The brand called Virginia

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier
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Photo by Mark Rhodes

A brand is an emotional thing; it’s how you feel about something.  A brand isn’t a name or slogan; it’s not a tagline or logo. A brand is the sum of the emotions conjured up by the mention of a company, an organization, a product or a service.  Are these emotions good or bad?  Maybe you are indifferent. 

Perhaps you need to know more.  Maybe you just don’t care.  Perhaps they are just not relevant.

Can a place have a brand?  Sure, why not?  Think about it.  Do you (heart) NY?  Is Florida the “Sunshine State?”  Have you stopped “Messin’ with Texas?”  Is Virginia “for Lovers?” Yes, these are the slogans and taglines, but how do they make you feel?

I remember the summer vacations of my childhood.  We’d drive down U.S. 460 to the beach (these were the pre-interstate days).  Motoring past vast Southside farms with camping gear in the trunk of the car, we’d travel through Waverly and Suffolk.  There was, and still may be, a larger than life sign, a statuesque figure of Mr. Peanut standing over the fields.  Brands make lasting memories. Gotta love those peanuts!

How about the “Mother of Presidents?”  Remember that one?  Virginia has been the birthplace of more presidents than any other state.  This claim may be kind of worn out — Woodrow Wilson was the last, and he was elected more than a century ago.  Today, it’s arguably doubtful any state wants to boast about being the mother of politicians.  Yes, brands can get worn down or at least a bit tarnished.

Not all brands are positive, and brands are created both intentionally and unintentionally.  It’s generally best to go the intentional route, aiming for the positive.

Brands are also enduring; that’s a good thing.  Let’s think about the brand of a place.  By most every measure Charlottesville is a great place.  It’s home to one of the nation’s top-ranked “public Ivy” schools, the University of Virginia.  Founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, U.Va., with its  Rotunda and residential Lawn, fulfilled his vision of an “Academical Village.”  Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, the “father” of the U.S. Constitution, served as the university’s first two rectors.  By history and geography, as well as intellectual proximity, the brands of Charlottesville and Virginia are inextricably entwined.

Moving to the present day, however, it is impossible to forget the recent violence in Charlottesville. Television images of torch-carrying white supremacists marching through the Grounds and the confrontation in Emancipation Park, including the death of a counter-protestor, are not easily dismissed, nor should they be. 

Before the August incident, Charlottesville was not a stranger to controversies that grab national attention. In 2014, Rolling Stone falsely reported a horrific rape at a U.Va. fraternity house. And in 2012, the board of visitors forced the resignation of President Teresa A. Sullivan, only to overturn the decision in the face of a revolt by students, faculty and alumni. Reaction to the August incident, however, shook the nation.

Nonetheless, Charlottesville and U.Va. remain positive brands.  Why?  Because of Mr. Jefferson’s influence, of course.

It makes a difference whether a place is actually known for something really good before something really bad happens.  I’m sure Ferguson, Mo., wishes it could have had even a fraction of Charlottesville’s national reputation before becoming known as ground zero for Black Lives Matter (and black lives do matter).

If brands are emotions, then they are living, breathing things.  They need nurturing.  Great brands have relevance and authenticity.

So, what are we doing with the brand called Virginia?

One of Jefferson’s great causes was public education.  How is Virginia doing?  General fund support for education at all levels is down over the past couple of decades.  Similarly, infrastructure and economic development needs are barely being met.

Is the “New Virginia Economy” really working?  Coal jobs aren’t coming back, and the craft beer jobs replacing them don’t pay nearly the same.  Is the commonwealth’s economy really diversifying away from over-dependence on Dee Cee?

Rural and urban areas remain two completely different places in terms of economic success.  Health care?  Take a cue from the General Assembly; let’s not even talk about it.

On the other hand, what would it mean to return to “The Virginia Way?”  Genteel statesmanship or just low-tax, low-spend, don’t rock the boat, fiscal and social conservatism?  Is that really the way forward?  Is the Virginia Way a return to socially repressive Byrd-Machine politics?  Let’s hope not.

Oh, heck! I almost forgot there’s an election in November.  Virginia is one of only two states with a governor’s race the year after the presidential election — a proverbial canary in the coal mine.  Get yourself to the voting booth.  Go ahead and get emotional.  Give some thought to the brand called Virginia.  What do you want it to stand for?

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