Now, about that new brand

What is it we - and outsiders - think North Carolina is all about?
By Ken Otterbourg
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When he ran for governor, Pat McCrory often sounded like an advertising executive calling on a potential client who was thinking of changing agencies. The product was faltering, and the brand was stale. “I’m telling you,” he said in an interview with this magazine last year, “that the brand of North Carolina economic development has been diminished in the past five to 10 years and, in many ways, we’re still living off the past brand, which we can be proud of, but we haven’t updated that brand in comparison to what our competitors are doing across the borders. The brand now is one of very high income and corporate-income taxes and not favorable in regulation, particularly [for] midsize and smaller companies.”

A year later, here we are. North Carolina’s rebranding is underway.  The Republican-dominated General Assembly is leading the charge, pushing McCrory to the right of the more centrist tones he struck during his campaign. Along with the predictable new laws that cut taxes and reduced unemployment benefits, McCrory and the legislature have restricted access to abortions and the voting booth and tightened growth in education spending. The efforts have created a protest movement, the “Moral Monday” gatherings that weekly rocked the Legislative Building, and they have fueled a story line of North Carolina’s falling (or was it pushed?) from its moderate perch.

The New York Times slammed the state in an editorial headlined: “The Decline of North Carolina.” It read, “North Carolina was once considered a beacon of farsightedness in the South, an exception in a region of poor education, intolerance and tightfistedness. In a few short months, Republicans have begun to dismantle a reputation that took years to build.” The Wall Street Journal fired back, praising the state’s stab at tax reform and McCrory’s courage in challenging the status quo.

Well-starched newspaper editorials are one thing. Maybe so, too, were the often-nightly tirades on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show. But The Daily Show on Comedy Central is a different animal. On Aug. 5, guest host Jon Oliver spent most of his monologue satirizing the state, including asking whether it is now the crazier of the two Carolinas.  Nobody wants to be mocked.

This is a war of words and ideas, but it is in the end about North Carolina’s brand, what we as individuals think of when we think of our state and — as important — what people elsewhere think of the place we call home. It can sound simplistic. North Carolina has 9 million residents and counting. It is 544 miles from Murphy to Manteo. We’re not a bottle of ketchup or a tube of toothpaste.  Which is true but misses the point. We’re selling something far more complicated and expansive, and if we don’t create a brand, the marketplace will do it for us.

It’s easy to confuse brands with slogans, but they’re not the same. A brand is made up of attributes, personality and a promise. A slogan is designed to reinforce a brand: Choosy mothers choose Jif; I’d walk a mile for a Camel; Zoom. Zoom. You get the idea.

So first of all, what has been North Carolina’s brand, the one that supposedly got all stale on us? It was essentially this: First, we were a great place to live, with great scenery, nice weather, a low cost of living and plenty of public amenities (the attributes). Second, we were moderate, a big tent that could include conservatives and liberals bound by a common love of North Carolina (the personality). Third was the promise, which was that this was a place that fostered and encouraged success. If you put all this in the context of a consumer product, people are willing to pay for the attributes as long as they think the personality is relatable and the brand is giving them value, i.e., fulfilling its promise.

I talked with Harvey Schmitt, who is the CEO of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. He suggested that North Carolina’s brand was for years stabilized by a partnership between government, business and education (exhibit A, Research Triangle Park) that thrived under 28 years of governors named Jim. (That would be Holshouser, Hunt, Martin and back to Hunt.) “It permeated everything. Over time, the marketing and vision didn’t hold up. We lost our ability to sustain our brand promise. Without clear vision, it gets lost in the shuffle.”

Of course it wasn’t just the vision thing. The recession hit the state hard. Unemployment soared, and voters in 2010 turned over the General Assembly to the Republicans, turning out the Democrats, the party that had controlled both houses except for a handful of years since Reconstruction. State revenue dropped, and the fiscal pressure has led to cuts and a deeper debate about whether our best attributes — such as the UNC system — provide sufficient value at their current level of expense.

Now, with the Republicans in charge, the brand personality is also under siege. The big, moderate tent that defined North Carolina feels like it has been collapsed and folded up, replaced by a smaller shelter with more rigid requirements for entry. Republicans would argue that their new tent is the true tent, one that more accurately represents residents’ values. Perhaps. Right now, no one knows for sure. That’s what elections are said to be for.

In his public statements, McCrory has done his own bit of branding. The word he uses, again and again, when referring to North Carolina is “comeback.” More recently, he has blamed the liberal, out-of-state media for rushing to judgment and suggested the Raleigh press corps isn’t smart enough to understand the mechanics of tax and budget policy.

clientuploads/Archive_Images/2013/10/GOP-Bright.jpgMac McCorkle is a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a former political consultant who helped guide Mike Easley from a rural district attorney to two terms of governor. (The Easley era — 2001-2009 — wasn’t exactly the apex of effectiveness and ethics in government, but that’s another story for another day.) McCorkle acknowledges that the Democratic approach to maintaining the brand, i.e., spend on the attributes, needs adjusting, but he says the Republican approach carries long-term risks. Part of North Carolina’s brand was this idea of “exceptionalism,” its difference from the rest of the South. The question he asks is, “Are we losing that part of the brand? We’re never going to out-South Carolina South Carolina, so do we just become not South Carolina and not Virginia and just one of the mushy Southern states?”

I have a friend who has done quite well in advertising. He’s a Democrat, so maybe his comments are tainted, but he knows marketing: The brands he has created or resurrected are products you like and buy. He says that brand equity is easy to lose and tough to rebuild. In addition — and perhaps most important — is this idea of market segmentation. A brand that works with one segment of the population (business executives) might not work with others (young adults). “There are some segments who don’t care or applaud the changes in North Carolina,” my friend says. “But among other segments, there’s been damage to the brand.” That’s why the body slams on The Daily Show matter. Today’s hipsters are tomorrow’s CEOs.

A good brand is a successful brand. If you’re selling cars or potato chips, a strong one that reinforces your product helps increase market share and profit. If you’re selling a state, the benchmarks for success are a little more diffuse. There’s unemployment, of course, and job creation, along with per capita income, standardized test scores, poverty rates and all the rest. The brand we create during the next few years, the one that takes hold, will be tested and critiqued, not just on Election Day but in the decisions of retirees, millennials, vacationers and business leaders.

Lew Ebert, chief executive of the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, says the state’s brand ought to be built around superior performance in four distinct areas: talent development, i.e., education; business environment, i.e., taxes and regulation; innovation and entrepreneurship; and infrastructure. North Carolina, he says, has benefited from being seen as a great place to live and having a progressive mindset — “not in a political sense,” he is extremely quick to add but in incorporating the talents and ideas of people from different parts of the country. “We’ve got to make sure that the brand we think we are catches up to what we want to be.”

Marketing types call that concept “living your brand,” and there’s a Latin phrase that underscores that ideal: Esse quam videri — to be, rather than to seem — which has a nice ring to it. And if it weren’t already our state motto, as well as being in a dead language, it might work as a branding statement everyone could embrace.