Kentucky should embrace the creativity, if not the slogan

January 6, 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?”


Not enough for a Super Bowl ad, but a start

November 7, 2011

Proud Kentuckians, left to right: Col. Harland Sanders, Kent Carmichael, Griffin VanMeter, Whit Hiler. Photo by Tom Eblen

Three 30-something marketers who launched an Internet fundraising campaign to sponsor a Super Bowl commercial about the greatness of Kentucky fell considerably short of their $3.5 million goal.

The trio aren’t giving up, though. They plan to drop back and punt.

When the 60-day deadline on their Kickstarter.com fundraising drive expired Monday morning, Whit Hiler, Griffin VanMeter and Kent Carmichael had received 576 pledges totaling $112,287.

Not bad, but not nearly enough to place a commercial on the nation’s most expensive television buy. Because the project didn’t meet its goal, none of the pledges can be collected through Kickstarter.com.

VanMeter said the three plan to produce a commercial anyway and launch a new, smaller Kickstarter campaign to buy time on Kentucky stations to show it in or around the Super Bowl telecast on Feb. 5. They also will put the spot on their project’s Web site: KentuckyForKentucky.com

“All the marketing and branding people jumped on the idea and thought it was great,” VanMeter said. Many volunteered video production resources that will come in handy for making the commercial.

One thing that came out of the campaign, VanMeter said, was how many people are proud to be Kentuckians, and what a good brand Kentucky for Kentucky could be for T-shirts and other merchandise. So far, their website has been a compilation of little-known facts about great Kentuckians, contributed by the site’s users.

“It was a breath of fresh air that energized people,” VanMeter said of the fundraising campaign. “We know Kentucky is a great brand.”

Click here to read my Sept. 14 column about the effort. Here is the project’s website and Facebook page.


Promote Kentucky on the Super Bowl? Why not?

September 14, 2011

It is an idea so crazy, it just might work.

Griffin VanMeter, Kent Carmichael and Whit Hiler are 30-something marketing guys. They also are native Kentuckians who are proud of their state and think everyone else should be proud of it, too.

A year ago, they had this idea: Let’s produce a television commercial promoting the “brand” of Kentucky and get it on the Super Bowl telecast.

“We want to show how much character and influence has come out of Kentucky and is still coming out of Kentucky,” VanMeter said. “It’s a big story we’re trying to tell, and we want to put it on the biggest stage possible. It would be the most talked-about Super Bowl commercial ever.”

The trio began in April by creating a Facebook page called Kentucky for Kentucky. Since then, more than 1,950 fans have contributed to lists and photo galleries of great Kentucky people, places and products.

Kent Carmichael, left, Griffin Van Meter, center, and Whit Hiler. Photo by Tom Eblen

Then, on Thursday, they went public with their Super Bowl idea using the hot crowd-funding Web site Kickstarter.com. An Internet video promoting the effort has gone viral, and media attention has come from, among others, the big tech news site Mashable.com and Advertising Age magazine’s Web site.

Their goal is to raise $3.5 million in 60 days. After five days, more than 200 backers have made online pledges of more than $41,000, in increments as small as $1. They have received two $10,000 pledges — “We can see who they are, so we know they’re legit,” said VanMeter, a partner in the Lexington marketing agency Bullhorn.

An effort like this would have been a lot harder before Kickstarter.com, which lets people pitch creative projects to a huge online audience. Backers pledge as little as $1 or as much as they want, but their credit card isn’t charged unless the idea reaches its fund-raising goal by the specified deadline.

Backers will get prizes: bumper stickers, T-shirts, maybe even a cameo appearance in the commercial. But unless the $3.5 million goal is met by Nov. 7, nobody is on the hook.

“Once we get this groundswell of support, some of the big people will get behind it,” VanMeter said. “Besides, this whole idea is so much bigger than a Super Bowl commercial.”

So what is the idea, really?

“The short answer is that it’s about Kentucky pride,” he said.

“As brands go, Kentucky is an awesome brand,” said Hiler, who works for Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions in Lexington. “It’s a lot cooler than Doritos. We’ve got years on them.”

He has a point: Kentucky was America’s first Western frontier and has produced the likes of Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, Muhammad Ali and George Clooney. It is the namesake of two of the world’s best-known brands — Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Kentucky Derby. Kentuckians have created everything from bourbon whiskey and bluegrass music to the traffic signal and the high five.

But, Carmichael noted, any Kentuckian who has lived elsewhere has heard the jokes about going shoeless and marrying your cousin.

Kentucky has more than its share of problems, including too much obesity and too little education.

“People need to believe in Kentucky, and that can help solve a lot of problems,” VanMeter said.

“There’s no agenda, no reason for anyone not to like this idea,” said Carmichael, a Lexington native and a copywriter for Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Boulder, Colo. He said the three of them don’t plan to make any money on this project and are not fronting for any company, political group or “official” anything.

If they raise the money in time to reserve a commercial spot on the Super Bowl telecast Feb. 5, what will they do?

“The least of our worries will be getting the commercial made,” Hiler said.

With $3.5 million worth of public momentum, the three marketers said, they think Kentucky producers, directors, writers and actors would rush to help them make one awesome Kentucky commercial. Are you listening, George Clooney, Jerry Bruckheimer and Ashley Judd?

And if they don’t make it to the Super Bowl? Well, they already have drawn a lot of positive attention to an outrageously creative idea coming out of Kentucky. And that’s sort of the point.