Brand battle? As Emerald Coast moniker turns 30, competition is rising

Matt Algarin
Tourist Garrison Jewett of Valparaiso, Ind., captured the branding appeal of the Emerald Coast with this photo taken at Crab Island in Destin.

Between Destin, Visit South Walton, 30A, Rosemary Beach, and The Heart of the Emerald Coast, there is no shortage of competing brands along Northwest Florida.

"It's definitely a lot of noise," said John Ervin, director of marketing and communications for the Walton County Tourist Development Council. "I think that if I had to choose between no noise and a lot of noise, I would always ask for more."

While its widely known now that the patch of paradise from Fort Walton to Destin and a bit further to the east is commonly referred to as the Emerald Coast, it wasn't always so. Over the years the area has been called many things, from the Playground to the Miracle Strip and the Redneck Riviera.

Almost 30 years ago today, a collaborative effort was put forth by local tourist development groups and chambers of commerce to brand the area. Thus, the "Emerald Coast" was born, after Fort Walton Beach High School junior Andrew Dier suggested the name, which was a reference to the area's green waters. Dier, a Walton County resident, was awarded $50 for his suggestion.

Today, the Emerald Coast remains a recognizable brand, but it continues to evolve.


Okaloosa County has recently added to the well-known Emerald Coast brand, now using the phrase "Heart of the Emerald Coast," which singles out Okaloosa Island, Destin and Fort Walton Beach.

Okaloosa County Tourist Development Director Ed Schroeder told The Log that the "Heart of the Emerald Coast" was adopted by the TDC and County Commissioners to expand upon the regional term Emerald Coast, which could range from Orange Beach, Ala., to Mexico Beach.

"We are the only ones using it as our brand or our logo," he said of the newly minted slogan. "It was about how we differentiate ourselves from those that could also be included."

Schroder said the importance and meaning of a brand though is not up to the people that create it, but more so those who experience it.

"They think of us as a family destination, a fishing destination and as the heart of America image," he said.

Looking at Destin, which is also known as "The World's Luckiest Fishing Village," the city has become known throughout the United States and Southeast as a family friendly destination. While it may not be on the same levels as Coca-Cola, Apple or IBM, Destin has a devoted following, Destin Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Shane Moody told The Log.

"The brand is important because it sets the tone in the mind of residents and tourists, or customers and clients, depending on the business sector you're in," he said. "For Destin, it's clean, bright white beaches with clean, clear water. It's family, world class, resort."

In South Walton, TDC officials embrace the diversity they have along the 30A corridor.

"We've become a family of 26 miles and pretty much within that area you feel as though your expectations are being met," Ervin said. "You know what you are going to get and they enjoy delivering it."

While he was quick to give Destin top billing, Moody didn't count out the efforts of the region’s other brands, saying that the communities in South Walton have done a great job of building their images and drawing a "very desirable clientele."

Destin vs. SoWal?

As a Destin resident and city councilman, Walton County Tourist Development Director Jim Bagby Bagby is no stranger to Destin and its brand power. He has routinely said that for most visitors, Destin stretches from the Brooks Bridge to the Bay County line.

Bagby said the key is to walk a fine line when dealing with Destin since he doesn't want to "combat it" when he wears his Walton County TDC hat.

"There are good aspects to Destin — it's family friendly, it's clean beaches — and these are things we want to be associated with," he said.

So do Destin and Visit South Walton compete for brand supremacy? Not as much as one would think.

"It's more of a collaborative effort," Bagby told The Log. "I think we have different target audiences, different target demographics."

While Panama City is focusing on sports marketing, Bagby said, and Destin/Fort Walton Beach focus on the fishing industry, his organization is marketing more toward a higher-end clientele.

But Moody says Destin should be vying for that same demographic.

"It's something Destin needs to return to, making sure we're marketing to the higher income families," Moody said. "We want to fill condos, but we want to fill them with higher rates and with people who will spend money throughout the community, not just on accommodations."

For his part, Schroeder told The Log that branding along the Panhandle wasn't a competition, but an opportunity for a variety of experiences to be enjoyed.

"Having a variety of images people think of isn't bad," he said. "We have brands that portray different images, but those images are going to be based on what's appropriate for the context of the conversation."

"It shows the variety of what we have," he added. "We are not a one-trick pony."

Moving forward

Bagby says he likes what he sees, but there is still a long way to go to position South Walton in the forefront of tourists’ minds.

"I would say it's very important, but it's not critical," he said of the overall branding efforts. "If it were, South Walton would have gone away years ago, because we still have yet to establish that brand to the maximum capability."

As for the state of the Destin brand, Moody saw room for improvement as well.

"We can't become complacent with what we've had, and I think that's happened," he said. "When you do that, you don't move forward and you don't improve, just like in any business."

Moody said this is more than likely why so many other brands are popping up, because people want to "separate themselves from Destin." Ideally, Moody would like to see the city get back to where it was in 2005 and 2006, "where people looked at Destin as an almost exclusive resort town."

"We have to be careful with the development and the growth — it has to be quality growth and not cheapen the community," he said.

"We want visitors to return home and tell their friends what a great destination and resort we are, not the other direction it could go," he added. "We also need to brand Destin as a great place to live, with a great quality of place."