Design for Economic Developers03.20.19

This post originally appeared in Camoin Associates Economic Navigator series.

Have you ever felt frustrated that a brilliant plan or program doesn’t get the traction it deserves? When, after countless hours of research, analysis, consensus building, and writing, a report gets filed away on bookshelves and never comes to life as envisioned? Unfortunately, underwhelming outcomes for solid work are way too common.

Maybe you think that to avoid this fate you should get some marketing. After the plan has been worked out and finalized by the development experts, you’ll hire a marketing firm to do their thing. Hopefully they’ll design a logo for it, make a website, and do some PR and social media, and then – magic – your recommendations will take off. Right?

Unfortunately, this approach can also lead to underwhelming results. When marketing is seen as the link between the plan and the people who are supposed to live the plan – the businesses, customers, and community members needed to make places vibrant and economies thrive – there’s always an element of “If we build it, they will come” wishful thinking. Once in a while you get it right and have planned something that people really want to come to, but all too frequently, the marketing firm finds itself tweeting away in a sterile voice about an offer that doesn’t meet the needs or desires of the people who must make it work. Or they simply don’t have the runway to build up enough critical mass of awareness and support to build a self-sustaining ecosystem.

There is a better way to build up enthusiasm, buy-in, and desire in the people you are trying to serve, by starting an audience-centered design and communication effort much earlier in your process. Last year, my design and communication firm, Better Yet Studio, had the opportunity to collaborate with Camoin and the Maine Development Foundation, on implementing such a process on a large strategic transformation project for Maine’s forest industry. Using that project, known as FOR/Maine, as a case study, here are 3 principles to take away.


Start Early, by Getting to Know Your Audiences

Economic development projects tend to be highly complex interactions between public, nonprofit, private and community sectors, often with local, regional, national, and sometimes interactional actors. Each of these actors has their own role to play and desired outcomes from the project. To lay the groundwork for all the communication work that will follow, it is essential to clearly lay out who all the players are, what each one wants and needs, and how they relate to each other in terms of power and dependencies. You need to know the history and context of the issue for each audience, how it matters to them, and what they want or need from it. Also, where do they get their information, who influences them, and what will it take for the solution to feel both ‘for them’ and desirable? The answers to these questions are usually wildly divergent for your different audiences, and it is essential to keep them all in view all the time, because audiences who are left out will not buy into your solution.

The best way to gain this understanding is by having representatives from all your critical audiences on your team (which of course means being open to having your solution shaped by them.) The right time to start this work is while you are still doing analysis and developing your results, long before you have anything ‘final’ to communicate. Inclusion and outreach for feedback and understanding during the process are ways to build trust, and serve as your first stages of communication about the initiative.

In the FOR/Maine initiative, Maine Development Foundation and other project partners assiduously shepherded a comprehensive cohort of steering committee and subcommittee workgroups, with representation from the leadership of all industry players including land owners, paper processing multi-national corporations, loggers and truckers, forest communities, environmental groups, state and federal lawmakers, and others. From a content perspective, this far-reaching inclusion led to a better solution because multiple perspectives were considered. From a communications and buy-in standpoint, it also lead to a better outcome, because 1) the messaging was better because we were able to get first-hand info and feedback from each type of audience; 2) Leadership of each audience groups felt ownership and investment in the outcome, and were able to be authentic conduits to their constituencies; and 3) Communication efforts started long before the release of the final report, so there was already a buzz about it in an organic, peer-to-peer way.

Create the Brand Strategically

Only after assiduously getting to know the audiences is it possible to start creating the brand story and messaging platform, and from there the full set of brand communications, including logo, voice, website, collateral, and all other touchpoints.

The essential thing to do here is strike a tone that positions your project in the way it needs to be seen, by the people who need to buy in. The question I ask is, “How does this initiative need to be perceived, by whom, in order to be successful?” Approaching the work in this way makes obvious the strategic role of the brand, and avoids distracting conversations about the aesthetic likes and dislikes of committee members. Experienced designers do not work from their own preferences, rather they build an aesthetic to purposely elicit the strategically important perceptions from their audiences.

For FOR/Maine, it was equally important to strike a tone that was strong and proud of the history and existing players in the forest economy, as it was to also emphasize attributes around fresh growth, innovation, and sustainability. “Strong” and “fresh” became the two organizing poles of the brand, and all the other attributes fell in between them. When designing the logo and the visual look and feel for the brand, we developed a look that celebrates the existing industry and attributes, but presents everything in a modern, clean, and bold look. It was important for the design to be contemporary and sophisticated to emphasize the professionalism and international perspective of the industry. The overall design quality of the communications materials do as much as the content within to form an impression in the eyes of potential investors and other external stakeholders.


Build the Communication Plan by Audience

Economic development generally has broad-reaching benefits, and to gain support for initiatives, I am often asked to communicate the “the public.” Unfortunately, from a marketing point of view, the public does not exist – at least not as a united audience to be communicated to. (In the corporate world, best practice is to narrow and narrow the audience to speak directly to one type of person. This is a luxury economic developers don’t have.) In order to square this circle, your communication plans must be developed by audience, specifying messaging, channels, and timing for each one. The point is not to say different messages to different audiences, or tell people whatever they want to hear. You should still be guided by your united brand platform and messaging points that thread the needle between the interests of all groups. But flowing from this, each group must be communicated with to gain the buy-in needed from them, in their language and through their channels.

FOR/Maine, as most similar projects, has different audiences who are critical at different points in its timeline. Industry buy-in was a key first step, followed by gubernatorial candidates, and state legislature. Once the state government is a strong partner, other audiences, such as large international investors and innovation level investors will become the primary targets. As the initiative moves through its arc, it is essential to keep track of all the audiences at all times, to make sure each is ready for the part they have to play.


In summary: purposeful, well-planned communication is part of the work, not after the work.

If you start the communication work in parallel with the plan development work, they inform each other in an organic way that makes the end product significantly more robust. Reaching out to audiences to understand and get them involved so that you can communicate with them infuses critical perspective into the strategic work. Communicating what you are doing early and often allows you to get feedback in a soft way, while you can still make changes and less is at stake. In parallel, long standing exposure to the work, through the branding and communication throughout the process, helps audiences feel ownership and acceptance of it. By the time the official launch comes around, instead of feeling like something foisted on them by the government and a marketing firm, the initiative feels like their own – reflective of their history and aspirations. This is exactly the attitude of ownership and inevitability that your plans need to come to life.