Suffolk: The curious case of a rebranded county

Windy day on Dunwich beach in Suffolk

Plans are afoot to promote Suffolk as the "curious county". But while counties clearly have their own identities, is it right to treat them like a brand?

It's synonymous with respectable market towns, Benjamin Britten's music, and bracing swims on shingle beaches. But the bucolic county of Suffolk is divided over how it should present itself to the outside world.

A proposal by local tourism leaders to brand it "the curious county" met with a fierce reaction from some locals, including the area's Conservative MPs.

"Idiotic and meaningless, if not positively dangerous," Bury St Edmunds MP David Ruffley railed in the East Anglian Daily Times. Dr Dan Poulter, a minister and Central Suffolk MP, said "It has got to be stopped." And Dr Therese Coffey, MP for Suffolk Coastal, told the paper that "curious" was a euphemism for something "not quite right".

Condiment, the Ipswich-based communications agency behind the idea, says the campaign will show that Suffolk has more than fish and chips by the seaside.

Ed Sheeran Famous son Ed Sheeran

The campaign hopes to tap into the arts and music scene from local popstar Ed Sheeran, to the Latitude Festival at Southwold and the Aldeburgh Festival.

Tim Rowan-Robinson, a Suffolk hotelier supporting the proposal, says it's about differentiating the county from other destinations.

If the plan is adopted, there will be no road signs proclaiming "Suffolk: the curious county", Rowan-Robinson insists. Instead there would be a "micro-website" to back up the main Visit Suffolk site, and Twitter users will be encouraged to use hashtags like #proudtobecurious and #curiouscoast.

The word has baggage.

"'Curiouser and curiouser!' cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English)" is Lewis Carroll's memorable phrase in Alice in Wonderland. The Oxford English Dictionary gives this sense of peculiarity as "the ordinary current objective sense". Is that the right message for a county to be selling?

"The word curious is very appropriate in both its meanings," Rowan-Robinson argues. "It's about enquiring and finding out more. And it means something that's slightly different, but not oddly different."

Social commentator Peter York wonders whether part of the outcry might stem from old sensitivities over the old joke about people in East Anglia being "incestuous".

Branding a place is harder than an object, he says. But the campaign is right to go down this "rather unusual" approach. "Curious" will appeal to the Suffolk type of visitor - "well heeled and low-key" people who are part of the knowledge economy, he says.

The slogan also has "cut through", he believes. "In a crowded advertising market you've got to say something unusual, uncliched and controversial in order to get noticed. It makes complete sense as far as it goes."

Buckinghamshire sign, and Hertfordshire sign - County of opportunity

Until now Suffolk hasn't had a slogan. Neighbouring Essex survives without one, perhaps sustained by its cheeky, brash reputation of which The Only Way Is Essex is the latest manifestation. Other counties, however, do feel the need to brand themselves.

Warwickshire is Shakespeare's county, Nottinghamshire Robin Hood country, Kent the Garden of England. Buckinghamshire is "the birthplace of the Paralympics", Hertfordshire "county of opportunity" and Northumberland "officially England's most tranquil county". Carmarthernshire has called itself "the garden of Wales" and West Lothian is "a jewel in Scotland's crown".

The author Stuart Prebble in Grumpy Old Drivers wishes these signs would adopt the self-mocking tone of US bumper stickers. "Ohio: At Least We're Not Michigan" is his favourite.

Welcome signs to US states - Tennassee (Volunteer State), Colorado (Colourful), South Carolina (Smiling Faces, Beautiful Places) and New Mexico (Land of Enchantment)

In fact all US states have their own official slogans. Tennessee is The Volunteer State, New Mexico styles itself the Land of Enchantment, Texas is the Lone Star State and Oklahoma the Sooner State.

Cities have done this for decades. The "I love NY" campaign from the mid-1970s featuring a big red heart, was one of the trendsetters. Ken Livingstone opted for "Totally LondON", which Boris Johnson vowed to scrap in his mayoral campaign. Birmingham has had a few - "B in Birmingham", "Europe's youngest city" and "the global city with a local heart".

It doesn't always work out. Leeds was embarrassed when it turned out its slogan - "Live it. Love it" - echoed Hong Kong's word for word.

Slogan Britain is about changing perceptions, boosting tourism and luring inward investment. "The idea of branding places isn't silly. It's serious stuff," says York.

Clarissa Dickson Wright, author of Clarissa's England: A Gamely Gallop Through the English Counties, says counties still matter. "It's only when I came to write the book that I realised how clearly each county has its own identity. Even Bedfordshire."

But the idea that you need to brand them is absurd. "You can hire all the advertising men in the world but they'll all get it wrong."

I Heart New York T-shirts on sale

There is something curious about Suffolk, she says. It's out on a limb, a fusion of bucolic farmland, the Aldeburgh Festival, Maggie Hambling's scallop sculpture, and the Sizewell A and B nuclear power stations.

It's the sum of many parts. And it's not for marketing people to decide how a county is seen. "You need to build the edifice and let someone else put the label on," she says.

But perhaps the tourism chiefs don't care. Whether the slogan sticks, this out of the way county is suddenly provoking outsiders' curiosity.

How do you think your county should be promoted? Let us know by using the comments form below. A selection of your comments will be published

In Ireland the individual counties have a long history of unique titles and branding. For example Cork is the 'Rebel County'. I think it would be good for more English counties to take a similar route to give themselves a clearer identity.

David Ryan, Cork

Does anybody remember from the 1960s: "Sheffield - Garden City of the North?" I thought not. Frankly this kind of meaningless hype makes me reach for the sick bucket. Why must they turn everything into a marketized "brand?"

Arthur Priest, Leicester Leicestershire

It's a long way from the signs which used to 'welcome' visitors to Buckinghamshire: 'BUCKINGHAMSHIRE: SPEED CAMERAS'.

Neil Matthews, Great Missenden, Bucks

Having lived in and out of the county for the past 46 years, the last word I would use to describe it would be curious. Welcoming, laid back, contemporary and artistic are but a few words that might be more apt. The wonderful history of the county and many places of historical interest may arouse the curiosity of the visitor but that doesnt make it a "curious county".

Mark Sheppard, Woodbridge, Suffolk

The District Council (Hambleton) in this area started to refer to the area as 'Herriot Country', but waited until the author of the vet books was almost forgotten about. Even people that live here say "who the hell was Herriot?"

Paul Sherwood, Thirsk, North Yorkshire

Suffolk already has a county saying, Selig suffolk (pronounced silly Suffolk). Selig is old English meaning 'blessed'. It may be due to the sheer number of churches in the county.

Derrick Bowman , Ipswich Suffolk

There is currently a bit of a war of words here over a plan to rebrand Edinburgh as 'incredinburgh'.... The campaign by the Leith Agency is due to launch on 23 October. Ever since Glasgow struck gold with its 'Glasgow's Miles Better' catchline in the early 1980s, Edinburgh's been trying to find something to top it. Still trying.....

Kate, Edinburgh

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