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Will efforts to brand Florida business, Tampa Bay wake us up or put us to sleep?

For those seeking an ideal live-work balance, Florida is a super-state with boundless energy and borderless opportunity where the sun always shines on you and your business.

— Early draft of a consultant's effort to identify Florida's business brand.

• • •

Branding is a tricky business.

Florida and Tampa business leaders are busy spending money on consultants conjuring up snappy business brands for the Sunshine State and this metro area.

"We do not have a business brand," Enterprise Florida CEO Gray Swoope told a room of Tampa business leaders Friday. That makes it tough to convince companies why they should expand in this state.

What Florida's business image does evoke is outdated, suggests market research for Enterprise Florida, the state's business recruiter and job builder. It's time to identify not what we were but what we are becoming and then shout it out loud to the world, the economic development group says.

If there's an adequate marketing budget to do so.

A similar task is under way for this region. Tampa Bay & Co., Tampa/Hillsborough's tourism booster, wants to brand this destination area.

They are looking for relevant brands with catchy slogans. Think Just do it from Nike or I'm lovin' it from McDonald's.

It's is not as easy as it looks. Most branding slogans that try to please everyone are so boring they double as sleep aids. Others try to be edgy but often are confusing.

That's why I was keen to hear some of the early thinking on a Florida business identity from the branding brains at a Nashville firm called North Star Destination Strategies.

Enterprise Florida picked this firm in June for a $200,000-plus contract to come up with a Florida business brand. The firm was chosen over several competing Florida marketing firms. That choice sparked controversy and bad feelings in this state. But that's another story.

North Star CEO Tom McEachern and client service director Ed Barlow outlined some early branding findings to the Enterprise Florida board last month. Let me summarize.

What are Florida's business strengths? Feedback from business, political and site selection people inside and beyond Florida cited several advantages. No personal income tax. A skilled workforce. Business friendly atmosphere. Right to work state. Quality of life. The climate. Good research universities. The state's sheer size. And its gateway status to Latin America.

The challenge, says North Star, is that too many of these competitive advantages are not well known outside Florida.

"That's what this (branding) project is all about," Barlow told his Enterprise Florida audience.

That's the good news. Researchers also found concerns and fears about Florida. Retaining talent in the state is an issue. Gaining access to capital is not always as easy as in other states. The public schools still conjure an image of mediocrity.

To some, Florida government remains too bureaucratic. Site selectors told North Star what takes four months to do in Florida they can do in two weeks in New Jersey.

And there is genuine fear about Florida hurricanes. It's not just the threat of nasty storm damage but the issue of lost time and money in the aftermath. The key, says North Star, is to trumpet the fact that no state is better equipped or experienced in cleaning up and getting back to work after major storms.

McEachern said researchers ran into this debate: Are Florida's long-standing strengths as a place to retire or visit on vacation overshadowing its business brand? These positive themes, the consultant suggested, are not incompatible.

"I know a lot of states that would kill for such positive associations," he said. "That's not a detriment to the business brand. Business and life are much more homogenous now."

North Star looked especially hard at the country's four biggest states: California, Texas, New York and Florida, with the Sunshine State soon to pass New York in population. Rank those states according to the "best environment for business, living and visiting" and Florida comes out on top followed by California, Texas and New York.

Texas can't compete on lifestyle, McEachern argued. California's got lifestyle but is too expensive and businesses don't like it.

It all sounds convincing. I'm ready to move to that Florida.

Translating all this information into a brand identity for Florida business remains a quantum leap.

Enterprise Florida plans to take North Star's final analysis and hand it over to a Jacksonville advertising firm called On Ideas to hone the message into a branding campaign. Enterprise Florida's already nudging private businesses in the state to ante up and help subsidize an advertising budget for the final branding campaign.

The Enterprise Board will hear more details on this effort in late January.

And what of Tampa Bay & Co.'s branding campaign for this region? From seven finalists, Tampa ad firm Spark was picked to develop a brand by next May. Spark was behind Visit Florida's "Share a little sunshine" promotion.

Both the state and regional branding efforts will be challenged to capture and communicate how much the economies of Florida and Tampa Bay have changed from the aging themes of orange juice, suntans, Disney and NASA.

As one CEO told branding researchers: "This is not your grandma's Florida."

Amen. But whatever the final brands may be, don't let them lull us to sleep.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@tampabay.com.

Will efforts to brand Florida business, Tampa Bay wake us up or put us to sleep? 12/15/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 15, 2012 3:31am]
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