It probably was a long time in coming, back to when John Wayne became Moab’s first poster child, introducing the world to our neck of the desert.
Personally, I’ve never identified much with John Wayne, except to irk my wife by drawling out a few Wayne-isms, like “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” Yet invoking John Wayne’s name was handy whenever we traveled abroad. Twenty-five years ago, most people had never heard of Moab, so we would always add, “You know, John Wayne Country.”
By the early 1990s, the Duke’s fame was fading faster than our stonewashed jeans, so we began to tell people we lived in “Marlboro Country.” This was back when Fisher Towers served as the backdrop to the Marlboro Man commercials.
That too didn’t last long. Phillip Morris dropped the ads in 1999 after three Marlboro Men succumbed to lung cancer. Marlboro cigarettes became known as Cowboy Killers, not the image we wanted Moab to be saddled with, not while we were still dealing with fallout from our uranium days.
During the early 1990s, mountain biking went mainstream, and the Slickrock Trail became its mecca. Finally we had something to hang our helmet on. It wasn’t long before my kids were riding Schwinn “Moab” mountain bikes, as our brand gained traction in the marketplace, with products like Moab Factory rims for four-wheelers and Pro-Line’s Moab brand off-road tires (“Our largest monster truck tire!”). The Moab brand conjured up adventure and brutish power, though it sadly lacked much sex appeal. My Merrell Moab trail shoes were marketed with the same adjectives used to sell prosthetic underwear: “Comfortable! Breathable! Supportive!”
In 2003, the military infringed on our brand by naming the world’s most powerful non-nuclear bomb the MOAB (“Massive Ordinance Air Burst bomb.”) Some of that “shock and awe” rubbed off on our own brand, as tourism boomed. Hummer even flirted with the idea of naming their next model the MOAB.
Car manufacturers have long known the power of place, profitably co-opting the mythic character of our Western towns by naming their cars after us, vehicles like the Chrysler Aspen (“Decadence without Shame”) and the Dodge Durango (“A Big Fat Juicy Cheeseburger in the Land of Tofu”). Even the imports got into the act with Hyundai’s Santa Fe and Tucson models, Suzuki’s ill-fated Reno (The Biggest Little Mistake in the World) and Kia’s Sedona minivan. (Maintenance-free! Just Smudge with Sage Every 30,000 miles!)
We now have gained membership to this select club with Jeep’s new Wrangler Moab. It’s advertised as a “Rebel with a Revered Name,” which is similar to how the Utah State Legislature views us. And even its tagline, “Find Your Power Within” reflects our own proclivity towards navel-gazing.
Yet danger lurks when dealing with the power of a brand. Just like those pharmaceutical TV ads showing images of glowing health while the voiceover lists a lethal litany of side effects, our fabled name attracts thousands of tourists every weekend, yet we’re the ones suffering the side-effects: environmental degradation, minimum wage slavery, the inability of ever making a left-hand turn on Main Street.
When a community becomes a commodity, extreme measures are called for. So why not trademark our own name before someone else does? (In South Dakota, the town of Sturgis lost its own name, and hence all licensing monies, to Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, Inc.) By controlling our own brand, we can use licensing fees to mitigate the side-effects we’re now facing. Heck, I’ll do it myself.
Shoot! Too late. A quick search reveals 16 applications to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for ownership of the “Moab” name, including those filed by Chrysler, Tire Mart, Samsonite, and General Motors.
Well, Moab, let’s file an application of our own. Who knows? We just might start something big, a Trademark Rebellion rolling across our Western towns, safeguarding our heritage and character from those who seek to profit by them. Sometimes you just have to buck up and take control of your own destiny.
Or as the Duke himself might say, “A town’s gotta do what a town’s gotta do.”
Charles Kulander, a 22-year resident of Grand County, is a writer and photographer.