What are you selling, anyway?

After a few days of polytechnic discussions, I decided to get back to a subject that I know – economic development – and particularly the marketing of communities/provinces.

A colleague and I used to have a good laugh at the dot.com gang and all their dot.comspeak (of course, some of them ended up very wealthy and I’m still workin’ 9-5 so who got the last laugh).

Anyone who worked in and around the dot.com space in the late 1990s knows exactly what I am talking about. Vortals, anyone?

I once heard a local e-Learning firm give a 30 minute presentation on this ‘product’ and at the end I still had no idea what the product was or could do. I swear to you – I have a Masters’ degree and am not overly dumb when it comes to these things but I had no idea. Why couldn’t he have just said it was a training library that a few features?

Probably because at the time there was a prevailing notion that ambiguity equalled mystique. If you could jumble together computer science, engineering, business management and obscure latin terms (not to mention the creation on the fly of new words: vertical and portal = vortal), that would make your basically simple product sound sexy and complex and make it more palatable in the market.

Basically the opposite of any sane marketing approach which is about clarity.

Which brings me to economic developers. Many of these guys/gals have a little dot.com hangover. If you read their marketing materials or hear them speak, you will probably hear stuff like this:

Access to a qualified labour pool
A competitive cost structures
Workers with a strong work ethic
Pro-business government
Creative/tailored incentive programs
Access to markets

Huh? Qualified for what? Compared to where? “What is a work ethic?” “Pro-business?” “Creative/tailored incentives?” “Access to markets?”

That is ambiguity at its finest.

I recommend that my clients are as clear as they can be about what they are selling. If you are 600 miles from New York – just say so. Not mentioning it or talking about being ‘close to market’ doesn’t bring New York any closer. ‘Tailored’ incentives? That’s code for trying to nickel and dime every company that walks through the door. If you have incentive programs, make them clear and applicable to all firms that meet the clear criteria.

Now, if you were to take an economic developer out for an adult beverage these days, they might just tell you (after a few of Don Cherry’s ‘pops’) that they are trying to be purposely ambigious because there just isn’t much to what we are selling in New Brunswick these days.

In the mid 1990s we were selling lots of available, low cost workers and big empty buildings for $10/bucks a square foot. Throw in cheap telecom and, presto, you get 20k call centre jobs.

Now we have very few workers, the Canadian dollar at par with the US greenback, $20/square foot real estate and no real telecom advantage.

So what are we selling these days, anyway?

That’s a topic I will take up in a future post.