How To Brand A State

By July 14, 2014 June 7th, 2015 Brand Development

Earlier this year we were asked to submit an RFI and an RFP to help in the branding of a state. State meaning—the United States of America.

Being asked to development a brand for an entire state was an exciting opportunity. After all, how many branding agencies get a chance to brand a state? We corresponded with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development in attempt to help them generate ideas on how to accomplish colossal task.

If you’re a governor, deputy/executive director or director of tourism considering a state branding initiative — I want to share with you 5 take-a-ways we learned through our experience in approaching state branding that may help you in attracting the right branding agency.

1. Clearly define your goals
Most state branding initiatives start with some kind of economic goal. However most of these goals tend to be broad and ambiguous. Having a goal like “Strengthen and grow existing business, both urban and rural.” is good, but too vague; or “increase innovation, entrepreneurship & investment” tend to create confusion amongst your constituents. Create and define your goals with actual numbers and implement the methods to accurately measure and track it. Use the SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, reasonable and timely) method to set goals. Focus on the methods to achieve the goal along with its desired economic impact.

2. Identify negative brand images and what it will take to overcome them
The state we worked with had a great business environment, low taxes, beautiful scenery and a host of outdoor activities to attract young, single professionals. However, the state had a negative reputation. As we dug more into the problem, it seemed to be an obstacle that would need an immense advertising/branding budget to overcome.

“The strongest, most powerful brands in the U.S. are state brands because they encompass forceful emotions of pride and self-identification—and everyone has a say in it.”

State branding is inescapable. Think of how many times you notice your state’s license plate on the way to work? — state flags on public buildings, utility bills, businesses named after states and the list goes on and on. Apple, voted the world’s #1 brand doesn’t even have that kind of exposure. Any attempt to brand a state must address what brand already exists.

Take Michigan.

As a business owner, I’m constantly being wooed to move my business to Michigan. I have nothing against Michigan. I love visiting the great lakes and would definitely consider moving there—until Detroit went bankrupt.

Texas State BrandingThe public feud between governor Rick Perry of Texas and Andrew Cuomo of New York is a great example of two state brands battling for economic brand equity based on negative state brand impressions. Governor Perry has been enticing businesses in New York to move to Texas for lower state and corporate taxes with the:Texas is Calling, Your Opportunity Awaits campaign. Every business owner knows that taxes are a constant hindrance in achieving growth goals—especially if you’re in one of the highest taxed state in the union like New York. (SOURCE: Taxfoundation)

Cuomo countered with the start-upny.com campaign that cost 15.2 Million dollars to reverse the negative perception, but it was too late. Perry successfully rebranded New York as the highest taxed state in the union. For a business owner, this doesn’t bode well for attracting businesses to New York.

Colorado State BrandingColorado recently legalized marijuana. People and businesses opposed to the drug and the culture, have had their once pristine brand image of Colorado’s mountains (John Denver singing “rocky mountain high” in the background) and miles of endless skiing tarnished—not to mention its vibrant economy and workforce. Now living in Indianapolis—a more conservative statethan Colorado, I now have reservations about telling people where I’m from, as most people view Colorado’s unconventional culture somewhat taboo.

Colorado Logo

In every case, don’t overlook what negative brand perceptions exist, they determine the entire course of your state brand development project.

3. Get budget approval and funding in advance
We were told that the branding agency selected would have to go 6 months without pay until the state legislature approved the budget. This was the nail in the coffin for us. How could they expect us to work for free for 6 months without guarantee of pay? We were also told that any travel on the agencies part would have to be self-funded. Some of this we were willing to do, but in the end the requests where a non-starter.

4. To attract business, you must play by business rules
The government sector is much different than the private sector. When working with private sector businesses—part of the process is getting to know each other to see if the right chemistry exists to work together. A good client/agency relationship is key to any successful outcome. It’s all about people. And the branding process can be very long (9-12 months). Don’t submit an RFP out for bid and expect to attract the best agency for your state branding project without taking the time to get to know them first. The typical government process circumvents what could be—in most situations—a great working relationship.

5. Reconsider the RFI and RFP process
We where requested to submit an RFI (Request for Information). I’m always somewhat skeptical of an RFI, but decided to spend the time exploring how to go about branding a state just for the exercise.

Our ideas earned us attention as we were then invited to submit an RFP. When we received the unorganized RFP, it was vague on budget, timeline, goals. It was also poorly written.

The biggest frustration was that our questions went unanswered. Most state governments are required to post the RFP for bid on cumbersome public procurement websites.

In the end, the requirements were unfeasible, and our ideas listed in the RFI where stolen. Not to mention that no business was generated through spending hours on the RFI and RFP.

In conclusion, almost every state branding project is a rebranding exercise where you must work against entrenched negative brand impressions. In order to be successful, set clear goals, identify negative brand impressions in advance and learn how to address them, change them or go around them. Do not take the typical RFI to RFP approach to attract the best branding agency, get the budget and funding figured out in advance and be willing to work with your branding agency candidates to create a good working relationship out of the gate.

Interested in learning more about our Indianapolis or Denver branding agency? Contact us today to learn how we can help your state.

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Brand Development Inbound Marketing Consultant

By Josh Claflin, Brand Development, Inbound Marketing & Creative Strategy
Josh helps brands who are struggling to develop their brand; grow, stabilize or increase profits through their websites; increase revenue through online channels and enter the digital era of marketing.