I attended the second Digital Leaders North East Salon last week and wanted to share my personal impressions of the session.
We began by being asked to Google “inward investment North East” or “start-up business North East”. Upon searching these terms, we discovered that One North East’s Passionate about North East website ranked top in Google.
This would have been very promising for the region if the quango was still in operation. Instead disheartened investors are directed to email addresses that are no longer answered and a phone number that is out of operation, leaving a clear message that the North East is closed for business!
This embarrassing discovery screamed out that there are strong branding problems from the off, therefore we thought it best to begin with the basics…
Back to basics: Defining brand
Brand was defined as “How someone feels about a product or a service.” It’s a delicate balance of function and emotion, more commonly referred to as head and heart. It also helps if a delighter is thrown in to the mix:
Functional benefits + emotional connectors + delighter = strong brand
Who are we targeting?
With many of the world’s largest brands dwelling on this question for months before launching new products and services, the first question was not to be taken lightly. Hands shot up across the room, eager to explain their region’s target market. Answers included:
With such a diverse market listed, some concluded that one brand wouldn’t work for everyone. Others fondly reminisced on One North East’s ‘Passionate about North East’ proclaiming this as a universal campaign that had once inspired all the target markets listed above.
What’s the offer?
Quality of life was a message that resonated around the room, along with passionate people and beautiful landscape. One salon member even told of how a successful North East recruitment campaign involved inviting candidates down to the beach. A few illustrious steps on the white sands and they were sold! (Sounds like an advert for Barbados!)
To go back to the theory of brand, this definitely ticked the emotion box. Then there was the question of functionality….
A dark cloud descended and the mood in the room dramatically shifted. Suddenly phrases such as “poor infrastructure”; “lack of employment opportunities” “victim mentality”; “reliant on funding”; “we live in the past”; “playing catch-up” and “lack of communication” were being thrown around the room.
It was clear the group felt that the North East’s offer was one that appealed to the heart over the head!
Do we need a brand for the North East?
The majority of the room agreed that a brand was needed, however what we need first is a clear objective and a long-term sustainable strategy.
Some people felt a brand was not helpful and instead we should focus on growing businesses, creating job opportunities and developing profitable commercial enterprises initially.
Fighting over the pie
“Too many people are fighting over the pie, instead we should be growing the pie and sharing it.”
This comment led us in to the North-South divide, Tyneside vs Teesside, a battle of the egos by so-called “leading” North East figures.
With 12 local authorities struggling for power and two LEPs who “compete at best and are enemies at worst”, many of the group concluded that we’re not actually very good at being the North East.
It’s no wonder at a recent European conference, the North East was described as “a clutter of networks and bodies with no clear representation.” As if that blow wasn’t enough, shortly came
“It has no clear story” and it was a “messy place to invest.”
How will we grow the pie?
Inspiration came from Manchester where Greater Manchester is accepted as the economic hub, with clusters like Salford and Bury thriving around it. It was pointed out that natural geography prevented us from doing this as most of the commercial hubs in the North East were vertical down the region.
Another idea suggested we focus on building the brand of individual North East cities. Newcastle was undeniably stated as the capital of the North East and an internationally recognised brand – but were we proud of what it was recognised for? (Mainly stag and hen dos, Geordie Shore and head-butting football club managers.)
Is a focus on sector rather than place the answer? The North East is currently excelling in genetics, aging, subsea, battery technology and engineering. Do we pick one of these sectors and build a brand around that?
Some thought we should play to our strengths and market our beautiful scenery to tourists in the hope one visit would capture their hearts to return for business.
The only thing that was agreed upon was whatever path we chose, clear objectives and a long-term strategy were needed.
Will funding help?
A notable comment that for some perfectly summarises the funding eco-system was an observation of the cars in the funding manager’s car parks – “here you will find an array of Bentleys and Rolls Royce’s. Where are the business owner’s Bentleys?”
Another salon member felt that much of the funding in the region goes to business support and professional services, not the people who can really make a difference to the North East. One stated they’d rather see the millions invested in the Universities go directly to the businesses instead as this would have more of an impact.
What does success look like for the North East?
The majority of people in the room voted that they were proud of One North East’s Passionate about…. Campaign, but what exactly did the campaign achieve for the region and how was the campaign measured?
No one seemed to know what the tangible results of it were. There is nothing to prove it was no more than horses galloping across a beach during adverts on primetime television, especially given the legacy of seven innovation connectors who fail to connect.
Many felt success was based on a foundation of solid infrastructure to attract people to the region. If the infrastructure comes, it will attract bigger businesses, it will then attract more employment for the region.
Vacancy: An influential, credible leader to help build the North East’s brand
The resounding conclusion of the salon was that the North East really needed a strong leader. We need an ambassador for the North East to develop a vision that will inspire the North East people and those we seek to target. We welcome anyone who feels they fit this bill to the next salon.
Charlotte Nichols is Managing Director of Harvey & Hugo Ltd