Kentucky’s Unfocused Brand

Recently, the state of Kentucky (where Shotgun is based) became one of only two states to start trying to develop a brand image, the other being Oregon. The main trouble with Kentucky’s brand campaign is that apparently the state government feels the work is done after developing the logo. That’s the slip up of many private companies as well when they develop their brand strategy, A brand is more than just a logo. Kentucky learned this lesson in early January when the state got a black-eye from a Kentucky resident who appeared on the ABC-TV reality show, The Bachelorette. What follows is an article that I recently wrote for the Louisville Courier-Journal about this incident and branding.

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You can’t buy good PR and you can’t sell bad PR. Kentucky has learned this lesson in the first clear-cut national spotlight of a non-scripted Kentucky since the Fletcher administration rolled out the Unbridled Spirit brand campaign.
A brand image of Kentucky that had nothing to do with “Unbridled Spirit” (or maybe too much unbridled spirit) was showcased nationally on the first episode of the third installment of ABC’s “The Bachelorette”. A 27-year-old hair stylist from Campton in Wolfe County was one of the eligible bachelors and he reinforced the negative brand image that Governor Fletcher had spent all of last year trying to cover up.

If you didn’t see the show, the hairdresser, Chris C, drank too much and became a foul-mouthed redneck over the course of the show. He delivered such gems as “I have to drink cause my daddy owns a liquor store”. He became a joke to the other contestants as they mocked him. It was such a circus that in the closing credits, the show’s host, Chris Harrison, and Jen Schefft, the bachelorette, took to imitating and ridiculing him (and by association, all Kentuckians) after he had lost the first round.

Any marketer worth their salt will tell you that building a brand is MUCH more than just an attractive logo and what you tell people to think about you. Branding is not developed from the top down. It’s developed from the bottom up. The consumer, not the company, dictates what the brand image is for any product.

Companies (and states) can help brand development. Kentucky has take a great and badly needed first step by sending out a unified and consistent message with Unbridled Spirit. But state government keeps saying that this new logo is our new brand. That is incorrect. Unbridled Spirit is a logo with a tagline, not a brand.

Think about a consumer product that has been in the news lately. The drugs Vioxx and Celebrex used to own the brand image of pain medicine. Now they own the brand image of causing heart problems. A new logo and tagline for these drugs will not erase that from consumers’ minds.

The Kentucky brand is built each day when either images of Kentucky featured on a national level or more importantly when any of us step across the state line and interact with (or are telecast to) non-Kentuckians. What those non-natives think about the state and us makes up the Kentucky brand. Think for a moment about other states. You have developed an individual brand for each of them in your mind. For me, Alaska is cold, wild, and rugged. Iowa is flat and full of corn. Idaho has lots of potatoes. Arizona is a desert.

As a professional marketer, I would say the brand of Kentucky across the nation currently consists of horse racing and the negative connotations of Appalachia. Fried chicken ranks up there, too. I’ll never forget in the mid-1990s when I was in Spain. After I would introduce myself as from Kentucky, the first three words out of every Spaniard’s mouth were Kentucky Fried Chicken. And just as recently as last year when I met an Ethiopian doctor, the first place he wanted to eat was KFC.

How do we change our brand image? We don’t. As stated earlier, the brand image is up to other people. The Unbridled Spirit campaign will help a lot just as long as state government and we don’t get caught in the trap that the work is finished. The real work, though, is with individual Kentuckians. Remember what your mama said, “When you leave home, mind your manners and act like somebody.” Perhaps Chris on the Bachelorette would have been a little more sophisticated if he had been given a t-shirt to wear with the Unbridled Spirit logo on it.

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