This is the ‘true South’

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 20, 2011

NATCHEZ — It is the authentic people and places of Mississippi that draw tourists to the state, research says.

The Mississippi Development Authority Tourism Division along with North Star Destination Strategies conducted research on Mississippi tourism in order to create a state brand.

Deputy Director of Tourism for Mississippi, Mary Beth Wilkerson, presented the new state brand initiative to area tourism leaders Wednesday at the Natchez Convention and Promotion Commission in the Visitor Reception Center Theater.

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Research also found that Mississippi is the “most Southern state” and is “the mother of Southern culture . . . yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

“Find your true south,” is the tag line North Star and the state tourism division came up with using the research.

Wilkerson said she hopes the new state logo displaying the tag line will soon be displayed in local shops, restaurants and lodgings.

By sticking a decal on a window, businesses around the state can join forces to attract a target audience by sending a united message, Wilkerson said.

“There’s been a struggle over the years to find an over-arching brand that touches everybody in the state,” Wilkerson said.

A past struggle of promoting Mississippi was the state’s apparent inability to project a unified message.

Sending unclear messages to both tourists and residents has led to inaccurate perceptions of Mississippi, a brand report summary said.

A quote from Gov. Haley Barbour in Wilkerson’s Powerpoint presentation cut to the chase with the state’s image issues.

“Mississippi suffers from a negative image. It’s a fact. We’ve got to give them a reason to come to Mississippi,”

Wilkerson said research discovered that tourists had a skewed perception of Mississippi before they visited, but loved the state after spending time in it.

One slide of the presentation showed results of a poll taken by tourists about their perception of Mississippi.

The results said 64 percent of those polled said their perception of the state changed after visiting Mississippi, and 95 percent said the change in perception was for the better.

Research also showed that nearly half — 46 percent — of people polled chose Mississippi as the most Southern state of all the Southern states. Instead of hiding from a Southern stereotype, Wilkerson said, the state should embrace its authentic southern roots.

She said literature, cooking, hospitality, gaming, outdoors, music, charm, football, work ethic, technology and innovation are areas that define Mississippi.

“But how are we better than any other state?” she prompted.

Adding “Southern” as an adjective to all of those aspects narrows down Mississippi’s specialties.

New Orleans might have great Creole food, Las Vegas might have bigger and louder casinos and Colorado is No. 1 for outdoor recreation, Wilkerson said.

But Mississippi can brand itself to corner the market for Southern food, Southern gaming and Southern outdoors, she said.

Retaining longevity is vital to prevent state marketing strategies from changing with every administration change.

“It’s the lure of the South that makes Mississippi magic.”

Wilkerson the key to seeing the brand initiative work long term is to have buy-in from partners and cultivate ambassadors in each community.

“I know Natchez will come to the table . . . You are the crown jewel of Mississippi when it comes to history and culture,” Wilkerson said.

Mississippi tourism is a $5.5 billion business; more than 19 million visitors traveled to the state in the last fiscal year. Tourism also generated more than 78,000 jobs in the state and is the fifth largest private-sector employer in the state.

Mayor Jake Middleton, Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ, and several other tourism and business professionals attended the presentation.

Wilkerson distributed decals and report summaries about the branding research and initiative at the meeting.

Natchez Tourism Director Connie Taunton said anyone who wants a decal can call the Visitors Reception Center or pick one up.

Taunton also delivered an update on Natchez tourism.

New African-American history brochures were completed this week, a new destination guide should be complete by mid-February and the city’s new tourism website has a projected launch date in May, Taunton said.

Wilkerson said the goals of the branding campaign include:

• Ensuring the best use of EDA funding

• Advance the national perception of Mississippi.

• Elevate state pride among residents

• Attract more visitors to the state

• Marshall the collective strength of tourism partners statewide

• Creat a unified message with longevity