For three-quarters of a century, people in distant parts of the country have heard the word "Oklahoma" and thought of an idyllic place with corn as high as an elephant's eye, fringe-covered surreys, boisterous barn-raisings and cowboys who could belt out a tune. "We know we belong to the land," Curly sings at the end of the beloved musical, Oklahoma, "and the land we belong to is grand." Then the whole cast signs off with the words "Oklahoma OK!" It's a matchless celebration of state pride.
And as far back as almost anyone can remember, "Oklahoma OK" has been the state's slogan and overall promotional icon. It's so evocative that no one has dared to challenge it. But Matt Pinnell is determined to. As lieutenant governor and secretary of tourism, he thinks 75 years of Rodgers and Hammerstein are enough. He is on a single-minded crusade to give the state a new slogan, a new icon and perhaps a new self-image. He calls it Project Blue Sky. "You have a whole generation that sees Oklahoma as just OK," he told me, "and they are underwhelmed by that. We need to create a wholesale rebrand. If we don't define who we are, 49 other states will define it for us."
This summer, Pinnell convened a "branding summit" of nearly 100 Oklahomans, many from the advertising or public relations business, to talk about a new identity for the state. By the end of the year, he hopes to have one.
Pinnell's crusade may be the most ambitious effort of its kind anywhere in the country. But the fact is that states all over America are into rebranding these days, trying to find images that not only convey pride but are also the centerpiece of an aggressive economic development campaign. Over the past decade, for example, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have struggled to outdo each other in the unveiling of new promotional schemes.
The Reputational Arms Race
Michigan deserves most of the credit for starting this reputational arms race. In 2006, in the midst of hard economic times and with the help of a national advertising agency, it launched "Pure Michigan," an evocation of clean wholesomeness that state tourism officials credit with lifting the entire state's spirits and attracting visitors. It's a little hard to see how it did that. Crystal clear lakes and virgin forests can fairly be described as "pure Michigan," but so can the empty factories of Flint and the burned-out neighborhoods of Detroit. Nevertheless, the seeming success of this promotional campaign put its neighboring states on the defensive. "Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota have a lot of the same tourist products," a Wisconsin tourism official explained a couple of years ago. "So we want to be different. Who are we compared to Michigan? Who are we compared to Minnesota?"
For decades, Wisconsin was content to be "America's Dairyland." Those words began appearing on the state's license plates in 1948, and they are still there. But they are not as ubiquitous as they once were. In an effort to match Michigan, the state now comes up with a new slogan -- or what it calls a tagline -- just about every year. For a while it was "Wisconsin: It's More You!" Then they went with "When You're Having Fun, We're Having Fun." This year, if you go to the state tourism website, you get "Escape to Wisconsin!" None of those do a great deal for me. I'm fine with tourism officials having fun, but I wouldn't visit a state just to show them a good time. Still, they keep trying.
So does Minnesota. Millions of Americans are familiar with its "10,000 lakes" nickname, which has appeared on its license plates since 1950. But this year, apparently worried that the old standby was holding them back, the state launched an ambitious new promotional campaign with the slogan "Find Your True North," and featured it in print, digital and TV ads all over the Midwest. The state tourism director explained that "north helps define us in a way globally that we've never been able to achieve before. I think it will really put Minnesota on the map in a new and unique way." The governor, Tim Walz, told a press conference that the new slogan is a testament to the state's pluckiness and endurance. "When the rest of the country was finding out how cold it was in Minnesota," he told reporters, "Minnesotans were going on with their daily lives, not panicking."
No doubt some potential vacationers will find "true north" an appealing attraction. Others may see it and think "Minnesota: Don't Come in the Winter." But state slogans, like all advertising gimmicks, are a roll of the dice. You never know what effect they will have.
How It All Began
The modern era of sloganeering actually began in the 1970s, with the introduction of "I ❤ New York!" and "Virginia Is for Lovers." These are often described as the most effective campaigns of their kind ever conceived. Both states are still using them.
Virginia's was actually a bit of an accident. It was originally supposed to be "Virginia Is for History Lovers." Then a Richmond ad agency argued that lovers of all kinds deserved to be included as well. After that it took off. Ever since, states have been trying to come up with something equally good. Often they fail rather spectacularly. Not everyone understood that "Kansas: Land of Ahhs" was a reference to the wizard and Judy Garland. That slogan didn't last very long. Neither did Iowa's "State of Minds," which was supposed to advertise the superior intelligence of its residents. That one disappeared quickly as well.
But the award for the most bizarre slogan of recent times probably should go to Washington state, which hit the media in 2006 with "SayWA." Some people who saw it thought they were being advised to cry like a baby. In fact, "saywa" means "landmark" in the South American language of Aymara, spoken by about two and a half million people in the Andes. Perhaps state officials were trying to generate an influx of Latin American vacationers. But it, too, disappeared rather quickly. A tourism company manager pronounced the ultimate verdict on it: "35 years ago I smoked dope and probably could have come up with something like that."
Those failures are not discouraging states from to continuing the search for slogan magic. Nebraska, for example, was content for many years with "The Good Life," which strikes me as the sort of simple and appealing image that any state would want. But last year, reacting to decades of low tourism numbers -- frequently the lowest in the country -- it hired an out-of-state advertising firm to try to find something really different. And it did. Nebraska announced that its new slogan would be "Nebraska: Honestly, It's Not for Everyone."
It was not a universally popular choice. It was translated by some critics as telling potential visitors that they weren't wanted. Perhaps surprisingly, though, it went viral on social media and seemed to strike a chord within the state. Lots of Nebraskans interpreted it as a signal that their state was in fact superior to critics who called it dull, and deserved a visit from outsiders of better-than-average taste and curiosity. The tourism commission explained that "because of the marketing challenge Nebraska faces, the campaign needs to be disruptive. ... The new approach addresses people's preconceived notions about the state, using self-deprecating humor."
Works for Some, Not All
The constant comings-and-goings in the state promotion game make it hard to generalize. But a few points seem indisputable. One is that traditional slogans, often simply calling attention to what the state has always been proud of, are giving way to slogans that are at the core of a sophisticated marketing effort. It hasn't happened everywhere. Connecticut still calls itself "the Constitution State." Illinois is still "the Land of Lincoln." But both of those states, like virtually all others, have experimented with more market-driven images in recent years. The evolution from "America's Dairyland" to "Escape to Wisconsin" is fairly typical of what's taking place all over.
What's also clear is that some states have ready-made images to market and others don't. The ones that do have clear images are often the smaller ones: Vermont, Montana and New Mexico, for example. But that's not universally true. Texas is huge, but it has a universally familiar identity that it can promote. So does New York.
On the other hand, what's the unique selling proposition for Ohio? Or Pennsylvania? Neither of them has an obvious statewide image that it can use to motivate its residents or appeal to outsiders. That's why you see rather bland efforts such as "Pennsylvania: Pursue Your Happiness" or "Ohio: So Much to Discover."
Oklahoma stands somewhere in the middle. It has a strong historical self-image, but not anything that suggests an obvious marketing campaign for the 21st century. The lieutenant governor is determined to create one. With enough effort, he might succeed. But it might not be a bad idea to keep Rodgers and Hammerstein around for a while, just in case the bold new idea fizzles out.