Here’s a marketing challenge for you. How do you take the 50th most beautiful state in America and turn it into a tourist destination? What can you say to compel people to appreciate the rolling plains and immense cornfields of Kansas?
It’s a tricky marketing challenge, but the stakes are high. The total travel and tourism market in the United States was projected to reach almost $2 trillion in 2022. Given how packed hotels were post-pandemic, I expect this ended up being a lowball figure.
So how do you, as a Kansan, get a big slice of that pie for you and your friends in Topeka?
I don’t ask this to rag on Kansas. I think every state in America is truly beautiful, and I’ve been to 46 of them in person so far. The flat, uniform landscape of Kansas with its cornfields and sorghum and its big wide skies is really beautiful in its own way. But when you try to take a photo…
…well, it’s just not a photogenic state. Nor is it a telegenic state. Its beauty depends on you being there, feeling its space, breathing its air, and immersing yourself in its plainspoken warmth. You have to get off I-70 for a moment, talk to the remarkably friendly locals, and consciously appreciate it.
It’s for this reason that I’ve developed a minor obsession with the Kansas tourism industry and its remarkable efforts to brand Kansas.
Why is it so hard to market Kansas in the first place?
You could be forgiven if you don’t know a lot about Kansas. Among the states, it ranks 36 out of 50 in terms of total population. If you look at population density, it’s 40th. It has no major urban centers within the state. Indeed, the largest metro and urban area in the state is Kansas City, the bulk of which is actually over the state line in Missouri.
If you’re looking for natural landmarks, that’s tough too. There are no National Parks, although the National Park System does maintain a handful of historical trails and sites. You won’t find massive mountains or rivers. It doesn’t have as much Native American culture as Oklahoma. It doesn’t even have some of the rugged midwestern backcountry that you’d see over the state line in Nebraska.
And, again, unless you really heavily saturate the colors like what you see above, it doesn’t look great in photos or videos. It’s not like Arizona where you can drop a picture of Havasu Falls and get tourists that way. You don’t even have something like the Sandhills of Nebraska. The state is just that uniform.
Kansas is not a state devoid of joys or beauty by any means. But it has nothing to run in the headlines, which makes marketing a tricky proposition. But it does have one huge factor working in its favor, which the Kansas tourism industry fully uses to its advantage…
It’s right in the middle of the United States.
For all its lovability, Kansas defies marketability. You need a hook. Something to catch the audience’s attention and get them to stay around for long enough to fall in love. It’s a classic marketing problem.
So here’s how the Kansas tourism industry approaches that, and I honestly think it’s brilliant.
What brings people to Kansas for the most part anyway? If people are on the east coast and need to reach the west coast for business, they fly. Those who pass through the middle of the country are looking for something else – adventure.
Sure, while some people are no doubt moving across the country or simply going from Kansas City to Denver or something like that, a disproportionate amount of travelers are road-trippers. They’re the tourists.
Here’s the funny thing about traveling through the emptier parts of the US. Everything that provides an oasis from the relentless uniformity of the interstate becomes more interesting and attractive. That’s part of why the otherwise asinine Wall Drug of rural South Dakota off I-94 is so fascinating.
Some people plan trips to Kansas, but most don’t – they just find stuff along the way. So the goal becomes simple: get people interested enough to say “sure, why not, it’s worth a stop.”
And that’s how The World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City becomes an icon. As does the Oz Museum in Wamego. It’s all about small promises, unexpected delights, and the thrill of spontaneity and adventure.
Then when others ask “how was Kansas?” They can say, “you know, there was a lot more to do there than I expected.”
Kansas vs. North Dakota: two approaches to promoting tourism in places where tourists just don’t go.
Of the 46 states I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, North Dakota and Kansas have the most similar attitudes toward tourism. North Dakota is isolated, and very few people live there. Its biggest city is Fargo, which is mostly known because of the movie with the accents and Steve Buscemi meeting an untimely demise. North Dakota, similarly, doesn’t have a whole lot of landmarks, although it at least has the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The North Dakotan approach to tourism leans a bit more into irony. Sure, the National Park plays it straight and talks about the history of the land and how much President Theodore Roosevelt loved it and how it shaped his psyche. But the rest of the state has a sort tongue-in-cheek joke that you notice if you hit up enough postcard and sticker stands.
Several times, I saw a postcard with buffalo standing in the road, captioned “North Dakota Traffic Jam.” Other postcards and stickers called it “the 50th state” as an ironic nod to the completionist road trippers who visit North Dakota after they see literally every other state in the union. It’s funny and it leans into the fact that people really do visit the state out of a sense of completionism, either to see all fifty states or to see all the National Parks!
