Considered by many to be one of America’s more estimable cities, Charlottesville, Virginia, has through the years hitched its brand most tightly to the star power of one man: Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s physical legacy—Monticello and the University of Virginia—is by any standard remarkable. But it is his intellectual, even moral, legacy—author of the Declaration of Independence, Founder, president—that rightfully holds prominence of place, and one that, until fairly recently, was boasted about without reservation.
Back in the dark ages when all the world came and went by train, the old Chesapeake & Ohio depot at the east end of Main Street featured a big sign to make sure you got the connection right away: “Welcome to Charlottesville: the Home of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.” Just west of the depot, you could catch a glimpse of the university Rotunda from the dining car window. Today, the Charlottesville/Albemarle Airport carries an equally proud and updated message: Jefferson quotations circle a replica rotunda just outside the TSA line, and the baggage claim area features snazzy digital likenesses of the great man’s house and the grounds of his university.
For a long time, it seemed a good and proud fit. Then came the summer of 2017 when riots broke out over the question of Charlottesville’s Civil War monuments and parks named for Southern generals. What to do about Confederate generals has created enough of a dilemma, but the tougher knot by far to untie will be Jefferson. Just as Duke University’s officials now find themselves scrambling for ways to soft-pedal the school founder’s problematic history of being a Civil War veteran who made a fortune in tobacco, so too may the University of Virginia’s earnest board members soon find themselves grappling with the problem of the Jefferson brand.
Today, with everyone from CEOs to fresh MBAs, from pastors to generals to new graduates busily crafting their own personal brands, the brand bar gets lower every day. But then brands and branding have long been built on mundane items like soap and cigarettes, virtually identical products that were differentiated and made aspirational through the magic of marketing. A merely good brand was one that associated a particular good or service with a trend or fashion, in which context the good or service became more desirable. A truly great brand was one that lasted through time and begot reputation.
When it comes to Founders, surely George Washington would have been the better bet than Jefferson. Of all the Founders, Washington’s brand has proven sturdiest, although he would have scorned the idea of branding as crass and grasping. To him, both private and public life were about reputation beginning to end, and no man cared more about it or left behind one quite so durable. Washington stood and stands for incorruptibility, solidity, steadfastness. What’s more—and very important this in these days—he freed his slaves and, as far as we know, didn’t sleep with any.