News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

February 16, 2014

EDITORIAL: Wholesomely Hoosier

TERRE HAUTE — Just a few hours after “Honest to Goodness Indiana” was announced on Wednesday as our state’s new tourism brand, it was already being pummeled by social media pundits for being too hokey, hicky and, well, Hoosiery.

“Golly gee-wilikers Pa! Can we really go to Indiana? It’s so WHOLESOME,” said one person who wrote on The Indianapolis Star’s Facebook page in derision of the brand.

And our newspapering colleagues at the News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne headlined their editorial on the brand: “This is, honest to goodness, the best they could do?”

Even the website of the Indiana Department of Tourism Development, the very office that announced the brand, carried comments from critics who asked how the brand squares with a state whose governor and Republican leaders in both houses of the Legislature persisted in their desire to have a ban on gay marriage cemented into the state constitution. How, those critics asked, could that Indiana be seen as welcoming to all who might want to visit to explore the Wabash River, the verdant hills and gullies, the musical festivals, the community celebrations, the sports and entertainment events, and the offerings at our great colleges and universities?

Perhaps it was bad timing by the state to have launched the brand change amid the torrent of a divisive same-sex marriage debate. But even absent that fractious debate, the brand — perhaps any brand — was sure to draw potshots at the outset, and it did. No brand pleases everyone, including the brand that is being replaced: “Restart Your Engines.”

Slower to speak out will be those who support the brand’s embrace of traditional Hoosier values of hospitality, honesty and essential goodness. (Cynics, though, will find reasons to deny that Hoosiers actually demonstrate those values to outsiders or those who don’t conform to the majority view.)

Lost in translation may be the difference, in the arcane world of marketing, between a brand and a slogan. A marketing professional explained it to us this way: Nike’s swoosh represents the brand. “Just Do It” is the slogan. And the brand encompasses everything about the commodity being promoted, including the audience’s desired reactions to it. In this case, the brand is that which attracts people to Indiana for a visit or vacation.

While many, including us, would have preferred something more assertive, less folksy than “Honest to Goodness Indiana,” the sound of that brand may grow on Hoosiers — and others — as they see and hear messages built around the brand in ads and promotions in print, on the Web and on TV and radio. Those ads aren’t apparent yet, even on the tourism development department’s website.

A long-standing Terre Haute company, WilliamsRandall, was deeply involved in developing the brand as part of what has been reported to be a $100,000 contract with the state. So owners and staff at the company are seeing this debate up close — and personal. And not flinching. “We are confident in the new brand,” McKenze Rogers of WilliamsRandall’s Indianapolis office told The Star. “We are focused solely on moving forward.”

And, according to the Indianapolis Business Journal, the brand arose from a collaborative and progressive process that involved nearly three dozen people who work in travel, tourism, hospitality industries and government. Then, about 8,000 consumers took part in surveys and focus groups to test brand ideas. So “Honest to Goodness Indiana” wasn’t the first or only brand idea considered. Nor was it frivolously arrived at.

How much the brand matters remains to be seen, given the paltry amount of money Indiana budgets for promoting tourism. That amount was cut by a third to $2.3 million in 2013. Meantime, states surrounding Indiana spend far more to promote their virtues to attract visitors. According to IBJ, tourism budgets for Kentucky and Ohio range from two to four times that of Indiana’s. The tourism budget for Michigan has risen to $27 million, and Illinois spends more than twice what Michigan spends, IBJ reported. And all of those states advertise within our media markets to entice our residents.

So, that funding shortage may be the biggest test of the new brand’s effectiveness, or ineffectiveness.

Honest to goodness.

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