The Key West Mystique

Key West Island News


Key West Island News connects Key West residents and friends of the island, fosters our One Human Family culture and advances understanding of shared goals for our island community

Key West Brand Mystique

The Key West brand | What do these authors have in common with the Tourist Development Council?

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


It’s been more than a decade and I can hear the former headline writers in my old newsroom groan as I type four words: Key words; big type.

That was shorthand for get the four or five most important words in the biggest type on the page. Hence, “Key West bans cruise ships,” and not “City OKs action on ships.” These days, what with Google searches, you’d better have your key words tightly integrated in the back end of your software or no one’s going to find your spiffy stuff or whatever it is you do with your website.

If you’re doing business in the Florida Keys, there’s only one key word set: Key West. If you’re a writer, an artist, a musician, a not-for-profit and you have even the remotest connection to the island chain, there’s only one key word set: Key West. If “Key West” isn’t in your name, if it’s not part of your website’s URL, if you choose cute over key word — say Bone Island — you’ve lost search power.

Several local companies and organizations have opted to use the initials KW for their websites , even when the KeyWest(xxxxx) version is available. Why in the world would they giveaway the power of that Key West brand by using initials? Yeah, I know; someone told them to keep the URL short, but in these cases, using Key West instead of KW would have added all of five keystrokes, hardly an onerous typing exercise.

How do these authors create their Key West brand?

The Key West brand is more than the website address. Having the words “Key West” tied to whatever you’re doing instantly connects with a huge potential audience. Just ask best-selling authors Tom Corcoran, Lucy Burdette and Carl Hiaasen.

For decades these storytellers have used their Key West roots to weave tall tales based in Key West. For Corcoran and Burdette, Key West itself is a fully developed character. We read them in great measure because we love that delightful rush when we recognize a place or person. What’s fascinating for me is Corcoran’s ability to marry the Key West Mystique with the island’s frustrated ambivalence with and reluctant acceptance of half a century of change, not always for the better.

I’m in the middle of a another binge-read of Corcoran’s Alex Rutledge series; I binged Burdette during early Covid (and cooked up some of her recipes); Hiaasen’s books were sandwiched in between. (An aside: I do have one quibble about the authors’ plot lines: We don’t have nearly the murders and mayhem. I mean, really, if there were that many dead, decapitated folks lying around, I think we’d know. Right? Right? Someone tell me I’m right.)

The Florida Keys brand is David to the Goliath of the Key West brand. Doubt that? Just remember what happened during Hurricane Irma, when the mainland media, including some in Florida, simply could not figure out where Key West was in relation to Cudjoe and Big Pine, much less Islamorada, Marathon and Key Largo. About the only people who don’t routinely conflate the Keys with Key West are Key West residents.

Few understand the power of the Key West brand better than Monroe County’s Tourism Development Council. Virtually every marketing piece has the words Key West in big type somewhere — even when the TDC is promoting the middle and upper Keys.

That doesn’t always sit well with “up the Keys,” but the TDC knows, even if it soft pedals it, that without those two words — Key West — they’re not going to reach their audience. That’s why their own branding is “The Florida Keys & Key West, come as you are.” It’s a shame they can’t use “floridakeysandkeywest” as their URL. Someone else owns it, though they’re not using it for a website.

That Key West brand — the Key West Mystique — flows from centuries of being “not Florida.” A trip this week to the mainland with Ranger Ed made the point as we drove over the causeway onto Marco Island. Egads and the Wee Donkey. What a breath-taking caricature of all that Key West could have become.

I believe there really is such a thing as the Key West state of mind, the Key West brand. I believe that whether you were born here or first met Key West in 1970 or just a few weeks ago, those who love the island will never stray far. Preserving and enhancing that Key West mystique sustains our island home forever.


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