But Kansas is sincere. Kansan postcards show tractors and sunflowers, tornadoes and lightning storms. You can see references to the Wizard of Oz and to President Dwight Eisenhower, who called Abeline his home. The Kansan approach to tourism is not couched behind humor or an ironic distance. It’s based on subtlety and understatement which speak to confidence that never quite tips over into excessive earnestness.
The powers that be in the Kansas tourism industry really are leaning into the adventure angle – let me prove it to you.
If you check out travelks.com – at least at the time I’m writing this – you’ll see a montage of starry skies and sunflower fields, motorcycles and long stretches of blacktop. This is the official tourist website, sponsored by the state. Kansas Tourism is the ninth largest employer in the state and they have invested over $600 million in capital for tourism projects.
This website is A/B tested, carefully crafted, and likely the work of some well-regarded marketing agency. Nothing on here is an accident. This marketing messaging has been chosen specifically because it has the highest probability of leading to the growth of the Kansas tourist industry.
And it’s a big industry at that. Kansas Tourism says that the direct and indirect economic output put into their state every year by tourism is almost $12 billion – and I bet you the post-pandemic world has nudged that number up.
State tourism boards have a huge impact on the branding and messaging that you see when you visit a state. The brochures and booklets, signage, and websites that you find when you look for more information on what to do in an area are often created by these organizations. And the smaller companies that benefit from tourism dollars take notes from the tourism boards. From the top down, Kansas is pushing the adventure angle.
That’s because it works.
Combining “a sense of adventure” with “plain and simple pleasures.”
For as much as I’ve said kind words about Kansas, you might think this entire article is a contradiction. How is it possible to combine a sense of adventure across a rugged landscape with plainspoken and simple attractions? How do you get a sense of adventure out of a state whose Wikipedia article on landmarks is small enough to fit in a single screenshot when you omit the table of contents?
This is something I’ve really puzzled over as a marketing professional. Their branding feels “right” to me, and yet trying to put into words why it works is just hard. And Lord knows I had enough of I-70 to try to think of an answer!
When you get down to it, an adventure is when you do something unusual or exciting, and sometimes dangerous. If you look up synonyms, you find simpler words like “experience” or “occurrence”, “happening” or “event.”
The key element to an adventure is just that something unexpected happens. It doesn’t have to be a glorious adventure to something like the Grand Canyon.
All they have to do is get people to stop.
Remember: people are passing through Kansas to get to something else. Fair or not, expectations are low. All Kansas has to do is get people to stop, where they will have a better time than you’d think.
So they’ll take really glamorous pictures of the unapologetically plain. Just look at their tourist board’s Instagram – glossy pictures of campsites and fields with rainbows, good-looking ice cream cones, and medium-rare steak. Nothing super interesting, but good enough to make you stop when you’re on the road and tired and want to stretch your legs and you’re dimly curious about what else is going on near you.
Turns out the steakhouse is actually kind of nice. That big ball of twine is charmingly lame in the best possible way. The Oz Museum is a worthwhile stop. Fancy rocks make for a good photo and the campground is quiet.
Those simple surroundings are then filled with conversations with your family or friends or, for the solo travelers, the sweet pensiveness of a life on the road. The emotions get mixed together, and you form positive memories of Kansas, and tell people of your positive memories of Kansas.
Does this work 100% of the time? No.
Is this the best of all possible tourism marketing strategies for all locations? No.
But when you have no Los Angeles, no Great Smoky Mountains, no Grand Canyon, no Chicago…you make do with what you have.
Not everything that is worth selling has the most newsworthy headline. Not every business is meant to go viral. But if you are doing something worth something to someone, confident, consistent branding will get it seen by the right people over time. That’s what Kansas is doing.
Even if your business is “boring”, you can still market yourself well like Kansas does.
Not everyone can make a tech startup or the gadget that goes viral on TikTok. Our world needs plumbers and attic insulation contractors. We need third-party fulfillment warehouses and physical therapists.
Your business doesn’t have to be glitzy and glamorous to market successfully. All it needs is some audience willing to pay for a product. As long as your product fits some market, you can succeed.
Kansas is a place of many small roadside attractions and cute little towns. And there are a lot people just like me who like that kind of thing, even having seen New York City and Yellowstone National Park. Just find your audience and figure out what compels them to act.
Once you do that, make your best pitch. It doesn’t matter if your pitch is going to catch the world’s attention or end up in the Wall Street Journal. It just needs to appeal to some core group of people.
Then say it with confidence. Say it consistently. Make sure people know what your brand stands for.
If you do this, then like Kansas, you can carve out a little niche where your business is attractive and profitable, even as it hides in plain sight.