By Meredith Lane
Something awesome has happened in the last few years: people living in the Bluegrass have developed some good ole, down-home Kentucky pride. Until recently, as a resident of this fine state, there weren’t a lot of ways to show your love for our fabulous region, until Kentucky for Kentucky was established. Sure, there are the much appreciated and respected convention and visitors’ bureaus and chamber of commerce organizations across the state, but the wild and unorthodox Kentucky for Kentucky took tourism marketing and statewide branding… just a little bit farther.
Co-owner Griffin VanMeter said, “Kentucky for Kentucky started as a joke between myself and my friend, Whit Hiler, to crowd-fund a super bowl commercial to promote Kentucky. We were unsuccessful in getting the funding for the super bowl commercial—the media buy was $3.5 million—but through our efforts, we were successful in getting people excited about the state.”
As the buzz was generating for Kentucky for Kentucky post-Super Bowl, VanMeter and Hiler decided it was time to change the slogan for the Commonwealth from the classic “Unbridled Spirit” to a little more progressive “Kentucky Kicks Ass”. The only issue… they didn’t have permission from oh, the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Oops.
Make no mistake though, these guys knew exactly what they were doing. With their creative marketing and branding experience (VanMeter works at Bullhorn Creative and Hiler works at Cornett Advertising), the pair sent out a bunch of press releases to the media stating that they had been tasked with the job of rebranding the state. The best part: nobody had actually hired them to do it. “We tasked ourselves,” VanMeter said. The team used guerrilla marketing and fun ideas, which generated a lot of buzz locally and beyond. It wasn’t long, and Kentucky for Kentucky was able to reach a whole other subsection with a varied demographic behind it.
“States have historically marketed to people outside of the area but we wanted to market to the people who live here or are from here. We thought, let’s engage the people who love the Commonwealth the most to be our biggest ambassadors. Those people are Kentuckians,” VanMeter said. After some nationwide press including a not-so-flattering article from USA Today, the state publicly commented that Kentucky for Kentucky “had a constituency of no one.”
But boy, were they wrong.
Kentuckians and ex-patriots were fired up and excited over the fun new press and exposure of the Bluegrass with the “Kentucky Kicks Ass” slogan. When a “dirty” word is involved, how can people not get excited? That’s when the state tourism cabinet invited the pair in. “They told us that we had generated more press in the state of Kentucky than they ever had,” VanMeter stated. “Now the state really loves it. Plus, their marketing has greatly improved since we’ve come out and they have really adopted state-based destination marketing. For example, VisitLex now promotes staycations, which markets to locals to really discover their state. We now have a great relationship with the state and we are always willing to collaborate with them on whatever they need help on,” he added.
While the hype was high for Kentucky for Kentucky, Hiler and VanMeter capitalized on it by selling merchandise on their website, www.kyforky.com, with the “Kentucky Kicks Ass” slogan all over it. People loved it. And they wanted more.
After Kentucky for Kentucky’s popularity caught on like wildfire, the then- web-based business needed a place to print and store the company’s inventory of shirts, poster prints and other merchandise. An old thrift store on Bryan Avenue in downtown Lexington became available and even though they didn’t need all of the square footage it provided at the time, they decided to move in anyway. From there, the decision was made to set up a retail store with the extra space. “There’s never been a plan. It has all been organic,” VanMeter said
From there, the movement organically grew—straight into a legitimate business. Kentucky for Kentucky now staffs ten employees, has a widely popular website and a brick-and-mortar store. A message on their website, in fact, sums up their mission perfectly.
“Kentucky for Kentucky is a small company located in the heart of the Bluegrass region in Lexington. We are believers, promoters and producers for the great Commonwealth of Kentucky. We are obsessed with Kentucky, the real Kentucky. We’re all about highlighting the complex identity of our state and–with words, images and one-of-a-kind products–we want to spread the stories of this amazing place we call home. Kentucky has a lot to offer and even more to say. We’re showing the world why they should listen up.”
Recently, the team also launched a brand called Southern Socks under the company banner, which now has nationwide distribution. You can find fun and funky socks with designs on them ranging from shotgun shells, to the word “Y’all”, to beer pong gear, to fried chicken buckets, to the state of Kentucky. Personally, I think a sock design with a bottle of Ale-8-One and a bag of Grippo’s potato chips would be a hot ticket item, but what do I know?
With Hiler and VanMeter’s connections to graphic designers at their marketing and branding agencies in town and across the state, the pair has created other unique Kentucky swag including apparel, Bourbon barware, homegoods, jewelry, prints and other gifts including a Kentucky-inspired Cards Against Humanity expansion pack. Say what?! (And yes, I bought them.) You can order these goods on their website, purchase in store at 720 Bryan Avenue or check out their extensive list of statewide retailers on their website as well.
“We are surprised and grateful to everyone who has supported this cause. It’s gratifying. What’s even cooler though and the biggest surprise is when people say that they chose to go to the University of Kentucky because they saw one our videos. Or that they decided to move to Kentucky or back to the area because they saw what we are doing. We love hearing those tidbits and it’s really special to us,” VanMeter said.
With the holidays in full swing, Kentucky for Kentucky gear may just be the perfect gift for your loved one who has everything. For example, they sell fried chicken or beer cheese scented candles, unique t-shirts and sweatshirts, hats, fun Southern cocktail recipe tea towels, necklaces that say “#Kentucky” on them and more.
VanMeter says the team hopes the company and the movement continues to grow organically through editorial content on their website (for example, check out where you can order Kentucky farm-fresh Turkeys for the holidays or read about 15 famous movies filmed in the state), and the organization’s involvement in events. Earlier this year, they hosted the Totally Tubular Tube-A-Thon along the Elkhorn Creek and while they anticipated 100 people attending, more than 1,000 showed up. “We think this is going to become a big thing,” VanMeter said. “We basically just want to continue to kick ass.”
Originally published in Tops in Lex magazine December 2016