The “Bluffton State of Mind” is something locals are born knowing, transplants come to understand and tourists discover – usually before they, too, become transplants.
Three years ago, town of Bluffton and the Greater Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce formed a partnership and hired Rawle Murdy, an integrated brand agency in Charleston, to carry out a brand assessment and development project.
Effort involved several months of research provided by the University of South Carolina-Beaufort and USC in Columbia, interviews, photographing the area and meeting with hundreds of residents in person, by phone or online.
The result, in the spring of 2014, was a new logo that defined Bluffton as the “Heart of the Lowcountry.”
“The Town’s logo is being used on a large scale as well as on a grassroots level,” said Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka. “It has become an identifiable symbol in mass media such as Southern Living and Garden & Gun magazines as well as seen in numerous store windows and bumper stickers.”
Chamber spokesperson Charlie Clark said both the chamber and the town use the new brand “in everything.” The chamber is the town’s designated marketing organization, promoting Bluffton’s uniqueness.
“Being the driver of your community brand is critical. Every town or destination has a brand, whether they played a role in developing it or not,” said Clark. “Hilton Head Island, Charleston and others, as well as Bluffton, have one based on perception.”
When the project was done, the town asked the Accommodations Tax Advisory committee for $35,000 to promote the brand through the South Carolina Parks Recreation Tourism Co-op Program.
Digital, outdoor, print, radio and broadcast media were used to show how perfectly placed Bluffton is both geographically, emotionally and even professionally.
“People do know we are here and what we have. They show up here constantly,” said Bluffton potter Jacob Preston. “People like a place that is centrally located. This year especially, there have been a goodly number of folks that have never been here before.”
There are statistics that could point to an uptick in tourism due to the branding.
“Bluffton numbers in terms of occupancy and revenue per available room are incredibly positive and showing less seasonality than you might expect. This is good news,” said Clark.
Occupancy in 2015 was up 3.5 percent over 2014, and 2014 was up 6.6 percent over 2013.
That occupancy provides accommodations taxes, which in turn fund organizations and events that continue to pull visitors into Bluffton, such as the Old Town Bluffton Merchants Society, the Lowcountry Golf Course Owners Association and the Society of Bluffton Artists.
Perhaps the logo itself is not what draws people to Bluffton, but the idea it generates may prompt their visits.
“People are probably not cognizant of the branding because that’s not what drew them, but what I think we are seeing is people impacted by what that brand represents – a charming coastal town,” said Chip Collins, broker and owner of Collins Realty Group.
“I think they see it puts them in close proximity to Hilton Head beaches, the city of Savannah, even the city of Charleston,” he said. “It puts [Bluffton] in the heart of it all. I think it’s working.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.