What is the brand that North Carolina and its towns should be putting out there?

I’m a guy who wears a tie to work each day. A throwback rarity in this Casual Everyday workplace culture. And further quirkified by my need to match the tie to my pocket square and socks.

It’s my brand — a nod to my late dad who taught me how to tie a tie while quietly preaching the importance of dressing to be respectful of others. After all, the best-dressed people in most hotels are concierges.

I’m just as picky — and quirky — on the weekends. I have about a hundred T-shirts and at least 50 sweatshirts. But many still have sales tags on them because, well, they’re too special to wear.

Brand matters. So do memories.

That’s why the heavy blue hoodie emblazoned with “Homer Spit” sends me back to our Alaska adventure from two years ago.

Why the gray “KENNEBUNKPORT” isn’t a political statement but a nod to Memorial Day 2023, which Maine residents will remember for being dry, warm and sunny.

And why my latest addition — still with the sales tag attached — says ‘NEW BERN” with a silhouette of a bear.

Sweatshirts as billboards to our soul

I spent way too much time at Surf, Wind & Fire, an outdoor lifestyle store in downtown New Bern, pondering whether to introduce this dark red sweatshirt to my credit card.

The price was right, the fabric felt comfy, and yet the brain vs. heart debate intensified:

  1. Am I cool enough to even be in this store? (Handsome, hip, TikToky-type people were everywhere.) And most importantly …

  2. Is New Bern — as a brand — worthy of a sweatshirt?

Wear something that says “UNC,” “Duke” or “NC State” and someone will comment and immediately judge you. Sweatshirts are the billboards to our soul and the playlist to our persona.

Brand matters. But we confuse its meaning often.

Brand isn’t a product. It’s an image, a feeling, a thing.

It’s the you-know-it-when-you-see-it experience that compels us to join Mini Cooper car clubs or get excited about the Innova quilting “dream machines” at QuiltCon in Raleigh.

The best-brand debates are interesting and exude the reality that consensus is best achieved by looking at yourself in the mirror.

I asked two artificial intelligence tools the same question: What are the best brands in North Carolina?

Best brands in North Carolina

ChatGPT listed SAS Institute, Red Hat, Burt’s Bees and Epic Games, all based in the Triangle, in its top 10.

Perplexity went a different route — possibly because it sensed I was hungry — and listed a top nine of Cheerwine, Mt. Olive Pickles, Bojangles, Cook Out, Krispy Kreme, Lance, Pepsi, Bright Leaf Hot Dogs and Texas Pete.

Bottles of Cheerwine chill in a cooler of ice at Sam Jones Barbecue in Raleigh.
Bottles of Cheerwine chill in a cooler of ice at Sam Jones Barbecue in Raleigh.

Cheerwine topping the best-brands list feels right. This paragraph from a 2023 story by The News & Observer’s Korie Dean could be a case study on how to describe Cheerwine as a product AND a brand: “The cherry-flavored soda was invented in Salisbury in 1917, and over the past 100-plus years has gained a cult-like following in North Carolina and beyond. My earliest memories of drinking Cheerwine come from sitting in a booth at Zack’s Hot Dogs in Burlington as a kid, washing down my chili- and slaw-covered dog with that delicious, red nectar in a glass bottle.”

You can’t drink a Pepsi in North Carolina without thinking of New Bern, which The N&O’s Martha Quillin recommends as a daytripper from the Triangle. Hurricane Florence battered New Bern, but this former Colonial capital along the Neuse and Trent rivers keeps reinventing itself as a place to live and visit.

There’s the cute downtown with block after block of interesting shops.

There’s Tryon Palace and next-door North Carolina History Center, a testament to the community’s heritage and savvy marketing IQ. (On a recent weekend, we met a couple visiting New Bern from Bern, Switzerland,)

There are unique restaurants, such as Baker’s Kitchen, with its butter syrup and bodacious cinnamon rolls.

But is New Bern a sweatshirt-worthy brand? Is it an image, a feeling, a thing?

It’s a good question for any Triangle community: Do locals and tourists — especially out-of-town quilters — think enough of us to put it on their chest.

Crack open a bottle of Cheerwine and sip on that for a while.

Bill Church is executive editor of The News & Observer. He also overthinks breakfast cereals.

We tried all 40 milkshakes at Cook Out. Here are the best (plus some you should skip)