The Norris Highlands is a regional brand recently developed to help promote the rural counties around  Norris Lake.   The idea for a brand was started six years ago when Tennessee Tourism Commissioner Susan Whitaker made an address at Cove Lake State Park.  Commissioner Whitaker highlighted the many assets of our region and suggested “branding” as a way to coordinate a better vision for promoting these unique attractions.   The name Norris Highlands came to the fore as an acceptable brand by those desiring to celebrate both the Lake and mountains of our region.

The brand is intended to boost the tourism and retirement industries by focusing on our unique characteristics of natural beauty and cultural heritage.  The Norris Highlands target region (Campbell, Claiborne, Anderson & Union counties) ranks in the nation’s top 10 of lake destinations for retirees.

Tourism, it should be noted, is the second leading industry in Tennessee after agriculture.  With about $14.4 billion of revenue each year, this amounts to a significant opportunity to increase our share of state tourism dollars by raising our profile as a visitor-friendly destination.   The Norris Highlands, per capita, has more parks and wildlife reserves than any other region of Tennessee.

The Great Smoky Mountains, the California Wine Country, the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Florida’s Emerald Coast all represent successful examples of effective regional branding.  Each of these brands combine elements of natural, physical attributes along with imagery that evokes an alluring sense of place.   The Norris Highlands follows this design:  taking the most profitable and identifiable attraction in the area, (Norris Lake), and combining it with our Appalachian highland culture.  “Highlands,” most frequently associated with auld Scotland, serves as a good cultural description describing the area’s scenic qualities as well as pointing to the Scots-Irish heritage of the area’s first pioneers.   Clearly, with a gaze in almost any direction from the Lake one can see the majestic, highland citadel that is the Cumberland Mountain range.

Just as there are other vineyards in California besides Napa Valley, and other beaches in Florida besides the Emerald Coast, there are indeed other mountains in Tennessee besides the Smoky Mountains!   The genius of successful branding is the magic of turning a common thing into an especially rare, exotic or otherwise valuable thing.   There used to be just oranges, until one day someone put a Sunkist label on them.  Likewise, gelatin became transformed by the introduction of Jell-O.  And, soda drinks were all pretty much the same until one rose above the rest as “the Real Thing!”  This type of marketing illustrates another advantage of effective branding:  customer loyalty.

Studies have proven that people will often choose retirement areas based upon places they have frequented as tourists.   Human Beings, after all, are creatures of habit.  With repeated trips individuals begin to identify with an area, and that builds into a strong, emotional attachment.  Children, particularly, become loyal to certain vacation spots and choose to return to them over and over again.

A couple of months ago I was in San Diego and happened to meet a young lady who knew about Norris Lake.  Amazingly, this person living thousands of miles away not only had a familiarity with our remote, rural lake, but a proud memory that she was delighted to share.  Now THAT is something to build upon!

The Lake, though attracting millions of dollars annually from tourists and retirees, is not sufficient in itself for branding because it fails to integrate and energize the surrounding infrastructure needed for broader growth and development.  Just as “Dollywood” and “Pigeon Forge” evolved over time to augment and highlight the additional assets outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there needs to be something similar to invigorate the area outside Norris Lake.  With no significant city or theme park to draw upon, the necessity arises for a powerful brand that will incorporate as many assets as possible in the surrounding counties:  The Museum of Appalachia;  Green McAdoo Cultural Center;  Cumberland Gap National Park;  Speedwell Academy;  White Lightning Trail; Campbell County  Elk;  McCloud Mountain;  Sharp’s Chapel;  Roy Acuff Museum;  Big Ridge State Park;  and, a variety of popular ATV and Hiking trails.  There are also special event assets, such as:  Secret City Festival; Louie Bluie Festival;  Fall Homecoming Festival;  etc.  All of these fit neatly into the package of the “Highlands” for that over-arching banner that will expand our economic opportunities.  It will also provide a chance for a stronger buy-in from those individuals affiliated with such assets so they can work together in collaborative promotions rather than going it alone.  As a bonus, the focus upon cultural and heritage assets will bring a much needed sense of pride to those who already call this region home.

The Norris Highlands may or may not catch-on as the ultimate brand for our region, but without a Dolly Parton or some Pigeon Forge-type commercialization there’s not much else we can rely upon for future growth beyond the already developed shores of Norris Lake.

Bill Claiborne

Contact Bill by email.