Nebraska has an image problem. For four consecutive years, it’s come in dead last on a list of states that tourists are interested in visiting, according to the travel marketing research firm MMGY Global. Even though travel writers routinely praise Omaha’s music and art scenes and the state’s spectacular wildlife, people on the coasts tend to think of Nebraska as a really long cornfield they have to drive through to reach the Rockies.
So tourism officials are trying out a new approach. On Wednesday, the Nebraska Tourism Commission revealed its new slogan: “Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”
Yes, it’s real. And no, it’s not an attempt at reverse psychology. A news release from the Nebraska Tourism Commission acknowledges that the state “may not be on everyone’s bucket list of places to visit.” But, the commission said, “if you like experiences that are unpretentious and uncomplicated or if you enjoy escaping the big city life for moments of solitude in the open plains, creating your own fun or exploring the quirkiness the state has to offer, chances are, you will like it here.”
The tagline is featured in ads that will begin running next spring, with the goal of changing people’s perception of Nebraska as a place where there’s nothing to do, the commission said. One shows hikers on a rock formation alongside the phrase, “Famous for our flat, boring landscape.” Another features a waterfall running through a lush forest and the line, “Another day on the dusty plains.”
Brand consultants hired by the state found that most consumers don’t consider Nebraska to be a leisure travel destination, the commission explained in its news release. The campaign needed to be “disruptive,” the commission wrote, because of the “marketing challenge” facing Nebraska. The slogan’s self-effacing humor was well-received when tested in out-of-state markets that could potentially deliver tourists to Nebraska, the commission said.
Still, not all Nebraskans are sold on the new marketing strategy. A poll by the Omaha World-Herald shows that a majority of readers say they like the slogan, but critics say that it doesn’t help sell the state as a place that tourists might want to visit. (One could say that it’s not for everyone.)
“I just don’t think the best way to pitch ourselves is calling out stereotypes about ourselves,” Micah Yost, a Nebraska native who owns a branding and marketing firm in Omaha, told The Washington Post. “There’s no reason why that would draw people to the state.”
So, how would he pitch his home state to outsiders?
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“Nebraska was part of the original frontier, and there could be the idea of discovery and really helping people discover things that are out here that they maybe weren’t aware of,” he said, citing the energy of cities like Omaha and Lincoln, and the easy access to outdoor activities, trails and wildlife.
Choosing the right slogan isn’t just about attracting tourism, Yost argued. It also affects companies like his when they’re doing business outside the state.
“If they view us as just cornfields and dirt roads, they’re going to miss out on the innovation happening at the universities, the great sports, the great restaurants - all the great things happening in the state,” he said.
Officials told the World-Herald that the state spent about $450,000 on the campaign. Yost said that price tag seems high, and he’s frustrated that Nebraska’s tourism commission worked with an out-of-state firm when a local agency might have a deeper understanding of the state.
He’s not the only one with concerns about the new campaign.
“I realize it’s tongue in cheek,” KETV anchor Julie Cornell wrote Wednesday on Facebook. “But words matter, people. Ugh. And WHY. did we pay a Colorado firm to come up with this? I know plenty of talented marketing firms in Nebraska!!”
“Our tourism sucks because everybody says we suck and they just roll with it,” one Nebraskan complained on Twitter. “Western Nebraska is one of the most beautiful/authentic parts of the country I’ve ever been too.”
“This’ll get folks flocking here in droves . . . NOT,” wrote another. “There’s much to like about #Nebraska & much potential. Apparently @NebraskaTourism has been tasked w/ keeping others from discovering our gems. Thus, we reinforce stereotype of being just a drive-thru state, not a destination.”
State tourism officials couldn’t be reached for comment late Wednesday, but Nebraska Tourism Director John Ricks told the World-Herald that he didn’t think that the campaign reinforced negative stereotypes. Focus groups had appreciated the honesty of the pitch, he said.
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“To make people listen, you have to hook them somehow,” he told the World-Herald. “We had to shake people up.”
The self-deprecating slogan naturally lends itself to parody. On Twitter, some Nebraskans jokingly proposed their own alternative slogans, such as “Nebraska: We don’t want to be here, either.”
Others praised the state for being self-aware and having a sense of humor.
Coming up with a clever catchphrase for state ad campaigns can be a sensitive business. Just ask tourism officials in Washington state, who selected “SayWA” as the state’s tagline in 2006. One Seattle Times columnist wrote at the time that it sounded like “the name of a vegetable oil.” The phrase later ended up topping a list of the worst state slogans.
When Pennsylvania changed its state slogan to “Pursue Your Happiness” in 2016, residents were unimpressed, calling it generic and a waste of money. That same year, Rhode Island angered residents by announcing that “Cooler and Warmer” would be the state’s new tagline. Adding insult to injury, the puzzling slogan was unveiled with a promotional video that used footage of Iceland - not the Ocean State. The state’s chief marketing officer resigned four days after the rollout.
And Nebraska’s last tourism slogan, “Visit Nebraska. Visit Nice,” was widely panned for underselling the state when it was announced in 2014.
“I don’t even know what that means,” Yost said. “I hope we’re nice people. That’s a positive. But that’s not really a positioning statement that’s going to give people a reason to tour the state.”