April 2014

Bluffton: Heart of the Lowcounty

Author: Debbie Szpanka

It was more than six months in the making and took a cast of hundreds. Despite people singing different parts of Bluffton’s song, the chorus was overwhelmingly in unison: Everyone shares a great love of Bluffton, which is the theme that directed the new brand.

“We have never experienced a town which had such a deep and widespread love among its residents,” said Bruce Murdy, president of a Charleston-based branding agency, Rawle Murdy. “It’s like everyone here drinks the Kool-Aid and is not afraid to offer others a sample. This love of Bluffton is welcoming, inviting and inclusive.”

How does a town convey that deep love and speak to different groups with very different reasons to be in Bluffton? The answer is the new brand: Bluffton – Heart of the Lowcountry.

It was almost an impossible task to make one slogan speak to prospective businesses, residents, future residents, tourists and lifelong locals; however, there is a message for each.

“As a town, we were done being literally the middle child of the Lowcountry, situated between Hilton Head Island and Savannah and being viewed as such,” Mayor Lisa Sulka said. “Economically, we are perceived as getting the hand-me-downs of the tourism and real estate industries.”

According to Sulka, those perceptions are far from reality as Bluffton is taking a leadership role in many municipal initiatives and putting programs and projects in place to self-direct its economic future. It needed a new image to more clearly reflect Bluffton.

“Bluffton is the first non-metropolitan town or city in South Carolina to establish its own business incubator, known as a Clemson Technology Village. We are now an example and a mentor to other municipalities.
Bluffton was also the first local Lowcountry town to form a Public Development Corporation. That organization recruits, negotiates and assists prospective companies to locate here,” Sulka said.

Bluffton has also been featured in many regional conferences for its progressive and pro-active affordable housing project, known as the “Wharf Street Redevelopment Project.”

“As a town initiative, we transformed a blighted street, peppered with abandoned properties and replaced it with a beautiful affordable housing neighborhood of coastal cottages,” Sulka said. “This project said to the world that the marriage of affordable housing in the middle of a historic district can work.”

One brand, many audiences
The intensive research conducted during the branding process indicated prospective businesses needed to be centrally located along the Eastern seaboard, near larger cities and transportation hubs while their employees could enjoy the high quality of life of a classic coastal village town.

“For prospective businesses, the heart of the Lowcountry means you are in a central artery and able to move your products to points outward,” Sulka said. “What makes Bluffton unique is its extremely high quality of life; prospective business owners need to know they can have the best of both worlds.”

This slogan also resonates with Bluffton’s ever-growing tourism audience. “Heart of the Lowcountry” also indicates that Bluffton is strategically located between the tourist-draws of the world-class resorts of Hilton Head Island, the historic Savannah sites and antebellum beauty of Beaufort. The “heart” indicates that the town is a beating pulse of the Lowcountry, not just an afterthought or a two-hour detour for tourists. As a “heart,” Sulka said, Bluffton has its own beat as well as keeping other parts of the Lowcountry alive and well.

Perhaps most important, the town’s beloved residents can wrap their hearts around this new slogan. Many have already shown Town Council members and staff where their heart is by submitting photos of their interpretations. Two yogis formed a heart as they stretch their bodies upside down; Chef Richard Canestrari of Pour Richards made a pizza with pepperoni hearts; Pastry Chef Ally Rogers designed a table-wide heart of fresh vegetables and wine; and students at the May River Montessori School arranged themselves as a large heart on the playground.

“This is a brand people can make their own,” Sulka said.

Can’t please all the people all the time
Murdy, who has facilitated numerous branding exercises of towns and cities, said there is no way to get 100 percent buy-in; there will always be people who have a different opinion of what the brand should be. For some, the longtime Bluffton brand, which was developed decades ago when Bluffton was one-square mile, is still their favorite.

The “Bluffton State of Mind,” saying will always be around, Sulka said. “No one can describe what exactly the ‘state of mind,’ is however; it’s like falling in love. You know it when you feel it,” she explained. “For economic development, the ‘state of mind,’ isn’t self-explanatory and wouldn’t work for business recruitment.”

Other naysayers aren’t crazy about spelling Bluffton with a small “b.” However, the Branding Committee, a group made up of community and business leaders, purposely chose that lowercase “b.”

With more than 120 people who attended the branding public sessions, more than 500 people who participated in surveys and more than 30 folks who volunteered for one-on-one in-depth interview, what emerged was a strong value on Bluffton’s culture of “funky, eclectic, artsy and doesn’t take itself too seriously.”

“A brand only has a few words to represent a lot,” Sulka said. “The decision to lowercase the ‘b’ is to represent Bluffton’s unique culture.”

In celebration
As a celebration of the new brand, the town wants to know what your Bluffton heart looks like. The Town of Bluffton, along with the Society of Bluffton Artists (SOBA) and the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, is hosting an art contest and exhibit for the new Bluffton brand. Submit your photographs, paintings, drawings or sculptures of how you interpret the new brand. An awards ceremony will be held Thursday, April 24 at the SOBA’s Center for Creative Arts, 6 Church Street, from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m.

For more information, call the Town of Bluffton’s public information department at (843) 706-4500.

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