Lee Sentell remembers when he and other tourism officials were at an evening party during a trade show in Las Vegas that was pretty much ho-hum. But then the deejay who had been spinning records without much reaction from the crowd played Lynyrd Skynyrd’s iconic “Sweet Home Alabama.”
“Almost everybody in the nightclub cheered, ” recalls Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department. “And we thought, ‘Pay attention to this.’”
That experience 12 years ago got the big wheels turning in Sentell’s head. Would it make sense, he wondered, to see if the song’s widespread popularity could help promote tourism in Alabama?
On the heels of that Vegas trip, the Alabama Tourism Department and its ad agency at the time worked to answer that question. Online testing told them the phrase “Sweet Home Alabama” was much more popular than other taglines, or slogans, used in previous Alabama tourism campaigns, including “Stars Fell on Alabama, ” “Now This You Gotta See” and “Alabama Has It All.”
Usage rights were negotiated with the song’s owner, and the deal was sealed. Alabama Tourism had itself a new marketing tagline, and it’s served the state well for 11 years now.
Last year, for example, Alabama had 26.6 million visitors, 21 percent more than in 2008, which is when use of the “Sweet Home Alabama” tagline started. Money spent by visitors in the state hit $14.3 billion in 2017, up 7.5 percent from 2016 and almost 50 percent more than 2008.
To be sure, the tagline is only part of Tourism’s overall marketing each year. But it would be hard to question its lasting value. Five years ago, for example, “Sweet Home Alabama” became the only song released before 1975 to break more than 3 million downloads.
In addition to its adopted use by Alabama Tourism, it has appeared on Alabama license plates since 2009, and it also now appears on large Alabama signs welcoming interstate motorists to the state.
“Because of the 1974 song and the 2002 movie of the same name, the phrase is linked to our state around the world, ” Sentell says. “When an Alabama family was vacationing in Dublin, Ireland, a few years ago they rode in three taxis. Of those three, when they told the drivers where they were from, two said, ‘Ah, sweet home Alabama.’ No doubt many Alabamians have enjoyed the same experience.”
ABOVE Alabama is the magic word for everything from the beach to industry to university merchandising.
The Alabama Department of Tourism is not alone among state entities that see value in showcasing the Alabama name in taglines or marketing campaigns. The Alabama Department of Commerce, for example, launched its “Made in Alabama” branding campaign in 2013, totally revamping its website for more and better emphasis on the state’s business and manufacturing prowess.
“From the onset it has received remarkably positive support from inside and outside our state — from workforce partners to current business partners, ” says Aaron Gresham, executive creative director at Birmingham’s Big Communications, the ad agency behind “Made in Alabama.”
Gresham says he thinks of “Made in Alabama” as more of a statement of pride than a tagline. “Alabama has been cast as an underdog in the national media, and we get a lot of attention over negative news, ” he says. “The truth is we are not what you may think. We are smart, innovative and hard working.
“We are leaders in space exploration, produce the best cars on the road and the best planes in the air — not to mention the tech space, where we are creating groundbreaking ideas with 3D printers and building server farms with Google. The message is we are leaders — not underdogs — and we are proud of what we are making. We want to invite others to be a part of our story.”
Others apparently are buying into that. Since 2012, economic development efforts have resulted in more than 105, 000 new jobs in Alabama and roughly $29 billion in capital investment, according to figures on Commerce’s “Made in Alabama” website.
ABOVE Bill Battle during his time as University of Alabama athletic director. Photo by Associated Press
The Bama Mint
Bill Battle clearly saw value in the Alabama name almost 40 years ago. For him, it was the value of the University of Alabama brand and its athletic programs.
In those days, colleges and universities did next to nothing to market merchandise such as jerseys, T-shirts, caps or any number of other trademarked products bearing school logos, symbols, slogans and other marks.
The university had no real control over those marks and symbols. Folks who had no relationship with the university could splash school logos on a mish-mash of products, some of which weren’t good representations of the university. Moreover, the schools saw no profit from the many users of their logos.
Battle, a 1960s-era University of Alabama football player and University of Tennessee head coach from 1970-1976, set out to repair the situation.
In 1981 he formed Collegiate Licensing Co. to organize and manage sale of licensed apparel and other theme products.
He knew that fan bases in the South and across the nation would buy licensed products from their favorite schools. But signing Alabama, given its rich football heritage and loyal fan base, would be a great testimonial for Battle’s company, and UA turned out to be his first client.
“Signing Alabama was a very important step in gaining the credibility that we needed to bring on other university clients, ” he says.
For the year ending June 2017, the University of Alabama generated more than $10 million in gross royalties from the sale of UA-themed products. Men’s and women’s T-shirts and men’s polo shirts are the primary product categories, with men’s T-shirts by far the largest seller, says Cole Price, director of UA’s Trademark Licensing Office.
Since 1981, UA has generated roughly $112 million in gross royalties from the sales of such merchandise. It consistently ranks near or at the top among the nation’s universities in that regard.
So, how would Price describe the value of the Alabama name as it relates to the university — Alabama football, Roll Tide, the UA seal, whatever? “Significant, ” Price says. “We work very hard to protect that value, so it can be maintained, developed and utilized for the future …”
After selling Collegiate Licensing for $108 million in 2007, Battle rejoined Alabama as athletic director in 2013, retiring in 2017. He now is a special assistant to UA President Stuart Bell. For him, it really has been Sweet Home Alabama.
Charlie Ingram is a Birmingham freelancer for Business Alabama.