Southern California needs a better marketing strategy
Largely invented, a semi-desert far from the metropolitan heartland of the nation,
Southern California has relied on a combination of engineering genius and marketing bravado. The constructed infrastructure has become creaky, but still functions. Not so our sense of marketing our region to the rest of the world — and ourselves. In its earliest decades, the Los Angeles region merchandised itself aggressively, but the product largely sold itself by showing off its natural beauty and uniquely wonderful climate at events like the Rose Bowl. The area’s domination of music, movies and television and its tech-based business community — notably aerospace — solidified its standing as among the world’s most vibrant regions.
Now that marketing savvy and business acumen seems largely missing. Once a magnet for migrants, both domestic and foreign, the region has become one of the leading exporters of people to other, physically less attractive places. A region that both created giant companies, and lured others here, is now increasingly devoid of powerful, locally based companies.
Poor positioning and its consequences
“In the end, cities are competing globally for population, students, cultural events, corporations, ventures and live entertainment,” notes Brookings’ fellow Greg Clark. To succeed, a city needs to “align existing events and marketing with an agreed-upon common story; train citizens and civic leaders to be champions of that story; and review progress annually to develop additional approaches.”
The region’s massive creative assets should make us well positioned to accomplish a good sales job. But increasingly, other regions — New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Diego and the Bay Area — have surpassed us in telling their stories. San Diego, for example, has created a video that has been viewed over two million times, almost ten times more than ads produced to attract people to Los Angeles. Orange County does even worse. Irvine-based Blizzard created its own quality video for attracting potential employees to the company, notes company HR director Jesse Meschuk, due to a lack of usable marketing materials.
Not surprisingly, given our poor marketing, the area is not viewed as an attractive place for professionals. We recently conducted a survey of 1,200 professional for a study of Orange County and found that the OC was viewed as only a mediocre place by such people from outside the region; Los Angeles, the area’s linchpin, did even worse. Remarkably, San Diego, which shares climate, topography and dispersed urban form with the rest of Southern California, did best, followed by Denver, Charlotte, and Seattle.
The L.A. region’s weak image also reflects a chronically disorganized, poorly motivated business community. “You have to work really hard to create a network here,” laments Andree Beringia, founder and CEO of Irvine based CIE Digital Labs. “There is no ecosystem. If you are not aggressive, this is a hard place to build a company. Right now, nobody is building that system.”
In other places networking is facilitated by strong “go to” organizations like Joint Venture Silicon Valley, San Diego’s Connect, or similar groups in the North Carolina and Austin regions. In the Southland local business organs often appear marginal and ineffective, although special interests, like downtown developers, often wield power in pursuit of narrow agendas.
To this add a distinct lack of originality. The old generation of business and political leaders, while often arrogant, and even malicious, sold Southern California as uniquely adaptable and original. Now, our leadership often seeks to mindlessly emulate others, such calls to develop “a Silicon Valley South,” or the L.A.-led attempt to duplicate Manhattan with dense housing and mass transit dominance.
Building on who we are – and being proud of it
Such efforts are misguided and ultimately doomed. A spate of large tech companies will not suddenly develop in this environment, despite the sporadic emergence of a media tech company like Snapchat, and the genius ideas of Elon Musk, or even the relocation to L.A. of Valley venture magnate Peter Thiel. If Silicon Valley has a real rival, it is well-networked Seattle area or even Austin.
Similarly, efforts to create a faux New York are, if anything, even more misplaced. Transit ridership, despite billions expended, is falling throughout the region. Downtown may be glitzier than before but is no economic powerhouse along the lines of San Francisco, much less Manhattan.
Southern California’s future lies elsewhere, in developing a message based on what we can reasonably hope to become. Our unique strengths in lifestyle innovation and entrepreneurship can foster continual creative experimentation that can drive our economy forward. We must focus, as always, on our ability to improvise, drawing on our creative strengths, sharing that knowledge not only with the rest of world, but, arguably more importantly, with ourselves.
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