Ranting

Greetings from Southwesternest Tennessee

December 10th, 2021

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(published in The Daily Memphian, December 3, 2021)

Friday afternoons are times of high alert in ad agencies.

Dozens of your clients and those they employ in their advertising and marketing departments are about to have a weekend, and whatever problem or concern or forgotten project that’s been lingering all week – whatever has just caught fire on the corner of their collective desks ­– needs attention. They will hand that steaming pile to you.

Their weekend plans remain intact. Yours change.

For example, one Friday afternoon years ago Holiday Inns called. Their products division was a client. Seems they had forgotten that they needed names for their catalog of stainless flatware. The flatware they sold to franchisees and hotels all over the world. Names for 73 patterns. By Monday.

I was the copywriter who got that assignment. Chances are pretty good you’ve forked over, or spooned in, or cut up with something I named. Hopefully, it was from the earlier easier group of patterns – say, names inspired by woodlands, meadows, and gardens – than the stuff I was coming up with at the end – say, names inspired by dive bars and obscure Hungarian royalty.

I’ve been naming stuff for 50 years and done more branding than the bunkhouse in Yellowstone. Along the way, I’ve had every kind of client there is from some of the greatest to more than my fair share of those that can’t get out of the way of their own egos, from those with true vision to those who are blind to the damage they do every day to their brands.

None of them were as clueless about messaging and branding as our legislature in Nashville – wait – as our legislature in Slightlynorthcentrally Tennessee.

For example, our new license plate. Please. I’ve seen more creativity and better design in the ingredients list on a bag of potato chips, and less required information. We were actually given four of these plates to vote on – four – and the only thing appealing about any of them was that there weren’t five.

I guess I should have sympathy for the company that designed this thing. First, they had the state for a client. Second, they were given so many limitations and requirements by the state that a clean impactful design, something that reflects well on our state and its uniqueness, was impossible. Let’s see ... we’ll need the shape of the state in there somewhere, and the three stars from the three grand divisions ... and, yeah, “The Volunteer State” ... and, of course ... the URL for the state vacation site because everybody is going to want to come when they see this plate ... and, of course, “in God we trust” ... and, hey, could we put my mother’s recipe for chicken salad in the corner? I guess we’ll make those last two optional.

They actually made it a state law that “Tennessee,” “Volunteer State,” and “TNvacation.com” have to be on the license plate. A law. In the face of everything we face as a state, this is how the legislature spends its time.

This license plate is design by committee. A camel is a horse designed by committee.

Another example of boneheaded branding by the General Assembly – worse than the license plates – is the official removal of Memphis from the Megasite name.

This time, and again, the insult is personal. To what I do for a living. To my hometown.

The boys from rural Tennessee – and our legislators are mostly boys from rural Tennessee acting mostly like boys – are doing what naughty boys in rural communities have always done. They’re metaphorically climbing up to the top of the Memphis Regional Megasite water tower to paint out what they don’t like.

Memphis.

After Ford picked the Memphis Regional Megasite for about six billion dollars’ worth of investment making electric trucks – after research largely done by the Memphis Regional Chamber convinced Ford of the viability of the Memphis-area labor pool and the accessibility of the market to the world – the legislature changed the name to:

The Megasite of West Tennessee.

No more “Regional,” limiting the much wider scope. No more “Memphis,” limiting the instant global recognition. Limiting.

A petty action by petty people.

Evidently, they’re not making Volkswagens outside of Chattanooga, that’s Southeasternest Tennessee. Cars aren’t being made in Spring Hill outside of Nashville but in Slightlynorthcentrally Tennessee.

The world doesn’t know West Tennessee. The world knows Memphis. The former is an area, a direction. The latter is a destination. The former is a section of a state. The latter is a regional economic, cultural, and historic driver of creativity, innovation, and discovery. The former sounds pointedly and purposefully rural. The latter is a major urban hub on America’s greatest river, bordering two other states, a national crossroad for rail and road, home to the largest cargo airport in the world. The former doesn’t cross state lines. The latter is not defined or confined by them.

Memphis is mentioned in more songs than any city in the world. West Tennessee is mentioned in none.

Let me clarify before my friends in Brownsville come after me. The people of West Tennessee – folks in Haywood County and in Jackson, those suddenly hopeful in Stanton and Brownsville and Covington, in Alex Haley’s Henning, in Tina Turner’s Nutbush, and more – are all part of this future.

Those over meat-and-three at Suga’s Diner in Stanton will benefit more individually than Memphians over ribs at The Rendezvous. But all of us are part of something much bigger and much more deserving than general geography.

We have soul.

The overarching brand – the name that will place the Megasite in time and space and place ­­– in feeling ­– is Memphis. That’s the largest part of where we all are, and the world finds it inviting. And the invitation includes North Mississippi and Eastern Arkansas.

Whether or not the General Assembly realizes it – and they and many Memphians don’t – Memphis has a positive worldwide brand. Whether or not the General Assembly realizes the value of that – and they don’t – Ford does.

They’re starting something new in a part of the world that’s known for that. Known by name.

While Ford is naming this massive new venture Blue Oval City after their brand, the state they’re building it in has just removed any association with one of its most famous.

I’m a Memphian, and outside of West Tennessee – and everywhere but the chambers of our own state legislature – that means something.

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