Monday, May 19, 2008

Overcoming Kansas

The cover story in the May 15, 2008 issue of Marketing News is about tourism marketing in Kansas. Writer Jeff Borden opens the article: "It's not like the State of Kansas doesn't face enough of an uphill fight luring tourists to attractions such as the World's Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City (population 521), the boyhood home of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Abilene and, of course, the Wizard of Oz museum in Wamego." And so it goes for a state that has been so maligned for so many years that its own citizens suffer a collective sense of shame about the place.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. I serve a university in Kansas' largest city, Wichita. But don't tell that to people who live in the Kansas suburbs of Kansas City. They don't get it and they don't even believe it. We attempted some marketing work last year in the northeast part of the state aimed at recruiting students. It didn't work. Then we conducted research, only to find that people in northeast Kansas thought Wichita was a small cow town too far out in the boonies. We quickly discovered that our task wasn't to market the university -- we had to focus on marketing Wichita to fellow Kansans who were so geocentric that they simply didn't know any better!

Another example: My wife works in a local hospital that has been trying to recruit a new medical director for several years. They've had a few candidates, some of whom have bolted after the first visit when they realize that central Kansas is flat and is 800 miles from Chicago's Magnificent Mile. (If you're interviewing for a new job, shouldn't you at least do a Google search to learn a little bit about the place?!) It's understandable why a lot of Kansans have a complex about this kind of attitude.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, except to suggest a couple things. First, that marketing relationships are frequently dependent upon one another. My university's brand identity is dependent upon that of Wichita's, which is dependent on that of Kansas.

Second, it comes back to targeting. Kansans are a funny lot. Most know the world makes fun of their location as flat and uninteresting. At the same time, we love what this place offers: no congestion, no pollution, vivid sunsets, genuinely friendly people, that big, blue sky -- the list goes on. Key to marketing such a place is finding those people who value those attributes.

What makes Kansas so great, in fact, is that not everyone wants to be here. If they did, we'd lose the very thing that attracted us in the first place.