Utah gets to the point with its plate

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The Brand Warrior was on vacation last week, driving across Iowa, Nebraska and Colorado for a few days in the mountains. You don’t earn the title “brand warrior” by shutting down for a few days, so brand observations kept coming along with the miles on the family minivan.

As we played the old license plate game (Okay, the adults played the game while the kids watched videos, played Gameboy and asked “are we there yet?” every 14.3 minutes) I started thinking about the valuable little piece of real estate every state owns on the back – and sometimes the front – of their citizens’ cars.
And I began to make a few unscientific observations about the role license plates play in brand management and the success or failure many of them have achieved.

  1. Plates serve one of three roles, by my estimation: simple identification, brand building and marketing. The plates on trucks seem to be the best example of identification. Use simple helvetica letters for the state name and big letters for the plate. Brand building plates simply remind you about the state, whether it’s important to you or not. Illinois is a good example with it’s “Land of Lincoln” tagline. So is Ohio with its claim to be “the birthplace of aviation” to trump North Carolina’s claim on the Wright Brothers. None of those claims, however, do a very good of attracting visitors. The best marketing plate, in my humble opinion, is that of Utah. The plate reads “Ski Utah”. Simple, direct and active. They don’t want you to live there, they don’t want you to visit there, they don’t want you to look for history there. They just want you to ski there. The rest will come when you ski there. Brilliant!
  2. Plates are a great way to make money. In the old days, each state had but one version and no pictures. Along the way between Des Moines, Iowa and Breckenridge, Colorado we spotted at least a dozen different versions of Colorado plates. And I’m not talking a template with a different type of emblem for a special cause. I’m talking totally, completely different plates. The Colorado DMV website lists 82 different types of plates! They must make a fortune off license and registration fees in Colorado (they don’t make it off hotel charges: our bill for one night in Golden included the room rate and one line item for taxes of about $2.70!). A quick web search shows that Tennessee has 90 different plates, California has 11 versions and 117 different logos, mostly for specific military groups. And Texas, where everything including the DOT budget is bigger, has more than 120 different plates to share your message.
  3. Some plates are beautiful, but illegible. The Minnesota plate is as stunning as the lake country but you can’t read it unless it’s standing still. Illinois has replaced the familiar blue box and san serif type with a new, white, simple plate with “Illinois” spelled out in stunning cursive, but you can hardly read it unless you’re driving at the same exact speed in the other guy’s blind spot!

If license plate graphics interest you, check out this site for a more technical history of each state’s plate and some good reference photos. Illinois gives visitors a history of license plates here.

So, hats off to Utah for making use of a great little piece of real estate to support its brand. The rest of the states – or at least the 33 we saw on our trip – could use a little work. Make it different, inviting, relevant and truthful and you’ll make it yours Tennessee, or Illinois, or Texas.

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