Posted by: kwbrand | June 17, 2007

Tssss! Colorado’s Getting Branded

I don’t currently own a “Colorado Native” bumper sticker, but I want one. I’m not only a Colorado native; I have the zeal of a prodigal who has recently returned home. I love the weather. I love the view. I love that I can pick Colorado residents out of a crowd of travelers. (Hint: it’s the outdoor gear; Coloradoans think nothing of wearing hiking boots to the airport). I love that I can instinctively find my way to and from my favorite mountain haunts. What has come as a bit of surprise is the vibe I get from some of those same mountain haunts.

Ten years ago, I could enter a tourist souvenir shop in almost any little mountain town and know that it would reliably carry wildflowers pressed between sheets of glass, beef jerky, moccasins, plastic tomahawks, vibrant polyester dream-catchers and other pastel-colored “taco-deco” southwestern fare. Now, I find that in order to access the same town, I must first curve around a beautifully landscaped, European-style roundabout or get parking instructions from guard-shack attendants wearing matching Nordic sweaters. While there, I have my pick of trendy bistros or I can browse through shops that sell everything from Chihuly blown-glass pieces to belts too fabulous for comprehension and for the half-off sale (!) price of $600.

When I left Colorado ten years ago, the family ranch house in Eagle County looked out over open land on which cattle grazed bearing the family brand. Now the view from that same window looks over a golf course and the cul-de-sacs of several new housing developments. Obviously, none of these changes happened overnight; this transformation began before I left. And all worthy debates about property development aside, as a brand marketing consultant, I find the cumulative changes fascinating and a little troubling. It seems that Colorado—my own gorgeous and sometimes fashion-backward Colorado—is somewhere along the awkward continuum of getting re-branded and I hope we don’t lose ourselves in the process.

I use the term “brand” not as the cows on the family ranch know it (although if you Google “Colorado” and “branding” most of the top ten hits still refer to agricultural standards for branding livestock), I use the term “brand” as brand marketing consultants and advertisers use it; as a short way of describing the experience one can expect from contact with a business.

Sometimes the brand is clear, but negative. For example, when you think of the local branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles, your mind probably summons images of long lines, surly expressions and bureaucratic hoop-jumping. However, some companies and entities carefully and consciously manage their brands so that their primary strengths and values are manifest in every step of the relational interaction. In those cases, a business or enterprise (such as a state) strives to artfully combine the best of who they are with the primary values of their audience in a way that creates a meaningfully different, credible and valuable experience. When that happens, a powerful brand evolves—powerful because it’s an experience that represents the core of the business’ strengths manifest in a product or experience that the customer will pursue because it feels authentic and unique.

What concerns me about the recent identity changes in Colorado’s mountain towns is not that they are not beautiful or well-executed; many of the mountain resort towns have become the height of sophistication and glamour. My concern is in their authenticity. Don’t get me wrong, Colorado’s image needed some classing up in order to help us grow, but I wonder if some of the prevailing attempts to “get culture” have borrowed too extensively from the Swiss Alps and overlooked our own rich background in the meantime. As we attempt to sharpen the focus of our identity, we shouldn’t forget that Colorado was, not so very long ago, the Wild West.

In some ways, I feel as though our current branding efforts are tantamount to asking our rugged pioneering soul to make daisy chains or sing Edelweiss while twirling in circles on a mountaintop. Let’s glam it up, by all means, but let’s do so by doing what Coloradoans did in the past—mining deeply for the riches of what we have to offer by identifying the values and characteristics that made people fall in love in the beginning.

The reasons that brought our founders to Colorado were surely as varied as the people themselves. Our pioneering founders were a mixed bag of ethnicities, religious convictions and occupations. Some probably came west to escape their lives while others were drawn to the promise of potential. Whatever the particular source of their individual motivation, however, our founders shared several values. They eschewed stability in favor of the untamed loveliness of the mountains. They were willing to endure a certain sense of the rugged unknown in order to pursue an adventure and enrich their lives. The wildness of it all was either an inherent part of the attraction or it was worth the payoff of the unclaimed opportunity. Either way, Colorado’s heritage was founded on more of a wild, hopeful spirit of quest than an interest in elegant, old-world placidity and stability. So as we move forward, we cannot allow our brand experience to get too tame. It won’t feel right, not to the natives who are asked to sustain the Colorado brand experience and not to the people who find themselves lured by the possibility of a mountain adventure.

As a Colorado native, I am proud of Colorado even as it struggles to define itself. As a Colorado native, I also hope that we will never lose sight of the strengths and values that make us feel truly at home. Now, where can I get one of those bumper stickers?


 Kyndra Wilson, KW Brand Translation


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