Friday, March 6, 2009

Brainstorming About Better Branding, with the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative

I went to a trustees' meeting of the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative early this morning, at the invitation of executive director Bob Krim. There were some really great people in the room, like Janice Bourque (who used to run the Mass Biotech Council and is now at Comerica Bank), Globe columnist and author Ellen Goodman, and Bink Garrison of Vertex Pharmaceuticals. It was held at the Boston Convention and Expo Center, and Jim Rooney, who runs the joint, was in attendance, too.

The goal of the meeting was to do a bit of brainstorming about how Boston (and Massachusetts, and New England) can better spread the message about the innovative stuff that happens here, across all realms: technology, culture, finance, law, life sciences, etc.

(Greg Bialecki, the secretary of housing and economic development for Massachusetts, was supposed to open the meeting, but he was a last-minute no-show. Too bad.)

I gave a short talk in which I tried to address these issues:

    - Let's not think about branding. That sounds expensive, and like it should involve an ad agency that we hire to create a logo. Instead, let's think about how we *communicate* the message of what great, innovative work we do here... and that we welcome all kinds of people to be part of it.

    - Let's try to think about New England as a whole, rather than just about Boston... or Portsmouth, NH... or Burlington, VT. When compared to California, our entire region is still pretty small.

    - My "big picture" one-liner about what we do here is that "we bring breakthroughs out of the lab and into the marketplace."

    - Our communications initiatives should be free or cheap... distributed and not centrally coordinated... digital... and take advantage of lots of groups and individuals doing different things that they feel are important.

    - This stuff is important to do even in a downturn. Massachusetts and New England have a history of rebirth. (Just visit any old mill building that's now home to start-up companies.) We'll be back, and the US economy will be back. Even when the future seems bleak, people here are working on incredible new ideas.

    - We talk to ourselves too much, with economic impact studies and reports and press releases and trade association meetings. We don't talk enough to people who aren't already part of the Boston business world, or people who are just passing through (like students!)

    - That said, the two groups I think we should spend the most time communicating with are companies outside of the region that might want to have an R&D headquarters or US headquarters here (like Novartis or Microsoft in Cambridge), and the students who come here to get an education. How do we persuade the smartest students to stick around, start companies, and join fast-growing ventures or long-established entities here?

    - What are some of the free things we ought to think about as part of this communications campaign? I suggested YouTube profiles of New England entrepreneurs, perhaps produced by TV journalism students locally... Live Webcasts with the Nobel laureates and MacArthur "genius grant" winners in our region...a wiki that woud list all of the New England VC firms and angel investors, and their areas of focus...a Google calendar page with all of the important local conferences... and a page of talking points for executives to use when they talk about our region, including data points about innovation here, some of the history (telephone invented here, first e-mail sent here, first anesthetic tested here, first venture capital fund established here, etc.), and enough background about today's important companies so they could effectively "tell the story" about the area, not just their particular company.

Then we started brainstorming. My notes aren't comprehensive, but...

Bink said that Boston is "the garden." Ellen Goodman says that we are "the crossroads of the next big idea"... "where the next big idea incubates, becomes reality." Jacquie Kay said that we're all about collaboration. Someone (my notes don't say whom) suggested we are "the intellectual mountaintop for resources for the future." Sounds pretty Olympian!

Carlos Martinez-Vela from the John Adams Innovation Institute said that what is great about Boston is that it's not just tech. We have the Boston Symphony and Newbury Street... culture and style.

People seemed to like my idea about creating a one-page list of "talking points" for CEOs, so they could become informal ambassadors for the region as they travel around the globe.

I mentioned the success that One in 3 Boston, a campaign to encourage young professionals to stay in Boston, has had with its Facebook group. I suggested we ought to have one or more Facebook groups for people who care about innovation in the region. Perhaps one for the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative, in fact...

Bink suggested that the TED Conference disseminates new ideas really well through the short videos of presentations given there. I noted that Ideas Boston is a local event similar to TED, but that the videos don't seem to be readily available. Maybe there's some way someone can help with getting all of those up on YouTube? (Disclosure: I've been an informal advisor to Ideas Boston.)

Janice Bourque had a phenomenal idea about creating a focus group of college and grad school super-stars. She suggested we find all of the people who've won important awards and competitions recently (such as the MIT $100K business plan competition, for instance) and get them together in a room. Ask them: How do they want to be communicated with? What are the tools that they use? What do they know about the business community and culture here? What don't they know?

Janey Bishoff, who helped organize the meeting, put up some thought-provoking quotes around the room. One was, "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

I agree.

How will we gauge our success? What if you typed "innovation" into Google and some site related to this campaign of ours, or a New England company or academic institution, showed up? What if, when you asked someone on an airplane about their perceptions of New England, the word innovation was part of their reply (rather than just Red Sox, lobster, and Paul Revere)?

Here's an earlier blog post on this topic, with more than 30 comments on it. Feel free to add your ideas here... or there...

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Anonymous Greg Bialecki said...

Scott, great post. Sounds like a great meeting and I am sorry that I missed it. But it also sounds like you all covered the very topics that Bob Krim and Janice Bourque and I discussed earlier this week on the phone. We are on the same page with you and with the group and I look forward to being at the next meeting (really).

March 6, 2009 6:25 PM  
Blogger Phil Greenough said...

scott, love the focus on ne at large and the continued push for an identity that looks out. maybe something along the lines of 'gateway to innovation' to capture the spirit of heading to a new and better place. realize those might not be the exact words but something it echoes our history and connections to the rest of world...

March 6, 2009 6:46 PM  
Blogger Richard Tibbetts said...

I definitely agree that the focus shouldn't be on branding, and that too much communication happens in a navel gazing way, writing reports about ourselves to be read by our community members. Boston doesn't need to understand itself, and it doesn't need a logo.

I often find myself discussing the relative merits of Boston as a business location with recent graduates, comparing it to the Bay Area. One of the positive things that keeps coming up about Boston is that it isn't all tech all the time, we have a lot of industries that actually apply technology (medicine, finance, defense) available locally. As a result, Boston startups tend to be more grounded than their Silicon Valley counterparts. Companies and investors generally want a clear path to monetization, rather than blue sky plan to get a million users and figure out revenue later. In a recession, this looks even more like a strength.

The idea of creating CEO talking points is a good one. To make them work, they need to be positive, accurate, and distinctive messages about New England. Definitely possible, but a bit of work to create them.

March 7, 2009 12:32 AM  
Blogger kosovodad (Mike) said...


A host of great points: my favorite being "Let's not think about branding ... Instead, let's think about how we *communicate*.

So many people in our business forget that techniques are not objectives. Having a blog isn't an objective, it's a tool that may -- or may not -- be appropriate for what we're trying to accomplish.

Not sure about the worth of the "crisis is a terrible thing to waste" quote. Seems like it has the potential for being a political square peg being forced into a round hole.

The other great point is about having everyone communicate the worth of the NE region and not just their particular slice.

Maybe a better quote for your situation would be "A rising tide lifts all boats"?

Great blog, btw, and I am really enjoying learning about the NE region even from here in Korea.


March 8, 2009 7:41 PM  
Blogger packey said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


March 31, 2009 11:25 PM  

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