Finding a brand that fits

Robert Houk • May 6, 2019 at 10:51 AM

I was speaking to a friend last week when our conversation turned to renewed efforts to rebrand our region. Like a number of others in our area, he doesn’t understand why calling ourselves the Tri-Cities is no longer a strategy.

“It’s been fine and dandy for generations,” he said.

Has it really?

A cursory internet search shows a number of other areas of this country also lay claim to the Tri-Cities moniker.

Finding a simple word or phrase to describe the region has long been an elusive goal among community image makers. It’s a particularly daunting task in the digital age.

So what’s all the fuss really about? The simple answer is: Marketing. How do we sell this region to outsiders looking for new housing, economic expansion and tourism opportunities?

What do we tell people who are looking for an affordable place to work and play about ourselves? And how do we do that in a way that provides a gut sensation of all this region has to offer?

It’s not an easy job, and I’m not sure any region of this country has completely nailed it.

Some of our local leaders are championing “Appalachian Highlands” as a more descriptive way to identify Northeast Tennessee. It certainly encompasses the mountains that serve as the majestic background to so many of our communities.

I can remember when “Upper East Tennessee” was used to describe our area. A number of communities in our region still go by their own unique nicknames: “The Valley Beautiful,” “The Model City,” and “Mountain Empire” are just a few that come to mind.

We’ve even had various names for downtown Johnson City. “Little Chicago” seems to have stuck. “Blue Plum Village” hasn’t.

So what do these attempts to rebrand our region tell others about our people? That’s the truly the hardest part of the process.

Cherokee and other Native American names of rivers and landmarks certainly tell the story of the early inhabitants of our region. Then came the Scots/Irish immigrants, who eventually found their way to frontier settlements along the Watauga, Nolichucky and Holston rivers.

Even though the British Crown had forbidden American colonists from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains, it didn’t not stop the stubborn Scots/Irish from defying King George and putting down roots in the sacred land of the Cherokee.

Many say it was the lay of the land that reminded the frontier settlers of the highlands they had left behind. Iconic figures from American history such as David Crockett, Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson were among those with Scots/Irish ancestry who have called this region home.

The culture from the old country left a definite imprint on the music and dance of the Appalachian Mountains. Bluegrass can be traced to the traditional music of the Scotland and Ireland. And clogging is definitely rooted in Celtic folk dance.

The mountains of Northeast Tennessee have a unique history for storytelling, with its people passing down “jack tales” and other legends whose origins can be traced back to the Celtic lands. Experts say many of the dialects spoken in the Appalachians go back to Gaelic and Elizabethan English.

These are things outsiders need to know about the region. Its people were drawn to this part of Appalachia because it reminded them of home. And its beauty and resources inspired them to pursue new opportunities.

How do we say all that in a tagline?

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