Tom Eblen: When it comes to marketing creativity, Kentucky kicks itself in the, um, teeth

Herald-Leader columnistJanuary 5, 2013 

Kentucky kicks ass. Often, unfortunately, its own.

To stay with anatomical metaphors, Kentuckians are good at shooting ourselves in the foot. We consider creative people to be a thorn in our side, because new ideas can be a pain in the neck.

So I wasn't surprised at the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism's tone-deaf response to three 30-something advertising men from Lexington who suggested that "Kentucky Kicks Ass" would be a more effective state marketing slogan than "Unbridled Spirit."

The suggestion came from Kentucky for Kentucky, a little company formed two years ago by Griffin VanMeter of Bullhorn Creative, Whit Hiler of Cornett-IMS and fellow Lexington native Kent Carmichael, who works for Energy BBDO in Chicago.

Kentucky for Kentucky began as a hobby — an online platform for celebrating the young men's pride in their state, its people, places, history and "general awesomeness."

They started with a Facebook page and website. Then, in the fall of 2011, they drew national attention with an unsuccessful online campaign to raise $3.5 million for a commercial promoting Kentucky on the Super Bowl telecast.

Their kick-ass branding idea was unveiled last month in a cheeky YouTube video that also attracted national attention. In the video, Hiler and VanMeter argued that the "Unbridled Spirit" slogan state government has used since 2004 is, well, lame.

(Maybe so, but it is a big improvement over "It's that Friendly," which appeared on Kentucky license plates from 2002-2005 along with a smiley-faced sun that looked like it belonged in a Walmart ad.)

The Kentucky for Kentucky guys hired Lexington artists Brian and Sara Turner of Cricket Press to design a cool Kentucky Kicks Ass logo, which they have printed on T-shirts and other merchandise for sale on their website, Kentuckyforkentucky.com.

They also created some sample tourism ads that cleverly promote Kentucky's places and culture while minimizing the word they acknowledge may offend some people.

State tourism officials were not amused.

"We certainly would not sanction or endorse that phraseology," spokesman Pat Stipes told a USA Today reporter. "These guys are Kentucky natives and they love the state. But they have a different constituency. Which is no one."

For these ambitious marketers, that fuddy-duddy response was a gift.

"We couldn't have asked for anything better," VanMeter said. "It really gave this a lot more legs than it had."

The controversy generated even more press coverage — and a lot of orders for Kentucky Kicks Ass T-shirts. VanMeter also has received emails from organizations within Kentucky, and as far away as Arizona, seeking creative help for their own rebranding efforts.

State Tourism Commissioner Mike Mangeot sent the guys a letter offering congratulations for a slogan that has "generated a lot of buzz about Kentucky and all our beautiful Commonwealth has to offer." But he insisted they clarify that state government neither sought nor sanctioned their work.

The Kentucky for Kentucky guys replied to Mangeot with a letter from their lawyer, Scott White, saying they never meant to imply such a thing.

The letter also included an open-records request for all "emails, notes, written correspondence, memoranda" and any other communication with state government discussing his clients and their slogan. White said state officials had not responded as of Friday.

When I called tourism officials for comment, spokesman Gil Lawson offered only this statement: "We applaud the creativity and efforts of these three gentlemen. It's great that they support their home state of Kentucky."

I hope that when the Kentucky for Kentucky guys receive a response to their open-records request, it will include internal communication among high-ranking state officials that goes something like this:

"Our strategy worked perfectly! By playing the role of clueless bureaucrats we generated a lot of free publicity for Kentucky. Of course, we can't actually endorse their slogan. We would rather be boring than take the chance of offending anyone. But what can we do to quietly support this kind of home-grown creativity?"

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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