Point of view

Being, seeming and the challenge of rebranding North Carolina

May 3, 2014 

On a recent flawless Saturday that beckoned any sensible person to stroll, play, work or lounge outdoors, more than 50 diligent souls crammed into a windowless conference room in downtown Raleigh.

Eager and attentive, they came at the behest of the N.C. Department of Commerce, which has launched “brandNC,” an effort to market our fair state to the wider world. One after another, aspiring civic salesmen stood up to present new visions of North Carolina’s “brand strategy.”

It’s easy to be cynical about such things. Listening to hours of talk about metric-driven brand perception and optimizing opportunities for innovation, you start to forget that North Carolina is a free government, not a timeshare company.

Beneath the jargon, though, there was a lot to admire. Commerce partnered with UNC-Chapel Hill’s Business School to invite ideas from all over the state, running a wide-open process that brought entries from grade-school students all the way to professional marketing firms.

They offered some timely insight. Most of our fellow Americans have only a vague sense of the Tar Heel State, but what they know tends to be good. Beautiful beaches and mountains, strong universities and good schools are all high on the list.

North Carolina hasn’t always enjoyed such happy associations. In the early 19th century, we were known as the Rip Van Winkle state, so poor and backward that time had passed us by.

There was glancing mention of that history at the meeting, but almost no notice of our original exercise in self-branding, still inscribed in latinate glory on the state seal: Esse Quam Videri – “To be, rather than to seem.”

North Carolina was among the last of the original 13 states to adopt a motto. We didn’t get around to it until 1893, more than a century into the fulsome business of being a free and independent people, suggesting a certain skepticism about taglines and civic sloganeering.

When we did finally rouse ourselves to the task, it fell to Walter Clark, a deeply learned man and justice of the state Supreme Court. Clark was a Civil War veteran and the son of a plantation owner, born into a dying civilization and devoted to building a new and more progressive South.

In branding his native land, Clark quite sensibly cribbed from Cicero, turning to the essay On Friendship. The full line is a bit more complex than the motto it became. “Not nearly so many people want actually to be possessed of virtue as want to appear to be possessed of it,” Cicero wrote (roughly), highlighting the deathless truth that virtue is hard work. Being is a heavier lift than seeming.

Clark knew this well. He was an early and fierce advocate of stronger support for the public university. He cheered industrial development, then wrote, lobbied and railed against the political influence of big business. He spoke in favor of trust-busting, labor laws and a progressive income tax. And he was an eloquent voice for women’s suffrage and an end to poll taxes. None of those changes was easily won, nor easily kept.

Of Esse Quam Videri, Clark wrote simply, “The sentiment and its expression are good enough. It is appropriate to North Carolina, and her sons will make it memorable and distinguished.”

Mostly, we’ve lived up to that. We’ve refrained from trashing the natural beauty that graces our lives and defines our state. In times of hardship past, we’ve chosen to invest in public schools and good roads and basic research, decisions that still shape our identity and draw talented people from all over the world. We’ve chosen, in other words, to do the patient work of waking Rip Van Winkle and becoming a great state.

One imagines Judge Clark would have much to say about North Carolina’s present rebranding. It would have little to do with slogans and ad campaigns, and more to do with the actions we’re taking.

If we want to be known as a state with a pristine environment, solid public schools and a far-sighted politics, we shouldn’t focus on seeming so.

The challenge is in being.

Eric Johnson is a writer in Chapel Hill.

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