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The branding of Lewis and Clark

The explorers Meriweather Lewis and William Clark pause to survey the way ahead.   It’s a landscape of rocks and scrub grass, with snow-covered mountains to the north.  An illustration from a historical account of the expedition of 1804-1806?  No, it’s the label on a bottle of Lewis and Clark Lager, a brand that’s proving to be a winner for a micro-brewery in Helena, Montana. 

“Micro-breweries generally work their socks off to get a product into a few bars in their home town,” says brewer Max Pigman.  “Then if you’re really doing well, you go state-wide.”  But in its first year, Lewis and Clark Lager is selling in bars and supermarkets from the Dakotas to Washington State. 

As nationwide events mark the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Pigman and others are cashing in on the brand equity of the explorers’ names and images. 

For years, the names Lewis and Clark have been popular choices for counties, cities, highways, parks, colleges, schools, hospitals, libraries and museums.  Not to mention Lewis and Clark festivals and fairs, usually featuring Lewis and Clark re-enactors.

But the bicentennial hoopla has created a marketing frenzy in which the pair—and their celebrated Indian interpreter Sakagawea—are hawking everything from beer, candy and dinner entrees to insurance and real estate.  There are Lewis and Clark fuzzy dolls, jigsaw puzzles, board games, playing cards, videos, CDs, bingo sets, T-shirts, caps, mugs, walking sticks, calendars, cookbooks, buffalo jerky and—for those who want the authentic expedition experience—a wilderness survival kit.

For Pigman, the lager is part of a broader marketing strategy—a skillful brew of history and branding.  For the true fan, there’s a line of Lewis and Clark Lager accessories— T-shirts and pint glasses.  Pigman, a history buff, is a regular sponsor of local Lewis and Clark events.  He’s filed papers to change the name of the brewery to (surprise, surprise) the Lewis and Clark Brewery.   And next up is a new product—the full-flavored Sakagawea Stout.  

It should sell well at Outpost 1806, a virtual Lewis and Clark theme restaurant on North Dakota’s Highway 1806, close to the explorers’ return route.  It’s a seasonal business, catering to hunters, boaters and anglers at Lake Sakagawea, a 178-mile long man-made lake formed by the damming of the Missouri River.  The walls are lined with the trophy heads of wild animals Lewis and Clark encountered on their journey (and a few that they didn’t), and the chandeliers are made of antlers.  There’s an entrée for almost every member of the expedition—Lewis Rib Steak, Charbonneau Prime Rib, Sakagawea Walleye.  But no horse or dog, which were on the expedition’s menu.

All this entrepreneurship has led to some disputes over rights.  Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing Company had to drop a marketing campaign—and scrap posters, signs and artwork—after the National Park Service objected to its use of its trademark silhouette image of the explorers, used on road signs throughout the West.

In Mandan, North Dakota, drugstore candy-maker Debbie Kruger teamed up with an artist to launch the Lewis and Clark “Expedition Series” milk chocolate and caramel bars, with wrappers depicting scenes from the expedition.  Candy manufacturer Necco threatened legal action, claiming consumers would confuse her product with its own Clark Bar.  After a highly publicized battle, Necco backed down.  Kruger is now selling 10,000 a month, and plans over 80 limited editions.  “I tell everyone to buy three,” she says.  “One to eat, one to save and one to give to a friend.”  

With hundreds of thousands of tourists expected to travel along the 3,700 mile trail, states and communities invested in new visitor centers, museums, “discovery trails,” riverside parks and marketing campaigns.  St. Charles, Missouri, spent $300,000 on laying brick, stone and wood to give its main street a period look and $400,000 on an advertising campaign ahead of a national signature event to mark the expedition’s departure.  “It’s about St. Charles being noticed and recognized nationally,” said convention and visitors bureau director Steve Powell.  “We want to use it as a tool to brand St. Charles as an early American destination.”

