Refurbished phrases and branding elements seem to cycle through advertisements and public relations messaging every few months.
Last year Ford spokesperson Mike Rowe started using the word “fresh” to describe features in vehicles aimed at endearing Ford products to millennials. Lexus taught us to refer to used vehicles as “pre-owned.” And it’s not just companies and products, but upright mammals like Republican Congressman Eric Cantor who tried to change his personal brand with an in-depth feature on “60 Minutes” that went downhill rather quickly.
It’s all part of changing the narrative to articulate a story and reshape perception, and a number of Rustbelt cities have endeavored to do what Austin and Charlotte accomplished prior — acquire some Silicon Valley shimmer and rebrand themselves as havens for startups and entrepreneurs.
Despite a rich history of startups growing into some of America’s most successful companies — Anheuser-Busch, Ralston Purina, and Enterprise Rent-A-Car — St. Louis isn’t thought of as a startup town. Rather, as flyover country where you build things and ship them elsewhere. But much has changed.
“There’s an entrepreneurial sea change going on in St. Louis,” said Jerry Schlichter, president and founder of Arch Grants, which is helping alter the city’s business DNA by giving $50,000 to promising startups (including the handing out of $1.2 million in 2013 alone) while only requiring the companies relocate to the region. “Startups are being attracted to the region by the combination of the community’s strong support, unique real estate that’s both historic and affordable, and cutting edge technology they are seeing spring from others in the city.”
A diverse group of startups are driving a new era such as indoor retail mapping leader aisle411, Immunophotonics, a biotech company that is changing the way cancer is treated, and an array of plant science startups feeding off Monsanto. Companies are also springboarding off support hubs like the Cortex innovation community, T-Rex, Lab 1500, and the STL Ventureworks startup support network; leveraging accelerators such as Capital Innovators and FinTech driver SixThirty, finding active angel networks, and venture capital from the likes of Cultivation Capital and iSelect Fund.
While it’s home to companies like Progressive Insurance and Quicken Loans, there hasn’t been much to celebrate in Cleveland since the Indians won the World Series in 1948. But with affordable real estate and a surprisingly deep pool of talent buoyed by accelerators like LauchHouse and JumpStart – much of which has sprung from the State of Ohio’s Third Frontier early stage investment program — there’s been a strong effort around cultivating a startup ecosystem.
“When I started my last company in 2009, there was barely a scene,” said startupaholic Ed Buchholz. “We had no proper accelerators and only two organized investment groups. Since then the ecosystem has exploded.”
A big player has been Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert. He created Bizdom (serving Detroit as well) which invests in startups, incubates them in their downtown space, and then plugs them into the Rock Ventures family of companies (more than 70 businesses).
Pittsburgh typically makes me think about steelworkers, bridges, Terry Bradshaw, and the American Mustache Institute, but the city’s newly elected mayor, Bill Peduto, says that’s changed.
“For too long Pittsburgh has been viewed as a smoky industrial city but those days are over,” Mayor Peduto told me via email. ”We have all of the right ingredients to spin innovative new businesses out of our universities, medical centers, and research institutions and attract companies from around the world.”
Those ingredients are leading to progress, the most recent example coming in late December when Duolingo — one of the city’s startup darlings — was named 2013 iPhone app of the year by Apple.
Pittsburgh Tribune columnist Eric Heyl notes “high-tech startups undertaken by Carnegie Mellon grad students attracted to the city by Google’s increasing presence” as well as “economic development corporations such as Catalyst Connection and Innovation Works.” Kate Stoltzfus, founder of Yinzpiration.com, cites startup incubators like AlphaLab and The Hustle Den for giving new businesses needed support.
Others are getting their acts together. Louisville’s had a sustained commitment to startups, its mayor has a background in business and entrepreneurship, and the city has seen growth in coworking spaces like iHub and The Ville, as well as accelerators like Velocity, XLerate Health and Village Capital Venturewell. Nashville, with growth in healthcare and music platform startups, recently opened a $10 million entrepreneur center and is proving to be far more than Opryland, a collection of aspiring country musicians, and a mediocre NHL hockey team.
SPINNING THE YARN
Once you have the elements of the ecosystem and can walk the walk, you have to talk the talk. Remember, articulate a story and reshape perception. And while the communications piece is not rocket science, there are vital processes, tools, and subtleties that are essential. These include:
- Develop a strong, realistic message platform with minimal corp-speak (“revolutionary”) about the region’s commitment to nurturing startups.
- Create a central online hub – a website that is clear, concise and easily navigable — to tell the story through a steady drumbeat of original and aggregated content.
- Linking to original and aggregated content housed on various platforms that highlights startup activities in the region, leverage a CRM tool like that developed by St. Louis startup Hatchbuck to reach investors and entrepreneurs with the story. Don’t push information too frequently (maybe once a month), minimize fluff, and use real numbers (investor raises, partnerships with larger conglomerates, etc.).
- This might be the hardest part for CEOs or non-communicators — but try to understand how media actually works. Reporters don’t tend to write a lot of feature pieces on individual slices of life, they don’t care about how great you think your company is, but they will pay attention to broader trends. Grasping this is half the battle, and then you simply need to know who is covering startups, small business, or entrepreneurism and build relationships with them.
- Create compelling social media content such as short video pieces, interesting infographics, and thought pieces (blogs, op-eds). Then actively manage the online communities and create a detailed yet flexible content calendar that guides sharing the content through social channels like LinkedIn, Twitter, and to a lesser degree, on Facebook.
- Create a signature event or series of events showcasing bright local minds and helping connect locals with nationally respected entrepreneurs and investors.
- Employ a Search Engine (SEO) strategy that pushes you higher in search rankings for terms like “startups,” “small business,” and “entrepreneurism.” Beyond the technical aspects of SEO, building and attracting links from other sites is fundamental to greater search visibility.
- While SEO is a longer-term strategy to drive traffic, use Paid Search to more quickly obtain high quality traffic.
- Invest in an Experiential Mobile Unit that takes the regional startup experience to targeted conferences and other key events.
Rebranding a region takes an all-in approach that removes parochialism, with influencers and young minds (translation: Not just old rich white people) rowing in the same direction, employing a well-informed communications strategy that is in touch with the realities of today’s media world.
If a region follows this roadmap, it can indeed reshape its brand narrative. Otherwise, have fun building stuff and shipping it down rivers, not that there’s anything wrong with that.