Kentucky’s New State Slogan: It Kicks Ass?

An unsanctioned re-branding campaign for the state stirs up controversy and begs the question, what’s a branding best practice?

Three rogue creatives, Whit Hiler, Griffin VanMeter, and Kent Carmichael, have banded together to launch a rebranding campaign for Kentucky. The three created a new agency, Kentucky For Kentucky, with simple and straightforward goals:

Increase tourism, attract new business, foster pride, diminish stereotypes, unify the commonwealth and distinguish Kentucky from any other place on the planet.

The new tagline for the campaign is also just as simple: ‘Kentucky Kicks Ass.’ And although the guys behind Kentucky for Kentucky thank the Kentucky Department of Tourism in the credits of their promotional video (below), it appears the feeling isn’t mutual. In response to Kentucky for Kentucky’s work, Pat Stipes, the state’s tourism department spokesman, stated,

We certainly would not sanction or endorse that phraseology. These guys are Kentucky natives and they love the state. But they have a different constituency. Which is no one.

KYkickass1 bourbon

While the use of the word ‘ass’ might be off-putting to some, Kentucky for Kentucky surely speaks to a certain constituency and the campaign does raise several valid branding concerns with the new campaign. First, they point out one major issue with ‘Unbridled Spirit,’ the current Kentucky State Tourism Department-approved tagline. While the tagline points to both Kentucky’s strong horse culture and bourbon legacy, a simple Google search reveals that ‘Unbridled Spirit’ isn’t unique to Kentucky- the first search result is a (very poorly designed) website for horse riding lessons in San Antonio, Texas. Although there are many more ways to find ‘Kentucky’ than searching ‘Unbridled Spirit,’ digital brand ownership is important. In comparison, searching ‘Virginia is for Lovers‘ or even more obscure state taglines like South Carolina’s ‘Made For Vacation‘ sends a visitor to official state websites with the first result.

KYkickass2 donuts

The team also explores new merchandising opportunities with the fresh brand messaging; a t-shirt with ‘Unbridled Spirit’ may be a tough sell, but a t-shirt emblazoned with ‘Kentucky Kicks Ass’ even appeals to disenfranchised youth, as does the team’s use of relatable figures like George Clooney and Abraham Lincoln to promote the Kentucky brand. With the use of the tagline in the merchandise, Kentucky for Kentucky makes the products (and their branding campaign) shareable. People who love and hate the messaging are more likely to share the products, and thus spread the word about the campaign, because of its controversial and polarizing word choice.

KYkickass1 chicken

Kentucky for Kentucky smartly doesn’t stray from what distinguishes Kentucky- fried chicken, horses, and bourbon are all still heavily featured in the advertisements. The difference is in how the team sells these factors, keenly aware of the power of popular sentiment in messaging. The campaign may not have staying power- and has little chance of ever being approved as the ‘official’ state tagline, but it does raise questions about how to define a branding ‘best practice.’

Regardless, the campaign is bringing more attention to Kentucky- and isn’t that the point of a branding campaign?

Watch the introductory video for ‘Kentucky Kicks Ass’ below. Would you visit the re-branded Kentucky?

Kentucky For Kentucky

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