Yang: Capturing Specialness In Bumper Sticker Slogans … Beware

Capturing Specialness In Bumper Sticker Slogans … Beware

Let’s have a little fun before the Memorial Day long weekend. 

States, cities, towns, little towns … all try to win money from tourism. These days they commission, with taxpayers’ money of course, studies to find their “unique” feature for “branding.”  But hey, when you plan a vacation, do you ever pick a place based on a slogan, catchy or not?

New York Times’ Gail Collins offers some thoughts about tourism, slogans and their unintended consequences in her May 15 column. And the readers provided more fodder. 

Here is a partial list to put a smile on your face, or an “uh?” look:

  • North Dakota: “Legendary”
  • North Carolina: “Beautify Amplified”
  • Texas: “It’s like a Whole Other Country”
  • Montana: “Step Out of Bounds”
  • Montana, even better: “Get Lost”
  • Washington: “The State”
  • New Mexico: “New Mexico True”

The old tradition of emphasizing agricultural products seems to have disappeared. Wisconsin’s old “America’s Dairyland” is going to be replaced. So far, “Eat Cheese or Die” has been rejected. (Someone must have already considered, and quietly rejected, “Eat Cheese and Die.”) And evidently, someone once made some bumper stickers without the apostrophe.  

Slogans are short by nature. A mistake, intentional or not, can impart significant change; for example, “Escape to Wisconsin” too easily becomes “Escape Wisconsin.” Idaho used to have “Great Potatoes. Tasty Destinations.” As Ms. Collins points out, when you pay money for an outfit to do branding study, you aren’t going to get a root vegetable in your slogan. 

What would market research, branding study, or PR strategy inform you about your location? That your place is unique? That it’s beautiful? That your people are friendly? Do we need to pay others a lot of money to tell us something obvious? I have said it often, and will say it whenever I find the opportunity: We don’t need to spend a lot of money to find creative solutions to local issues; just go to our elementary schools, and we can get a lot of wonderful suggestions. 

One of the major problems for relying on slogans to capture a place’s essence is that it will always miss something, and it will never please the majority of the residents because everyone has his/her take regarding what’s special about where they live, for better or for worse. The slogans often end up serving as an outlet for counter-punch creativity. For example, “Virginia is for [Some] Lovers.” Or, “South Carolina: The Schools are Bad, but the Beaches are Nice.” Pennsylvania’s old slogan was, “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania.” Gee, and I never once received an assigned visitor to be friends with when I lived in PA. “Sunshine” state recently found itself wrestling with whether to invest in solar power because “sometimes it’s cloudy.” The very same Florida whose old “Florida: Rules are Different Here!” certainly has elicited much sniggering given its recent news headlines. And New Jersey’s reputation aligns well with “NJ: Indicted but Proud.”

Branding research tends to inflate self-importance. Most people love where they live, but bragging seldom sounds inviting. Our small town recently engaged an out-of-town consulting firm to come up with a catchy (not) slogan: “Living Exponentially.” After you trip over your tongue saying these two words, you wonder what it actually means. And if I followed the logical consequences of living “exponentially,” I’d die from exhaustion. Very smart.

My favorite reader’s response to Collins’s column is this: A few years ago, Scotland spent 1/8 million pounds to come up with … (drum roll, please) “Welcome to Scotland.” 

On the other hand, there are oldies that stay with people, like “I Love New York” or “Golden State.” You don’t forget them, and I wonder if those slogans came as a result of branding studies, or, from years of listening to visitors who happened to like the place, or just maybe, a resident with a good idea.   

Whatever your plans for the Memorial Day long weekend, I wish you safe travels and a happy time. Till June 1, “Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.”

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.


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