Deal Flow

Recalculating the marketing of Rhode Island

An interview with Heather Evans, the new chief marketing officer at CommerceRI, at a time when there are many disturbances in the force

Photo courtesy of CommerceRI

Heather Evans, the new chief marketing officer at CommerceRI.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/22/19
The task and challenge of marketing Rhode Island as a tourist destination, as a place for companies to relocate, and as a place with the kind of talent that companies are seeking is now in the hands of Heather Evans, the new chief marketing officer at CommerceRI.
What can be learned from the Massachusetts experience in quantifying the economic metrics of the innovation economy into an annual index, and can it be replicated here in Rhode Island? If quality of life is one of Rhode Island’s key assets, how can that be shared as a kind of quantitative data index? What role will diversity play as an important asset in marketing Rhode Island to companies and businesses? How can the visual display of art within the cityscape of Providence become a marketing tool? Can Rhode Island's small size, with its 1 million population, be marketed as the perfect place to pilot innovative initiatives, such as Health Equity Zones, social enterprises, neighborhood health stations and disruptive technologies?
Access to information and news is a key component of creating a community of convergence and conversation where neighborhoods can thrive. All too often, the decision-making takes place behind closed doors, with little input from those most affected by the decisions. The local news coverage often becomes an extension of that corporate decision-making, as media are conditioned to follow the bouncing ball, on cue, in a play-by-play of what is said in news conferences and in news releases.
One company executive of an innovative start-up firm recently told ConvergenceRI that they didn’t have time to meet for an interview, the very week that a news release was put out touting a new research grant that had been received by the firm. As a financial advisor to the firm told ConvergenceRI, there was no apparent need to talk to ConvergenceRI, because everything had been said in the news release. The response by ConvergenceRI was sharp and pointed: My role is not to serve as a corporate mouthpiece.
At the news conference called by Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza on Friday morning, a teacher at Hope High School broke through the organized messaging, in a moment of outrage and tears.
When ConvergenceRI introduced himself to her after the news conference, the teacher thanked him for his recent story, “The importance of being earnest about education in RI,” which she said was the only story that provided in-depth analysis, and which she had shared across her platforms. Her personal story will be featured in ConvergenceRI this week’s edition.
The teacher thanked him for the great story, saying: Keep up the meaningful journalism!

PROVIDENCE – The gap between how Rhode Island sees itself and how others view Rhode Island is always a challenge when it comes to marketing the state as a desirable place for individuals and businesses considering relocating to the Ocean State, in search of a better quality of life and a less expensive commercial real estate market than, say, Greater Boston.

As much as the Cambridge and Boston innovation ecosystem has developed into one of the ground zero destinations for companies and entrepreneurs in search of talent and venture capital and an academic research engine, the current reality is that for workers, the commute into Boston, particularly if you have to drive, has become a daily nightmare of hours spent in bumper-to-bumper traffic at rush hour, morning and night.

Not to mention soaring housing prices, where buying even a starter home in Metro Boston is out of reach for most folks and rental costs are astronomical. Add to that the reality that commuter rail and subway transportation in and out of Boston has often become a daily slog, hard hit by breakdowns in service caused by an aging infrastructure.

Then there is the potential fading allure of the new Boston Seaport Innovation District, built directly on the waterfront, where the reality of rising sea levels from climate change translates into the disliked fact that many of the lower floors of those buildings are at risk of flooding in the coming years, according to a recent story in Bloomberg Businessweek. [See link below to story, “Boston built a new waterfront just in time for the apocalypse: Developers scramble to protect a city’s glittering 1,000 acres from climate change.”]

For Rhode Island, which, because of its size, has always had a bit of an inferiority complex about itself, the question has become: how does the state market itself both as a tourist destination and as a business destination for those seeking a better quality of life?

The person who is currently tasked with finding the answers to that challenge is Heather Evans, the new chief marketing officer at CommerceRI, who has been on the job for six weeks since beginning in the middle of May. She brings with her an expertise in market research, particularly in building customer loyalty.

