November 8, 2014 by and

Back in the day, if a girl was being cajoled into a blind date with me, I would have been described to her as being a “nice guy.” I wasn’t even that nice, especially by the stereotype standard of small-town Nebraska boys, but saying I was nice was a nice way of avoiding descriptions of my gangly limbs and anvil-shaped skull and propensity for vulgar digressions and run-on sentences. In my world, “nice” most often warns of an impending bait-and-switch.

Nebraska’s new ad campaign slogan—“Visit Nebraska. Visit Nice.”—has already been injured plenty out in the blogosphere woodshed. No need to add insult. The issue, I suppose: If the word “nice” had one meaning, we’d probably be just fine. But it can have so many connotations, and when things have so many connotations, the haters are going to pounce.

In July, Omaha promoters, keeping pace with the international craze to rebrand locales for a jazzier web presence, unveiled “Omaha: We Don’t Coast.” Solid, methinks. Hey, it says we’re a hard driving, happening place. It’s a playful shot at the Left and Right Coast for, well, whatever it is that makes them inferior (Lazy, dope-smoking beach bums. Jersey Shore self-possessed kitsch addicts). Also, it suggests we’re in-shape and eco-friendly, which 12 or so of us actually are.

But my all-time favorite Nebraska slogan was Hastings’ old “Thumbs Up City,” which boosters there created back in 1982. People may have smirked a bit when they drove into the “Thumbs Up City,” but they dang well knew where they were. Hokey, sure, hopelessly dated, yes. But it stuck in your head, stuck at once pleasantly and infuriatingly like a chorus from any tune from Grease.

As of this spring, though, Hastings now has a new slogan: “Life Wide Open.” It’s already my second all-time favorite Nebraska slogan. It was created by a marketing whiz out of Hastings named Sherma Jones. Note to Nebraska boosters: That’s spelled S-h-e-r-m-a J-o-n-e-s. She’s in the book.

I know this because I gave Sherma a call. She’s been in the branding business for 28 years. She’s seen it all, including nice things. “I want to like the whole ‘nice’ campaign,” she says. “But, well, ‘flat’ probably describes it. When I think of ‘nice,’ I think of ‘average.’”

Here is the first absolute of successful city or state branding: You can’t do it by committee. Period. Jones, like so many others in her field, has seen countless campaigns bomb because too many interests and too many voices built a Frankenstein of a campaign. “Design by committee equals mediocrity,” she says. “We kept it all very streamlined.”

Her team’s first idea was “Hastings Has It.” Critical Step #2: See how a slogan plays in Peoria.

“People immediately started thinking about the things we don’t have. A 56-slot shopping mall, for example,” she says. “You have to describe yourself in an honest and inviting way.”

And you must anticipate the jerks. If I was the awful kid that I was and I saw a sign that said, “Hastings Has It,” that “It” would be spray-painted over with “Crabs” or “Erectile Dysfunction” or “A Kearney Complex” within a fortnight.

Her advice: Try to be timeless, honest, optimistic, relevant, progressive, sophisticated, fresh, and mindful of the power and energy of certain words.

“Life.” “Wide.” “Open.” Can you feel it? I can. Can we steal it? Ask the Attorney General. Regardless, I think it’s worth a very nice two thumbs up.

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