If you picked up last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, beneath stories about wars abroad, national politics and IPOs, there was the Hermiston water tower in all its pixelated, hedcut glory.
Page one of the best-selling newspaper in North America. Not bad, right? The tower shown like a beacon of small-town America, of the West, of watermelons. Good things for Wall Street to remember still exists.
The story itself, “A town known for watermelons is suddenly ripe for change,” was classic WSJ soft news — taut and interesting, a small glimpse that illuminated a bigger issue. Agriculture is becoming a more professional endeavor. Cities are becoming brands. Change causes problems.
It’s a good reminder of the controversy — certainly not helped by a mistmatched paint job across the city’s most visible façade — that has simmered in Hermiston for more than a year.
We’d argue that a city’s “brand” is a bit of an overrated concept. “You can GROW here” is pithy and succinct and true, but it’s never solely brought a family or a job to town. Hermiston melons, you can argue, have. In fact, they helped make the town a town, even if they now only make up a small percentage of what is produced here.
The Hermiston watermelon means something. It’s lucky that the fruit itself is one of the few foods near universally beloved And it conjures up hot summer picnics, childhood and sticky cheeks and chins. Good things.
But growing watermelons can conjure up other images: low-tilled fields as far as the eye can see, hard manual labor, dirt — things that a family or tech company may not find appealing when deciding where to move.
It’s for those reasons the city wants to shift its “brand identity.” But we’d argue that shift isn’t done with new letterhead. It’s done with the cultural change that’s been happening for years. No one decides to move to a town based on what’s written on the water tower. While a pithy line and good typography are helpful, it doesn’t connect us to what the city is really about.
We know what they do with birds in Portlandia. If you want it to sell in Hermiston — if it’s a box or a water tower or the city itself — you’d do well to put a watermelon on it.