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Brand Mississippi: who are we, anyway?

Apologies to my readers — this column deviates a bit from the usual. As this is my first column since Hurricane Katrina, I would like to take the opportunity to opine on what the storm, and events afterward mean to who we are as Mississippians — our brand.

As readers know, this column discusses aspects of branding — how to create a brand, good branding versus bad branding, the importance of branding, etc. A brand, as we have discussed before, is best defined as the thoughts and emotions that come to mind when one thinks of a particular thing. In the advertising world, the “thing” is usually a product or service. However, the idea of a brand can be applied to almost anything — people, places, ideas, actions, etc. In fact, in our modern, commercialized world, the notion of a “brand” has become almost synonymous with identity.

Let’s take Mississippi and examine the brand that is associated with our great state. I don’t think it would come as any great surprise to anyone to hear the Mississippi brand described as “backward,” “backwater,” “back-country,” or any other regressive “back” term that comes to mind. More pointedly, Mississippi’s true brand is “last.” We are last in education, last in income, last in wealth — the perpetual number 50 out of 50 in so many categories that matter. This is how Mississippi makes the national news, and this is how our state has been branded really since Reconstruction. It is an unfortunate brand stereotype that persists to this day.

Angry enough for a change?

If these realizations anger the readers of this column…good. I say this because I, like so many fellow Mississippians I know, are ready for a change in perception.

The Mississippi I know doesn’t match the “Mississippi brand” that has been thrust upon us. Speaking from my personal, professional experience, this state isn’t known as a mecca of advertising. Madison the City is a long way from Madison Avenue. However, I look at the work my colleagues produce, and I am reminded of why I choose to stay and work in this state. I challenge anyone, anywhere to find a more hardworking, more intelligent, resourceful and honest people than those of the great state of Mississippi.

Which brings me to my point — the real Mississippi brand.
Hurricane Katrina devastated the most financially prosperous area of our state. For hundreds of miles inland, the storm left hundreds of thousands of residents without electricity and gasoline, and placed a financial burden on practically everyone. One of the worst natural disasters in this country’s history just happened to come ashore on Mississippi’s shore.

How did our people respond? Shelters at every church. Land owners donated an empty grocery store as a mega distribution point for donations. Private citizens loaded vans and buses with supplies and headed south. So many donations were made that signs were posted that read, “No more clothes needed” and “We have plenty of food.” We took in our own, as well as our brothers and sisters from Louisiana. Policeman and firefighters stayed at their posts — some had to swim for their lives and cling to the tops of trees. Armies of volunteers took clothes, food and even teddy bears to children who lost their homes. Just a few days after the storm, with electricity and fuel still sparse, business owners spoke of rebuilding bigger and better. Most touching of all, families that lost practically all of their worldly possessions proclaim how thankful they are.

That’s the Mississippi I know, and that’s the Mississippi the rest of the world should know, too. Who are we? What is our identity? What is the Mississippi brand? Charitable, resilient, trustworthy, caring, industrious and thankful.

Making a commitment

I, for one, am committed to being an ambassador of this “new” Mississippi brand. I would hope my fellow Mississippians would do the same. Nothing makes my blood boil more than to hear citizens of this state denigrate their own.

As a marketer, I understand the damage word of mouth can cause. On the flip side, nothing builds a good brand faster than positive word of mouth. Political leaders and public policy are fair game for criticism, but we should respect and admire the spirit that is Mississippi and her people.

Witnessing firsthand the inherent goodness of the people of our state in the aftermath of a catastrophe like Katrina, I hope the stereotypes about Mississippi will subside. I for one am proud of my state and her people. It is time the rest of America understands what being “Mississippi” really means.
Next month, we’ll return to the world of advertising jargon, marketing theory and brand-speak — I promise. After all, a return to normalcy is what we all want the most. But for the time being, let us all appreciate the response of Mississippi’s people to the storm of the century. We will persevere, and ultimately thrive, in spite of unprecedented devastation. After all, that’s just what we Mississippians do.

Tim Mask is vice president of brand planning and development at Maris, West & Baker advertising in Jackson. He can be reached at tmask@mwb.com.

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