You expect things to be a little kooky in Key West. This is after all the place that Jimmy Buffett made famous with numerous songs and where he has a bar and recording studio. The locals call themselves conchs (pronounced konks), named for the brightly colored spiral shells of the region. They are also resourceful, having beautiful sandy beaches with 100% of the sand being barged in from the Bahamas. Charles Kuralt called it the “greatest of all the end-of-the-road towns.” It is over 2,200 miles from Fort Kent, ME to Key West, FL.
As I mentioned yesterday, Key West has had their fair share of adversity over the centuries. The citizens were up in arms in 1982 when the U. S. Government decided to erect a permanent check-point on route 1, the only road out of the Keys, backing up traffic 20 miles with 1,500 cars in what was billed as “the biggest parking lot in the nation.” Two years earlier President Jimmie Carter had offered to take any Cubans seeking freedom and over 125,000 refugees, 23,000 of whom were dumped from Castro’s prisons and mental asylums, made the 90 mile trip from Havana’s Mariel Harbor to Key West. The influx into the small town, overwhelmed everything and badly damaged the important tourist industry.
Five days after the check-point was erected Key West symbolically seceded from the U. S., declared war on the U. S., surrendered immediately and applied to the United Nations for $1 billion in foreign aid. The establishment of the Conch Republic was one of the greatest publicity stunts of all time. Moral support, but no money, flowed in from all over the world.
The U. S. government quickly rescinded the idea of a permanent check-point but the brand of the Conch Republic has lived on. Their motto is, “We seceded where others failed.” The town is full of hats and shirts that advertise the Conch Republic. The airport terminal has the name over it. You can also get a Conch Republic passport or buy stamps and currency from it. It has taken on a life of its own. An annual celebration is held each year on the Conch Republic’s Independence Day, bringing in tens of thousands of tourists.
Key West is having a ball with their brand. Next week I’m going to tell you about a Midwestern town that I was in earlier this week that has done something very similar. What are you doing to build your brand?