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Innovation Economy

Let's redefine New England's brand image

By Scott Kirsner
December 28, 2008
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Here's a quick city-association game for you. When I say Hollywood, what industry comes to mind? If I say Silicon Valley, could you name a couple of companies based there?

So here's an experiment to try the next time you meet someone at a party in Manhattan, or sit next to a non-New Englander on a flight from O'Hare. Ask them what their associations are when you say "New England" or "Massachusetts."

I think you'll be surprised how often you get responses like "the Boston Tea Party," "covered bridges," "Ben & Jerry's," or "the Red Sox." (I know - I've been trying this for the past year or so.) When Jamie Tedford, CEO of Boston-based Brand Networks Inc., played the association game with a friend from the West Coast, the answer he got was "Cheers," the sitcom that has been off the air for 15 years.

This leads me to the unfortunate conclusion that what we have here is a failure to communicate. While denizens of the six New England states may be aware how much goes on here - from developing new drugs to deploying advanced robots to designing video games - the rest of the planet is pretty clueless.

Our great opportunity for 2009, as the world figures out how to emerge from its fiscal funk, is to come up with a strategy for telling our story. This is a hotbed of innovation, and we need the smartest people everywhere to know that.

The smartest students already come here to earn degrees, but we need to make a better case to persuade them to stick around afterward. We also need the smartest entrepreneurs to come here to set up shop; the smartest investors to set up branch offices; and the smartest big-company execs to establish manufacturing, R&D, or sales and marketing presences.

Massachusetts used to be known for "Route 128 - America's Technology Highway," the ring road that was home to many pioneering computer companies. But "I don't think Route 128 means anything anymore," says Tedford, a digital marketing consultant, observing that companies such as Digital Equipment Corp., Wang, and Data General have all vanished. "I think you need to start fresh."

This is not a project for government. It doesn't have the money, and we don't have the time to wait for the New England states to figure out how to coordinate a joint economic development initiative. (The end result, anyhow, would probably just be a press release.)

This is also probably not a project that our trade associations or chambers of commerce can lead; each have their own priorities, and limited staffs and budgets. (But we can urge them to get on board once we've got a plan.)

Instead, this is a project for people who work in the innovation industries around New England. I think we need to stop thinking about how to pitch Portsmouth, Portland, Burlington, North Adams, Cambridge, or Providence as globally relevant business hubs, and instead come up with a strategy for positioning the region as a beacon of innovation and entrepreneurship. This ought to be a distributed effort, coordinated digitally.

"Revolutionary ideas since 1776" might be a nice slogan. Halley Suitt, a blogger and consultant from Arlington, suggests "Innovation Outta Left Field," a tagline that could play off the fame of Fenway Park's Green Monster.

But more than a single slogan, I think we need a raft of ideas (most of which would be free or cheap to execute) about better branding of New England and explaining what we do here.

A few I'd toss out, just to get your creative juices flowing:

  • A series of YouTube videos profiling New England entrepreneurs, live webcasts with pioneering academic researchers, or iTunes podcast interviews with angel investors and venture capitalists.

  • A small logo that New England businesses would add to their websites, linked to a page offering information about the innovation economy here, and the particular sector they're part of.

  • A Google map showcasing all of the robotics companies here . . . medical device companies . . . clean tech start-ups . . . venture capital firms.

  • A page of talking points for executives and entrepreneurs, offering high-level info about all the different innovation industries in the region, and a few salient stats about company creation, venture capital activity, patents issued per capita, etc.

  • A Flickr photoset of company headquarters, labs, academic institutions, and the like.

  • A Facebook group or Google calendar to keep people apprised of major conferences, seminars, trade shows, and industry events in the region.

  • A collaborative Wiki that would list New England's venture capital firms, their area of focus, and recent investments they've made.

    2009 is going to be a rebuilding year for every state, every industry, the global economy as a whole. Everyone is going to be trying to figure out where new growth can come from.

    I think that creates an incredible chance for those of us in New England to talk about what we do, make our case, brand our region, and as a result, attract people, partnerships, and business from far and wide.

    "If we dived down as a group and tried to explore and explain what great innovations we're about, what great research is happening here, and what we're doing to improve people's lives, I think we could build an image of a New England economy, with Boston as its center, that is really a leader," says Larry Weber, chairman of W2 Group, a Waltham marketing firm.

    (Weber was one of the prime movers behind a 2000 initiative that tried to brand Massachusetts as "The Dot-commonwealth." The motivation was solid, but the timing wasn't ideal, and the initiative mostly consisted of a series of road shows that highlighted Internet activity around the state.)

    This column is only intended to get us thinking together about the opportunity: spreading the message globally about what our region is about. If I were forced to encapsulate it, I'd say, "New England is where scientific breakthroughs and big ideas turn into start-ups, big companies, and entirely new industries."

    But I know you'll come up with even better ways to express the essence of this new New England . . . and great strategies for communicating it.

    Post your thoughts at www.innoeco.com/ne.html, or read the 20-plus ideas and responses that have already been posted.

    Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

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