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Has Utah done 'horrible job' branding itself? Governor says state's wild growth tells different story

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly news conference at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday.

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly news conference at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday gently pushed back against Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith's recent comments that Utah has done a "horrible job" of branding itself as it continues to exist as the "easy state to pick on" to the rest of the nation.

"The numbers don't support that," said the Republican governor, a big fan of the Jazz.

"We're the fastest-growing state in the nation. It's not like people aren't coming to Utah. They're coming in droves. Utah has been discovered, and people love Utah," Cox said during his monthly news conference broadcast on PBS Utah from its Salt Lake City-based studio.

In fact, Utah's growth has been so successful, the governor said many home-grown Utahns would "push back and say, 'We've been too successful and there are too many people moving here.'"

"We care more about what Utahns think of Utah first and, then secondly, what the rest of the world thinks about Utah," Cox said.

However, the governor said Smith may have a point in some respects, noting he's been in "direct conversations" with the Jazz owner about the issue.

"The thing I liked about what Ryan said, he pushed back on people here in Utah who are always talking down Utah. And I really appreciated that. There are certainly things we can do better," Cox said of Smith's comments, which were detailed in an in-depth piece published by the Deseret News earlier this week.

Cox said Utah may be due for a rebrand anyway.

"All of that being said, we have been working on a potential rebrand of the state. That's a process we started about four months ago," Cox said. "Every 10 to 20 years, it's important to look at your slogans and mottos."

Cox said the "Life Elevated" slogan has been with the state for roughly 16 years, "and it's probably time to re-imagine and re-think that."

"So we've been getting feedback. It's a slow process. We haven't proposed anything yet, but we're working through that process."

Smith, co-founder of the Utah-based software giant Qualtrics, told the Deseret News he wants Utah to rebrand itself to help attract more tech startups, development and Fortune 500 companies.

"The way (Smith) sees it, Utah has existed unfairly in the national imagination for far too long as a punchline — strange and square and goofy and backward," the Deseret News reported. "State officials, rather than presenting a potent alternative to the tired stereotypes, have spent millions of dollars on an advertising campaign designed, effectively, to remind people that Utah has national parks."

Smith takes particular issue with the state's tourism slogan.

"I mean, the campaign is 'Life Elevated,'" Smith said. "Really? Yeah, we know, we're at 4,000 feet. Where are we going?"

Cox, specifically of the campaign, said "the job of tourism isn't to focus on business. That's not what tourism does. The focus of tourism is to bring tourists here.

"And no state in the nation, no tourism department in the nation has received more awards or been more successful in bringing tourists here."

The governor pointed to Utah's state and national parks, which are continuing to burst at the seams.

"You see it every day. You see it in our national parks. You see it in our state parks. We had record increases in attendance in our state parks last year," he said. That spike has continued in 2021, long after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed many more Americans outdoors. "We thought that would level back off and go back down this year. It hasn't. We've had double-digit growth again this year."

Cox argued the perception that Utah is a strange state is becoming a thing of the past as more people discover all that it has to offer.

"There's no question that there is some misinformation out there, and there always will be," Cox said. "Everybody has their biases, and some of those are biased toward Utah. But when people do come to Utah, what they find is an incredible place."

The state's wild growth — from a burgeoning tech sector to a raging, severely imbalanced housing market with record-breaking price spikes — is forcing state leaders to confront how to balance that growth with Utahns' quality of life.

"There will be more action this legislative session about what we do for the growth we're seeing here," Cox said. "But I think we've been very successful."

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Katie McKellar


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