August 2013

Branding Bluffton's "State of Mind"

Author: Debbie Szpanka


Branding a town is a tough task. Branding Bluffton is even more challenging. How do Bluffton town leaders brand the nebulous, multi-faceted, and often indescribable qualities that make Bluffton a “State of Mind?”

What makes this branding task even more complex is that Bluffton is a potpourri of contradictions. It’s rustic and laid-back yet has Palmetto Bluff, one of the world’s most upscale resorts and residential properties. Bluffton boasts of its natural beauty and recreational opportunities of the May River. Sometimes described as the “Key West of the Lowcountry,” Bluffton is also the first non-metropolitan town in South Carolina to establish a business incubator. The Don Ryan Center for Innovation, a partnership with Clemson University’s Institute for Economic and Community Development, is now providing a template for other towns to cultivate technology and knowledge-based business start-ups.

Combining the “Salt Life” with cutting-edge innovation is a difficult visual. While the Town is many things to many people, one common theme keeps emerging from its residents. There’s a big love for Bluffton. Whether someone was born here or landed here from the Northeast, Midwest, or other points in the South, those who have attended the public branding sessions are all singing different notes of the same love song.

How do you capture and cultivate this love for a town, the abstract “State of Mind” of Bluffton and the Town’s many qualities into one brand? A committee of Bluffton community and business leaders called in the experts.

The Branding Task Force selected and hired Charleston-based advertising experts, Rawle Murdy, to find a branding direction through the jungle of attributes that make up Bluffton. Branding Bluffton is one part of the Town’s campaign to direct its destiny as an economically-diverse area, while holding onto its unique flavor of being one of the last coastal villages of the South. The process is expected to take about six months as town leaders, researchers, social media experts and advertising executives listen to many audiences about what attracts or distracts people from coming to Bluffton as a resident, tourist or business owner. Accommodation tax proceeds will underwrite the project.

To ensure that as many people and opinions as possible are involved, the branding process consist of a handful of charrettes, or public sessions, in-depth interviews, a survey and the monitoring of social media sites.

Why brand a town? Ask a cattle farmer
Thanks to cattle farmers, branding was born as a way to differentiate cows as they freely roamed on each other’s properties. Farmers marked or branded their cows so they knew what was distinctive about each herd. As cows were converted to cash, those differences also determined which farmers got richer.

Destination branding operates under the same concept as free-roaming cows. Many people graze in and out of the boundary lines of the Lowcountry, not knowing where one town starts and one ends.

“Our residents strongly believe we are a world unto our own; we have our own culture, our own businesses and our own identity,” Mayor Lisa Sulka said. “However, we repeatedly hear non-residents say they don’t know where exactly Bluffton begins and how far it extends.”

Sulka said newcomers often overlook Bluffton as a gem of the Lowcountry.

“Overnight Bluffton went from a one-square mile town to a 54-square mile jurisdiction due to annexation in the late ’90s; we are now one of the largest towns in South Carolina,” Sulka said. “However, Bluffton, at times, is literally the middle child of the Lowcountry, as it is sandwiched between the success of Hilton Head Island and the popular culture and historic sites of Savannah.

“What doesn’t help matters is when businesses on Highway 278 such as Sun City have Hilton Head as part of their names. Some of those businesses are miles away from Hilton Head Island, and some are even located in a different county,” Sulka said.

“However businesses want to be a part of the island’s success story—and that’s effective branding.”

Bluffton grows up
Since 1852, Bluffton was a sleepy one-square mile town—a place where wealthy plantation owners went in the summers to catch a break from the heat as the breeze from the May River wafted through summer homes. The Town skyrocketed in size in 1998 when it annexed Palmetto Bluff, a tract of land nearly the size of Hilton Head Island.

That annexation triggered several other tracts of land requesting to be annexed by the Town, which expanded the Town from one square mile to its current 54-square miles.
U.S. Census numbers skyrocketed from 2000 to 2010, indicating that the Town grew 882.7 percent during that time.

“If you drive through Bluffton, you will see a quaint, beautiful town on the surface. What bubbles just underneath the surface is a slew of innovation, progressive land planning and big goals to create a prosperous future for the Town and its residents.
“The Town is like a high school senior. We have a proud past and solid indicators of where we want to go; we just have to do the work now to get there,” Sulka said.

Bluffton takes a lesson from Vegas
Branding Bluffton is just one task in a multi-faceted plan to recruit knowledge-based jobs to the Town to diversify its economy and provide primary jobs to its residents for years to come.

“People don’t realize how much time and effort is involved in building quality brands,” said Dr. Simon Hudson, director of the Center of Economic Excellence in Tourism and Economic Development at the University of South Carolina. “Las Vegas gives us a great example of what works and what doesn’t work in destination branding.”

Hudson, who is also a researcher for the Bluffton branding project, said that in the ’90s, Las Vegas tried to brand itself as a family-friendly destination. The city’s big mistake was its new family-friendly brand evolved from a process involving only representatives from the hospitality industry. MGM Grand even spent $100 million to build an amusement park for children.

“This brand failed miserably; apparently parents couldn’t multi-task babysitting and gambling on vacation. It just didn’t mix well.” Hudson said.

“Las Vegas then spent three years interviewing a wide-range of audiences from frequent gamblers to people who have never been to the city. That research indicated Las Vegas was a place for people to be safely dangerous on a vacation,” Hudson said. “Now its brand, “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas,” is one of the most successful destination brands.

Hudson said that quality branding is a process that takes time as it involves exploratory surgery into many people’s opinions about the town.

Bluffton as a celebrity
The Branding of Bluffton started in June with a handful of public sessions. Researchers from University of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina/Beaufort (New River Campus) facilitated exercises to “dig deep” into people’s perceptions about Bluffton. What makes people live and establish their business there, or what turns them away? That’s the main question.

It was an open invitation to anyone with an opinion to attend. More than a 100 people came. During one exercise, researchers asked the participants to describe Bluffton as a celebrity. Andy Griffith, Forrest Gump, Sandra Bullock and Jimmy Buffett were common answers. Add in the Town’s business incubator and the starship Enterprise comes up.

How does one combine a box of chocolate, a hometown gal, a margarita and Spock? Stay tuned. Bluffton is scheduled to roll out its new brand by the end of the year.

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