November 29, 2022 | Spotlight

Institute of Government’s branding team taps into the sweet life in Vidalia

an wears a shirt that showcases the new Vidalia branding.

Writer: Margaret Blanchard

Drawing an onion might seem easy, but when you’re talking about a Vidalia onion, that’s another story.

Just ask Kaitlin Messich, who led the Georgia city through a yearlong branding process. A faculty member at the UGA Carl Vinson Institute of Government, Messich leads the community branding program.

“The biggest challenge was getting the onion right,” Messich said. “People are passionate about it. When we started, we saw how many departments and organizations use the Vidalia onion in their marketing and design, but there was no consistent brand look.”

Community Branding Tips

  • Engage a diverse group of locals in the branding process.
  • Be transparent. The Institute of Government’s three-step branding process takes about a year to complete.
  • Be authentic.
  • Be patient, brand rollout takes time and money.

What makes the Vidalia onion unique?

  • Through the Vidalia Onion Act of 1986, the Georgia state legislature trademarked the crop and defined the 20-county growing region.
  • The sweet taste is due to the low sulfur content of the soil.
  • While the Vidalia onion is traditionally a seasonal crop (usually available April-September), a variety of Georgia-grown, onion-centered products — from dips to chips — are available to share the taste in the offseason.

Communities are increasingly using brand strategy to attract talent and compete for new residents, jobs, industry and funding. Community branding is an economic development asset; it helps communities enhance their image and better position themselves in a competitive environment. Successful community branding requires finding out what makes a community unique and selling high-value positioning to targeted audiences.

Vidalia’s iconic onion put the community on an international stage, but that’s just a starting point for telling more about all the city has to offer, especially quality of life. 

Involving the community was a key part of the project for Vidalia, Mayor Doug Roper said.

“A lot of times, those in either elected positions or working for the city can come up with these ideas and projects we believe can help us market the community and help us tell our story,” Roper said. “But unless you’re able to get buy-in and feedback from the community, it’s just the same people doing all the work.”

The project was unique because, despite its existing identity as the Sweet Onion City, leaders needed a cohesive look and clear talking points. 

For Alexa Britton, executive director of the Vidalia Convention and Visitors Bureau, which markets the community and sponsors the annual Vidalia Onion Festival, it was important to find a logo and messaging that could break down silos.

“Every department in the city was using something different. We did not look like we worked for the same city,” she said.

Messich’s team was charged with creating a brand strategy to encompass several city departments, the convention and visitor’s bureau, the downtown association, and the festival.

“There’s no denying that we had to use the onion somewhere,” quipped Tonya Parker, executive director of the Downtown Vidalia Association. “But we really had to pull it in and find one look that was for all of us.”

After many iterations, the community agreed on a hand-drawn trio of onions by Kelsey Broich, a creative design specialist at the UGA Institute of Government. The drawing provides visual identity across departments and events. Vintage-inspired fonts paired with a fresh color palette based on the traditional green and yellow associated with the onion reflect the community’s rural roots.

But community branding involves more than just creating an engaging font and a snappy tagline — it’s tapping into its soul, as Messich has learned during her time at the institute.

“While it’s not a quick fix, smart branding enhances what a community is trying to achieve, whether it’s tourism, economic development, or attracting more people to downtown and local events,” Messich said. “It’s really fun to see how much people love their communities, and branding brings that out.”

To share that there’s more to Vidalia than just a bulbous vegetable, Messich created a compelling brand position statement evoking the region’s soil, traditions and Southern hospitality:

There’s just something in the soil here. And we aren’t just talking about onions.
Rooted in tradition like the Vidalia Onion Festival and high school football rivalries,
Vidalia is where shared memories are passed down for generations.
Vidalia’s name is known far and wide for its sweet onions – a name that rolls off the tongue with soft Southern drawl and a friendly smile.
Vidalia’s old soul remains young at heart, embracing the future with optimism and forward-thinking leaders.
Abundant with opportunity, Vidalia boasts international industries, small business success stories, excellent schools, and first-class healthcare.
This small town is bursting with Southern hospitality and is bound to entice you to stay. If you aren’t from around here, you’ll be acting like it soon.
Life is sweet in Vidalia.

The sentiment really hit home for Parker, a native Vidalian with deep roots in the region.

“When we heard the position statement, several of us teared up because it was like, ‘Wow, that truly describes who we are.’ It’s really special,” she said.

With a fresh stock of newly branded hats, T-shirts, tote bags and stickers, Vidalia is ready to move forward with widely promoting what makes their town so “sweet.”

“Folks here are excited about it, and I think there’s a great market for our merchandise outside of our community as well. The sky’s the limit on how much we can get out there across the country,” Roper said.