Road to Regionalism: Marketing Appalachian Highlands

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(WJHL)- Do residents of Gray, Tenn. live in the Tri-Cities, the Appalachian Highlands or both? When it comes to this region, some uncertainty swirls around that question since the term Appalachian Highlands appeared early this year. Ultimately, it may boil down to the audience.

“We market very heavily to Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, and we have been using it (since) Appalachian Highlands first started coming out,” Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association Executive Director Alicia Phelps said.  “We also use the term Tri-Cities because we know that’s very popular with the local market.”

Ballad Health and East Tennessee State University’s official communications use the term “Appalachian Highlands.” Johnson City and Kingsport’s chambers of commerce, among others, are also using it in some situations and not others.

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Beth Rhinehart, Bristol Chamber of Commerce CEO and President, said using the Appalachian Highlands name the name could help market the region beyond Johnson City, Kingsport, and Bristol. 

“Because it’s not just about the Tri-Cities,” Rhinehart said. “It’s about Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, and to find a way that we can all collectively market our assets and make sure that we’re a stronger population count.”

Other local tourism organizations like Visit Kingsport say they will still continue to use ‘Tri-Cities.’ But ‘Appalachian Highlands’ will slowly be incorporated into Visitors Guides and other materials in 2020.

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“We don’t want to lose who we are, but we want to continue to embrace the new,” said Lara Potter, Associate Executive Director of Visit Kingsport. “So to say that one is going to replace the other, I just don’t think that’s the way we’re headed. It’s new to all of us, but we’re ready to embrace it.”

Regional economic leaders say it’s meant as the name of an outbound marketing strategy – not necessarily a replacement for the “Tri-Cities” name.

“If you just throw a name out there, it’s really not going to do anything in itself, and that’s what I think the public has been missing. It’s not meant to take away anyone’s name or replace anything,” said Will Barrett, chairman for the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership.

Appalachian Highlands: Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia
A scene from the first Appalachian Highlands promotional video.

The term has been featured in at least two promotional videos whose origin remains a bit murky. A consulting group determined a blended use of Appalachian Highlands and Tri-Cities “has the best chance of” in regional branding after completing a $48,000 survey solicited by local leaders in April.

Of more than 3,400 local survey respondents, only 1 percent preferred Appalachian Highlands as “the best name to describe the area,” while more than half chose Tri-Cities. But when it came to more than 300 people in Charlotte, Nashville and Atlanta, 44 percent preferred Appalachian Highlands.

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Where did the name originate?

A 60-second video seemingly came out of the blue in December, 2018. The beginning title “Appalachian Highlands: Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia” lay over a beautiful mountain backdrop. A similar scene at the outro repeated the name and included “The Joyful noise of Appalachia” as a subtitle and, at the bottom of the screen, “appalachianhighlands.com.”

Around that time, Ballad Health began using the term in its communications, and by April, the City of Johnson City had elected to take the lead in the regional branding study. In October, social media platforms activated. Ask those who might be in the know about who’s funding these efforts, though, and answers are hard to come by.

Cumberland Marketing representatives say they helped with the original video but offer up little more detail. Ballad’s marketing company referred inquiries to Ballad, who then referred those inquiries on to a local marketing consultant. That person asked not to be identified and offered little in the way of details. According to the Johnson City chamber’s immediate past president Andy Dietrich, the social media platforms and website are being pieced together by volunteers from local marketing companies at the behest of the Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol chambers.

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A recent social media posts linked to the Appalachian Highlands brand.

Despite the informality, mystery and low level of funding so far – and though it’s been dissected, criticized and suggested by some to be another attempt by Ballad Health to exercise outsized influence in the region – the name is gaining some traction.

At September’s regional economic summit, Eastman Chemical CEO Mark Costa briefly addressed the topic. Costa essentially said regional leaders needed to pick something and get on board. That sentiment is echoed by Bank of Tennessee founder Bill Greene, who has played important behind-the-scenes roles in the creation of Ballad and the push for regionalism.

“I’m not crazy about it,” Greene said of the name. “Until you can come up with a better name and convince me it’s better for whatever reason, I’m okay with it.”

“When we talk about the region, we’ll say Appalachian Highlands,” Johnson City Chamber of Commerce Director Bob Cantler said. “The university’s using it, Ballad’s using it – I think we’re just complementing everything they’re doing.”

Cantler said his organization will continue to use other descriptors depending on the occasion, and that Appalachian Highlands won’t come fully into its own unless some things are formalized.

“Today I don’t even have a brand logo, a media kit or anything like that to use,” Cantler said.  “To make it successful is going to require a lot of dollars and publications and advertorial so it becomes more common in the marketplace.”

That said, Cantler supports the concept, saying “it’s casting a bigger net. From the chamber’s standpoint, we’re promoting our community but we are ready to start promoting the Appalachian Highlands because we see it as an opportunity for everyone to benefit.”

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NETTA’s Phelps said the numbers back that up. Since the term appeared, some people have suggested the use of “Appalachian” brings negative connotations, but she said NETTA has marketed with the word for years, and quite successfully.

People outside the Tri-Cities, Phelps said, “associate it with the Appalachian Trail, the associate it with the mountains, they associate it with our history and culture.”

Long Drive_1529954974814.jpg.jpg
The term Appalachian Highlands was used during August’s long drive competition in Kingsport.

About 100,000 people a month use the term Appalachian in Google searches, Phelps said. “We can see that when we do use those words (Appalachian Highlands) our results are a little higher.” During an August long drive golf competition in Kingsport to benefit Ballad’s Niswonger Children’s Hospital, Phelps said NETTA followed search data. “We were able to see how we were growing in terms of recognition with the use of Appalachian Highlands.

“We are in the middle of the Appalachian mountains, we are part of a strong, tight-knit community and that’s something that really sells our area well.”

Will it play in Piney Flats?

Cantler likened the term’s evolution to ETSU’s rebranding from dozens of logos and designs to a single brand, a process that occurred in 2014 and 2015. The new brand drew some questions and criticism, but the university explained its reasoning well, the noise faded over time and the logo serves multiple purposes, including regional promotion.

“It’s intuitive,” Cantler said. “People outside this market see that ‘E’ inside the state map and it’s self-explanatory.”

Phelps said she hopes more groups will start using the term to provide “more power behind it.”

“It takes community buy-in, it takes stakeholder, partner, business, corporate, tourism, economic development buy-in.”

In the end, Phelps said, there’s not much to lose. “I think over time folks will begin to maybe soften up a bit. Let’s just see how it works.”

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