Everyone wants to win the economic development game. Successfully attracting new business keeps citizens employed, creates a sense of communal pride, infuses a community with renewed vitality, encourages more growth and keeps citizens on good terms with their elected officials. Rapid technological advances continue to transform the economic development landscape. Increasingly, companies are no longer restricted to locating in huge population centers. Many companies can now conduct their business anywhere. This creates a paradox for economic development professionals: the good news is that companies can locate anywhere; the bad news is that companies can locate anywhere. This latter truth raises the question: what can economic development professionals do to make their communities stand out amid the clutter of this seemingly boundless crowd? One important way is through successful marketing. Following are seven steps to help successfully do this.
1. You’re not just selling a living, you’re selling a lifestyle.
When potential decision makers shop for a location for a new facility, regardless of their business sector, they want to be able to attract and retain the best talent to help ensure sustained success. We live in an age of high workforce mobility – or at least the tolerance for mobility. Don’t like the cold weather in New York? Then take a job in Houston. Don’t like the coffee in LA? Move to Seattle. Tools like LinkedIn, video conferencing and relatively inexpensive airfare have made this process much easier and more geographically expansive.
People are much more motivated to move for the right job than they were a generation ago. But they’re even more compelled to move for the right lifestyle. Companies – and ultimately you – aren’t just selling a salary, a benefits package and a popular company culture (“Foosball and beer at lunch!”), they (and you) are selling a lifestyle, a community, particularly in this hyper-connected era when the sharp line demarking work-time and off-time becomes increasingly more blurred and fluid (honestly, when was the last time you didn’t respond to or at least check work email during a timeout in your tech firm’s interoffice quidditch match?).
Adjusting your mindset to the reality that recruiting new businesses (and the folks they employ) isn’t just about dollars and cents will give you a more encompassing picture of what it is you’re selling. That will allow you to tailor an oblique marketing strategy that promotes the distinctive attributes that distinguish you as a community, what makes you a place (as opposed to all other places). Successfully executed, this oblique marketing strategy will create a greater overall impression on decision makers than strictly confining your message to economic development topics. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do decision makers when evaluating potential locations.
2. Take a good audit of what makes your community distinctive.
Again, it’s not just about the numbers. Of course tax issues, property prices, cost of living and necessary infrastructure enhancements are prime considerations to which a pricetag can be affixed. But other intangibles can tip the scales: accessibility to quality healthcare, education and recreational amenities; reliable and business-capable telecommunications; cultural and culinary offerings; diverse housing types and prices; ease of daily commute; business friendly local, regional and state governments; and convenient access to affordable airlift. Taking an honest inventory of these assets (as well as shortcomings) allows you to develop a coherent brand strategy and statement that reflects and accurately encapsulates your community. You have to really know yourself before you can sell yourself. Having an honest portrait of your community and what it has to offer (and what it needs to plan to ameliorate) will help you target the right businesses, which leads to the next point…
3. Be authentic when selling yourself to potential companies.
Recruiting new business is like dating. My father once offered this (unsolicited) relationship advice: “In love there aren’t good people and bad people; there are just good matches and bad matches.” Likewise, don’t designate opportunities into binary categories such as good companies or bad companies. Instead, evaluate a potential company as either a good fit or bad fit. As tempting as it is to swing for the fence by going after every lead you become aware of, don’t try to adapt (or worse, gloss over) your culture to try to impress a prospect by presenting your community as something it’s not. Just as in dating, the truth will out eventually. If you’ve sold yourself to a sophisticated German company as a culturally rich town, they’ll not be amused when they find your symphony consists of cousin Bob on the banjo and grandpaw on the washboard. But when a crunchy web-based outdoor retailer looking for a new distribution hub discovers (through your hard work) that your community has a thriving local bluegrass tradition … well, you’re both onto something.
When evaluating RFPs and business leads, save yourself, your team, your political capital and the prospect a lot of time (not to mention false hope) by getting to really know the corporate culture and honestly asking, “Are we a good match, or is this headed for the Big D (and I don’t mean Dallas)?” When you identify the right fit, exhaust all your stored resources to pursue it vigorously and passionately. Another benefit: when you and the company begin recruiting talent to fill key roles, your sales job will be that much easier because the folks who are attracted to that company will likewise be attracted to you.
4. Adaptive Reuse: Making the most of your diamonds-in-the-rough
Stuck with a large facility that was forced to shutter when globalization drove jobs offshore? Unoccupied buildings can quickly become a weedy, blighted eyesore. Savvy planners take steps to convert these lemons into lemonade through adaptive reuse. Such facilities can often be bought at a bargain and serve a positive social purpose by saving an architectural treasure that binds your community’s past to its future. (Caveat: perform your due diligence by having qualified professionals thoroughly evaluate buildings for structural issues, current code compliance and serious health hazards such as asbestos or mold to make sure that good deal doesn’t eventually become a bottomless money pit.)
Mad Men-style hierarchically arranged office buildings with wood-paneled private executive suites on the top floor and mail room at the bottom are anachronistic. Today’s entrepreneurs tend to favor spare, open interiors that promote collegiality, invite horizontal lines of communication and nurture creative interplay. Vintage industrial details like exposed brick and rafters, rugged wood or concrete flooring, utilitarian shop lighting and indirect natural light from skylights and large windows – in other words, the exact sort of features that old sock plant downtown has – are highly desirable for adaptive reuse. These types of buildings often convey a significant historic and cultural charm – soul, some people would call it – that leaves any marketer salivating.
5. Small fish in a big ocean? Make your community’s size a strategic advantage.
If you are an economic developer in a small town, don’t be paralyzed by the possibility that you may be competing against much larger metro areas. Bigger isn’t necessarily better in every case. Smaller cities can have decided advantages (such as cost and lifestyle) over larger cities. Which leads to the next point…
6. Strength in numbers: Take the lead in forging regional economic alliances.
In the ancient world, each of the Greek city states exhibited distinctive strengths and virtues. They all failed to live up to their potential greatness and all ultimately failed because they chose to bicker among themselves rather than cooperate and combine forces. Increasingly, rather than constantly fighting over economic development morsels, regionally aligned small communities are much more effective when they act cooperatively. Sharing may require the sacrifice of relinquishing certain services to avoid senseless duplications that can be a huge and ineffective waste of tax dollars. For example, every small town within a county does not need to offer vocational training when a regional community college is a more efficient allocation of resources that yields better results. Making such decisions takes vision, political courage and flawless communication, but the results can be more than worth the effort. Effective leaders reach out to forge lasting, mutually beneficial, streamlined, agile, collaborative (often multi-county) economic alliances that position their region to compete successfully against large individual cities. Sharing resources allows you to collectively market your region in ways that alone would simply be impossible.
7. Groom your leaders to become go-to experts on economic development.
Today’s editors and producers are understaffed. Gone are the huge bustling newsrooms with multiple reporters assigned to each desk. Media professionals are expected to produce more content with fewer resources. Bad for them, good for you. News outlets (both print and online), business journals, news broadcasts and business TV series are all looking for reliable, proven, erudite leaders who can write, speak or otherwise engage their audiences with meaningful content. Taking advantage of this need creates a symbiotic relationship: you fill the needs for producers and editors and they provide you with a prime platform to showcase your community. The smart economic development marketer is skilled in forging these relationships and making sure your thought leaders are thoroughly coached and briefed to state your case in the best possible light.