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The cost of a name: Johnson City to consider $48,000 contract for regional name recommendation

Zach Vance • Updated Apr 3, 2019 at 8:32 PM

Is a name or “brand identity” worth $48,000?

Johnson City commissioners will decide on Thursday when they vote on a $48,000 contract for a marketing consultancy to provide recommendations for naming the collective Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia region.

The Nashville-based company, North Star Destination Strategies, was originally contracted for $98,500 in November 2017 to create a new brand logo, sesquicentennial logo and educational video for the City of Johnson City.

The proposal up for consideration Thursday would be an addendum to the original contract to include “the formation of a regional brand and name for the region where the states of Tennessee and Virginia meet.”

The $48,000 contract amount was calculated by North Star using a $175 average hourly rate, the agenda states.

While Johnson City elected leaders will be the only ones voting on the contract, Mayor Jenny Brock said the effort is supported by stakeholders and elected officials in Kingsport, Bristol, Sullivan County and Washington County.

Brock also said Johnson City will not pay the entire $48,000 contract, although no official agreement exists, as of Wednesday, explaining how much each government or stakeholder will pay back to Johnson City.

“Everybody would pitch in just a small portion because we’ve had numerous people who have agreed that this is the direction we need to go,” Brock said. 

“We’ve had a couple meetings on it, and everybody has stepped up and said, ‘Yes, we will participate.’ So, we don’t have anything in writing, but we feel like everybody in those groups are good for their word.”

In early 2018, Jerry Caldwell, Bob Feathers and Andy Dietrich, then chairmen of the Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City Chambers of Commerce, respectively, saw the need for a regional identity to enhance marketing efforts and promote unity among the region.

In pursuit of that goal, the chambers released a promotional video that labeled the region as the “Appalachian Highlands.”

“We were like, ‘If no one else is coming up with a name, and no one else is coming to the table to even express interest in coming up with a name, we decided to take a leap of faith and throw it to see if it stuck, knowing good and well that it might go over great, it might not go over at all or it might receive a lukewarm reception,” Dietrich said.

While Dietrich said the video and name received plenty of positive comments, some in the region expressed concern about “Appalachian” having a negative connotation. 

During the same period, an informal regionalism group, led by Dietrich, Caldwell and Feathers, started meeting to discuss regional topics, like festivals, opioid addiction and specifically regional branding.

The three men slowly invited more and more stakeholders to the meetings throughout 2018 to gather more input, and eventually, the mayors and city managers of Johnson City, Bristol, Kingsport, Washington County and Sullivan County were brought to the table.

“It’s not an exclusive club. It’s just, if we started out inviting 300 or 400 people in a room, we probably wouldn’t get a whole lot done,” Dietrich said about the group.

Dietrich said it was at one of those meetings when some of the mayors and city managers expressed concern about how “Appalachian” is perceived by some people, particularly those outside the region.

“They’re like, ‘Well, we may want to go with (Appalachian Highlands), but we’re willing to put forth some money to do a study to see if anything else comes to light,’” Dietrich said.

Brock added that the Appalachian Mountains span 2,200 miles, all of which are technically “highlands.”

“So (Appalachian Highlands) doesn’t really tell where we are,” the mayor said. “This is an opportunity for us, from a regional standpoint, to do something that everybody can connect it to and move forward.”

In the contract, North Star proposes spending eight weeks of research, audits, interviews, studies and surveys. An “optional community survey” would also be available for an additional $5,000.

The scope of work, outlined in the North Star proposal, includes:

• If feasible, a light plane flyover of the region to conduct an aerial tour;

• A review of the region’s history, goals, existing marketing materials, brands, logos, messaging and recent press;

• Intensive one-on-one interviews with approximately 20 elected officials, staff, stakeholders and private sector groups;

• Phone interviews with experts in various fields significant to defining a regional territory, such as geography, culture and arts;

• A consumer perception and attitude study of people in markets outside and within the regional footprint; and

• Testing a short list of possible names among market professionals nationwide.

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