinding referendum so everyone can be heard."

But Troiano, Wildwood's mayor, isn't convinced the push for a name change involves historical context only for North Wildwood and is just a simple case of marketing for Wildwood Crest.

"If the Crest is doing it because they want to separate themselves from their rowdy neighbor to the north and North Wildwood wants to be called Anglesea for any other reason than historical, then I can assure you that I will personally remove the 'S' from the Wildwoods sign if it comes to that," Troiano said.


@JacquelineUrgo www.philly.com/downashore