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.

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0 Responses to What are you selling, anyway?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great post and excellent question. I look forward to the input. Some thoughts to get things started:

    – Dedicatd workforce. Most NBers appreciate a decent job and remain loyal to their employer. A big advantage over the West where some change jobs like they change their underwear
    – Stable, reliable and diversified (nuclear/fossil/hydro) energy source. Despite the media’s dislike for NB Power, our power source beats the hell out of places like China and have we forgotten about the power messes in California and even Toronto?
    – NAFTA member in closest time zone to Europe (ok, next to NFLD)35-50% overlap of business days
    – Access to good ports and so-so rail
    – Still good sources of resources such as minerals, forestry and water (fresh and marine)
    – Favourable business tax climate
    – Home to the largest military base in the Commonwealth…are we tapping into this opportunity effectively?
    – Home to NRC’s national center for IT (an advantage if they had an attitude adjustment and worked better with business)
    – Some of the highest tides in the world (this led to the aquaculture industry, could it lead to tidal power and other industries?)
    – Lots of potatoes and a major potato research center (okay, besides biofuels and french fries I am not sure where this could go)
    – Yes the labour force is tight but if we put an add in the TG this weekend for general labourers at $20 an hour, we’d have hundreds of applicants Monday morning.

    …looking forward to other posts

  2. mikel says:

    Nice post, although most of those were very industry, even country specific. ‘Dedication’ doesn’t seem to mean that much to employers, its not nearly as big a problem as that suggests.

    Virtually every province/state has stable energy. If the aim is to compete with China on that, then wages and environmental laws have to also be pretty much dismantled. Toronto had one blackout years ago that was based on technical problems, not lack of energy (there’s lots of places to buy it). Far more important is COST of electricity, and NB doesn’t rank that well and with little natural gas available its a HUGE drawback (again, electricity for heating costs about twice what gas does, at least for now).

    Montreal is still more convenient for shipping, or Halifax.

    Resources are fine if you are looking only for resource industries, which hasn’t seen much payoff.

    The problem with the base is that procurement is done nationally. But there COULD be opportunities there people haven’t thought of.

    I’ll make a suggestion, more of what COULD be a possibility. Namely, Microsoft recently expanded into British Columbia because of problems with immigration in the US. The first opportunity is of course that they can’t find enough people. Say the government took three old houses in Campbellton, set them up with amazing high speed internet and facilities, then went to Microsoft or Intel. Currently, Microsoft essentially finds workers at canadian universities and brings them south. This would be an opportunity to keep them in NB.

    Since another problem is immigration, then with a government that wants MORE immigration, Microsoft could pick from NB’s labour pool, then bring in workers on visas. Campbellton’s housing is dirt cheap so cost of living would be quite low, which ‘could’ mean lower wages.

    Thats the other feature, that Microsoft simply bring in immigrant workers to an NB facility to ‘telework’. And of course they’d hire from local schools as well. IF the province could start educating more high tech graduates then thats a golden opportunity for them right there.

    NB, and Canada, simply aren’t putting out highly skilled scientists. As for the labour market, I know dozens of people who can’t find a thing in their field. When you go to the jobsite, there are VERY few decent jobs, and most are with the military. It’s distressing to see ‘tight labour market’ because thats in VERY few fields. The best way to test the labour market is to look at wages, and there has been very little movement in wages, which means employers aren’t having THAT hard a time, or else wages would naturally go up.

    Here in ontario, Tim Hortons is paying $12 an hour after one year and offering full benefits, THAT is a ‘tight labour market’. I know a few people working at Tims and other retail jobs, and they aren’t making anywhere near $12. Like the above said, post a job making $20 an hour and you will get hundreds, even thousands of applications.

  3. mikel says:

    Don’t know if you posted it, but Nova Scotia’s massive tax credit for the film industry wiped out several productions in NB which were in the middle of shooting. THAT at least is taking incentives seriously.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Local economy dominated by Irving.
    Government owned and run by Irving.
    Land occupied by Irving.
    Everything researched by Irving for acceptance.
    Media owned by Irving.
    Irving monopoly accepted by everyone.

    Oh, sorry, I went the wrong way with this one.