Final Analysis: A City's Sign Language


Elsewhere in this month’s issue, some pretty clever people weigh in on how they would “brand” Seattle if given the opportunity. Some suggest that trying to brand a place is a bad idea. Especially a place like Seattle, which is appealing on so many levels that you’d have to be comatose to be unaware of its lures.

But that reluctance hasn’t stopped promoters from trying “Metronatural” as a brand for Seattle and “Say WA” for Washington. Remember them?

As advertising slogans go, they weren’t exactly first-ballot entries into the Branding Hall of Fame. Each surfaced in 2006, when city and state tourism promoters were apparently flush with cash and imbued with the spirit of sloganeering. “Metronatural” actually lasted a few years, supposedly resonating with out-of-towners despite eliciting considerable ridicule at home. “Say WA” was pretty much dead on arrival, lampooned far and wide for its stoner vibe. 

Absent a pile of advertising dollars — and common sense among its leaders — a place can still be branded, and, in some cases, none too positively. Witness South Carolina. Its longtime aversion to removing the Confederate battle flag from the capitol grounds in Columbia had branded it as a place of clueless, tone-deaf ideologues. That it took a murderous terrorist attack by a racist nut job to create a shift in the political winds of opportunism is both eye opening and heartbreaking.

It is also curious that, until nine people died in Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church at the hands of Dylann Roof, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley had always said the issue of the Confederate flag on statehouse property was, in fact, a nonissue. She liked to point out that all the CEOs whose companies she had wooed to South Carolina’s right-to-work bosom had never even mentioned it to her, had never suggested that a symbol of bigotry branded South Carolina as a backward, insensitive place to do business.

I’m not sure which is more troubling: Haley’s absolute callousness on the matter or the possibility that not one CEO ever said anything to her about the Confederate flag. 
After the massacre of the Mother Emanuel nine on June 17, Boeing announced that it would give $100,000 to the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund to help “provide for the needs of the family members of the victims.” It was a nice gesture, one that Boeing VP and General Manager Beverly Wyse said reflected the community’s true character, which she said is “rooted in courage, hope and resilience.”

With more than 7,500 employees in South Carolina, Boeing today has the kind of clout it has in Washington state, where it regularly threatens to hold its breath or move elsewhere whenever it feels unloved or when things don’t go its way. If it wanted to display some real cojones instead of composite ones, it could have said five years ago to South Carolina officials: “Stop flying the Confederate battle flag or we won’t open a plant in your state.”

And if we’re to believe Governor Haley that no executive from Boeing — or any other company — ever complained about the Confederate flag, consider what might have happened if some executives had actually spoken up years ago. Could the murder of nine people have been avoided?

Who knows? Branding is about creating awareness and fostering acceptance. If Dylann Roof had lived in a place whose state officials repudiated a symbol of intolerance and hatred, if he’d lived in a place where the biggest employers demanded an environment of acceptance and sensitivity, imagine the possibilities.

Maybe branding a place isn’t such a bad idea. 

John Levesque is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.

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