“Pure Michigan” has been a popular tourism slogan. But the state is now using it to attract businesses by touting a new law that curbs union power.
“Pure Michigan” has been a popular tourism slogan. But the state is now using it to attract businesses by touting a new law that curbs union power. - 
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The award-winning Pure Michigan branding campaign covers all the bases of tourism marketing: beautiful outdoor imagery, stirring music, even a celebrity voice, Michigander Tim Allen’s fatherly tones. It’s hard to imagine it stirring up controversy, but when the state’s economic development authority used it in an ad touting Michigan’s controversial new right-to-work law, fans of the slogan exploded online.

Part of the reason why some took offense is that many residents have a feeling of pride and ownership about the slogan. From the beginning, it focused on what was great about Michigan, even while auto plant layoffs made headlines.

“The Pure Michigan campaign really strikes a chord with people,” says Michigan State University tourism professor Dan McCole, who has seen people tear up watching the ads.

That emotional connection is why some residents got angry when the slogan appeared in a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal urging business to come to Michigan because of its new law limiting union power. Passage of the right-to-work law in December sparked spirited protests, with pro-union demonstrators crowding Michigan’s Capitol. Tourism marketing experts are surprised the state would risk the goodwill Pure Michigan has earned by linking it with such a divisive political issue.

“From a pure marketing perspective, I was shaking my head,” says University of Michigan marketing professor Christie Nordhielm. “What the economic and business development folks should be doing is developing their own positioning and their own slogan.”

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation is responsible for attracting tourists and businesses. It used to have a separate business slogan as part of its annual $35 million marketing budget. But the agency dumped it two years ago in favor of a proven winner.

"We wanted to take advantage of a very favorable part of our state, which was the brand Pure Michigan that we had created," says Mike Finney, who head's the state's economic development agency.

The move was uncontroversial until the right-to-work ad appeared earlier this week. Tourism industry professionals worry the controversy will devalue their well-established slogan and deter visits to Michigan. Vocal criticism of the right-to-work ad now has the state’s marketers rethinking the move.

“We will make decisions on whether it makes sense for us to modify this campaign in any way,” Finney told Marketplace.

Do you know your state slogan? Read the list here and tell us whether you think it best represents your state.

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Follow Mark Garrison at @GarrisonMark