regional marketing groups sell northeast ohio, one story at a time


For a number of years at the tail end of the 20th century, Greater Cleveland's public and private leaders attempted to pull the city up through ambitious marketing campaigns. For awhile it seemed to work. The national media began referring to Cleveland as the "Comeback City" in conjunction with the grand openings of ambitious projects like Tower City Center, Jacobs Field and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
 
But toward the end of the '90s a strange thing happened: The city, for all intents and purposes, stopped marketing itself.
 
Why?
 
"We began to believe our own press," says Rick Batyko, president of the Regional Marketing Alliance of Northeast Ohio, which conducts the Cleveland Plus campaign. And civic officials "moved on to other tasks and defunded marketing."
 
In essence, Northeast Ohio stopped telling its tale with the tale barely begun -- a rather large mistake in retrospect. "The underlying economy wasn't doing that well," Batyko says. "That's something you couldn't see in the skyline shots."
 
During the mid-2000s, the region's narrative thread was picked up by the Cleveland Plus campaign. Established in 2005 -- with founding members that included Greater Cleveland PartnershipPositively Cleveland and Team NEO -- the organization champions Northeast Ohio as a culturally rich, yet affordable place to live.

Restarting Northeast Ohio's promotional push meant recognizing how regional marketing has changed, notes Batkyo. During the "Comeback City" era, Cleveland's target markets were nearby and the city did not have to compete too far afield. No more.
 
"It's a global marketplace now," Batyko says. "We have regions all over the world competing for business, talent and tourism."
 
The level of competition means a mid-size market like Northeast Ohio can never stop telling its story. The account is a complicated and increasingly collaborative one, as tales of economic infrastructure advances must be told alongside anecdotes of a lively arts and culture scene.
 
"We've got a great story that must be told repeatedly to out target audiences," says Batyko. "Putting all those individual messages into a regional message is very powerful."
 
Helping spread the word to the national media are the public relations experts at Dix & Eaton. After being hired by Cleveland Plus, the firm launched a Northeast Ohio-focused national media relations program. Their efforts landed stories about our regional efforts in the pages of The New York TimesForbes and The Wall Street Journal, among others. Cleveland Plus also gets the good word out via Facebook and Twitter. Northeast Ohio now fares better than its Midwest competitors in coverage and tone, according to the independent media analysis firm Prime Research.
 
Getting Ohio and Cuyahoga County in the news was easier in 2012 thanks to a presidential election that focused heavily on our state and region. Now that Inauguration Day is behind us, Cleveland Plus must redouble its efforts to continue getting Northeast Ohio proper coverage in the national media.
 
Regional marketing "is a relationship business like any other business," Batyko explains. "For regions to commit the resources to build those relationships, it makes all the difference in the world."
 
Chris Thompson, director of Fund for Our Economic Future, very much likes the storytelling metaphor in terms of marketing Northeast Ohio. Any good story is cohesive and focused, engaging readers to the very last word, he believes. It also helps for area promoters to tell the same basic narrative to the outside world.
 
"Without that, you end up going in a lot of different directions at cross-purposes," Thompson says.
 
The nonprofit's role in Northeast Ohio's hopeful happy ending includes strengthening the region's competitiveness through attraction and growth of companies. The fund's "regional competitiveness agenda," launched in 2007, concentrates on four priority areas: talent development, business growth, racial and economic inclusion, and government collaboration and efficiency.
 
These critical areas of competitiveness must be trumpeted not just to those living outside the area, but to those living within our boundaries as well.
 
"Northeast Ohio is a diverse place; Akron is not Canton and vice versa," Thompson says. "What's the story that holds them together? It's about people who don't know each other working together."
 
As just one example, Thompson points to the fund linking Canton with support organization JumpStart to help launch that city's entrepreneurship program. "People on that project feel connected to a regional system," he says. That kind of feeling "is critical to our marketing efforts."
 
Utilizing every marketing communications tool available to share the good news about what’s changing in the region is a necessity in a hyper-competitive business space, explains Joe Roman, president of Greater Cleveland Partnership, the area's chamber of commerce.
 
"If you don't tell your story, others will tell it for you," he says.
 
That might not be a positive thing for Northeast Ohio, as misconceptions about the region and the Midwest in general still abound. The area's blue-collar, manufacturing background is still an important part of the economy, but does not represent the whole.
 
"We have to make sure perceptions of the region are accurate," Roman says. "We can't have [investors] going on decade-old perceptions when they're considering places for investment."
 
Pushing lakefront development, improvements to Hopkins International Airport, and the overarching plans to build up the Cleveland Municipal School District all are critical facets of propping up the region's image.
 
From a marketing standpoint, says Roman, "We need a constant ability to evolve as the region changes. If people know the real Cleveland, we have chance to stay on their list."
 
This collaborative effort will grow even stronger in 2013, maintains Batyko of Cleveland Plus. In early February, his organization moved into the offices of Team NEO and NorTech. The space will be dedicated to wide-ranging economic efforts that will include a governance board comprised of representatives from across the region.
 
"It's an operating enhancement," Batyko says of the move. "The metrics [of our efforts] have not changed."
 
With a strong infrastructure, robust economy, and the story to back it up, Northeast Ohio is working on another real comeback -- and one that will last.
 
"We are speaking with one voice," Batyko says. "If we don't tell our story, nobody will."

Photos Bob Perkoski
 

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.