Tourism is North Dakota’s second-largest money earner after agriculture, and the state hopes Lewis and Clark visitors will return for the state’s other attractions.  To make sure they get the right information, North Dakota offers crash courses on Lewis and Clark attractions to everyone from hotel managers to convenience store clerks.  Annette Schilling, North Dakota’s Lewis and Clark coordinator, reckons that every marketing dollar spent yields $50 in tourism income and that the investment in training pays off.  “Who do you ask when you’re lost?” she says.  “The guy at the gas station, right?”

North Dakota’s marketing urges visitors to enjoy a lengthy stay—just like the explorers.  “Lewis and Clark spent more time in the Bismarck-Mandan area than any other on their journey,” claims the local convention and visitors bureau.  “Their Corps of Discovery found beautiful scenery and welcoming people.”  Maybe so, but the expedition really had no choice.  Traveling further upstream in winter was difficult and dangerous so the expedition built a fort at the Mandan villages on the Knife River for the winter of 1804-05.

At the fort, Lewis and Clark engaged the French Canadian trapper Toussaint Charbonneau as their guide and his wife Sakagawea, as an interpreter.  The marketing strategy for “Lewis & Clark—A North Dakota Adventure” stresses Sakagawea’s historical role by graphically placing her between the two explorers. 

Other states along the trail have their own Lewis and Clark claims to rival North Dakota’s. The expedition set out from Missouri, and had its first council with tribes in Nebraska.  And as Clint Blackwood, Montana’s bicentennial director, is quick to point out, his state has over 2,000 miles of Lewis and Clark trail—more than any other—because the expedition split into four parties, each with a different assignment and route, for the 1806 return trip. 

For Blackwood, the length of the expedition is an unsurpassed opportunity to promote tourism.  Most historical anniversaries, he says, last only a few months—a year at most.  Lewis and Clark is different.  “There’s never been a 2 ½ year national celebration anywhere in the world,” he says.  For Montana, it’s a chance to add history and culture to its rugged outdoorsy image. 

At the end of the trail on the Pacific Coast, Oregon has long held bragging rights because Lewis and Clark made their winter camp on the south side of the Columbia River, near present-day Astoria.  But Washington is cashing in on the 18 rather soggy days the expedition spent on the north side of the river. 

The town of Long Beach invested $2.4 million in an eight-mile Discovery Trail and a smart new residential development, Discovery Heights, is going up outside Ilwaco.  The small community (population under 1,000) has spent $5 million in federal, state and county money to upgrade road, water and sewer systems in anticipation of the tourist influx.  “They may have turned their backs on Ilwaco,” says mayor Ed Leonard, “but no Lewis and Clark fan can afford to now.” 

Branding Lewis and Clark can be a stretch.  There are the tacky promotional lines about how the explorers would have preferred to take the interstate, shop at the mall, trade in their canoes for sports utility vehicles, eat at local restaurants, and “discover” great values in auto insurance and lawn furniture.  And were the explorers really on the lookout for future sites for golf courses, as South Dakota’s brochure suggests? 

However, all this is nothing new, as Susan Buchel of the Lewis and Clark National Trail Interpretive Center at Great Falls, Montana, points out.  At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis that marked the centennial of the expedition and the Louisiana Purchase, entrepreneurs peddled everything from Lewis and Clark grain sacks to razors and sheet music. 

To be sure, the branding of Lewis and Clark was not part of Thomas Jefferson’s business plan.  But it’s definitely in the spirit of the expedition, according to a leading Lewis and Clark scholar, Professor Gary Moulton of the University of Nebraska.

In his letter of commission, Jefferson instructed Lewis and Clark to find “the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.”  

“Jefferson stressed that the aim of the expedition was to promote commerce,” says Moulton.  “He would probably have been happy to know that they’re still doing so, 200 years later.”

No wonder the Thomas Jefferson fuzzy doll in the gift stores has a smug grin on his face.

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