The ConvergenceRI interview with Evans took place on Monday morning, July 15, sandwiched between events that demonstrated how easy it was for Rhode Island to get caught up in the whiplash of the good news, bad news syndrome about the state.

The week before, Rhode Island had been ranked dead last, 50th, in CNBC’s 2019 America’s Top States for Business, grading each state on measures of competitiveness in 10 broad categories, kicking up a hornet’s nest of internal criticism. Evans, for her part, calmly provided an analysis that pointed out the underlying bias of the rankings.

Such rankings, Evans explained, are much like someone sticking a finger in the air in an attempt to tell where the winds are coming. “At the same time that we got whacked in CNBC’s ranking, we were ranked number 20 by U.S. World & News Report,” Evans told ConvergenceRI.

In evaluating such rankings, Evans said, you try to learn what you can from each one, and then move on, keeping your eyes on the prize.

“I did a quickie analysis of the CNBC rankings,” Evans told ConvergenceRI. “In reading their methodology, it did seem to me that they had some variables in there that were not adjusted for the relative size [of states]. We looked at the correlation of the top 10 and the bottom 10 states on that list, for the population size and unionization, which are two variables you can [track] easily on the web.”

What Evans found, she said, was that “54 percent of the variation in ranking was based on population size, so the bigger you were, the higher you ranked.” Similarly, she continued, with unionization, “where [the rate of unionization] was lower, the higher you were ranked.”

It was interesting to uncover the biases in the CNBC study, Evans continued. “It wasn’t that helpful in trying to figure out what we as people, who are trying to help Rhode Island’s economy, what we can do.”

As the world turns
Of course, the world never stands still in the immediacy of news. The day after the interview, on Tuesday morning, the news broke that Care New England was withdrawing from Gov. Gina Raimondo’s signature effort to broker an arranged marriage between Lifespan, Care New England, and Brown University. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Matchmaker, matchmaker, find me find, catch me a catch.”]

Two days later, Rhode Island celebrated the grand opening of the Wexford Innovation Complex, which has been rebranded as “225,” referring to the its address, 225 Dyer St. That same morning, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman suggested that Gov. Raimondo was the perfect “anti-Trump” candidate, to stop what he called the perceived tilt to left of many Democratic candidates running for President. Raimondo soon made it into President Trump’s Twitter feed, where he said that any economic bounce that Rhode Island had received was a result of the tremendous economic success that his administration has caused. Really?

Three days later, on Thursday, Rhode Island hosted an offshore wind conference in Newport, touted in a letter sent by CommerceRI Secretary Stefan Pryor to a slew of Rhode Island business folks.

On Friday, news broke that new state education commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green, would be recommending that the state take over the ailing Providence school system, at the same time that Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza was holding a news conference, surrounded by high school students, in front of Hope High School, stressing the importance of students and teachers and parents to have a voice in the decision-making process.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Heather Evans, the new chief marketing officer at CommerceRI, tasked with expanding tourism marketing, business attraction, and new talent to the Ocean State, in a rapidly shifting world.

ConvergenceRI: What are Rhode Island’s greatest assets in marketing the state?
EVANS:
There are a lot of assets. I would say three main things: the natural beauty, Narragansett Bay and its surroundings; the historic built environment, particularly in our towns and cities; and then lastly, the vibrancy of the contemporary community and the people [living and working here], the businesses, the makers.

ConvergenceRI: How important is quality of life as a marketing message?
EVANS:
I have two roles, Richard, attracting visitors and attracting businesses. I think of marketing Rhode Island as a great place to visit and to do business [as well as marketing] why Rhode Island is a great place to live.

I think quality of life is very important, extremely important for business attraction, because the hunt for talent is so important to companies these days, and part of what attracts talent is being able to live in a great place.

ConvergenceRI: Do you think it would be a helpful tool in your toolbox to create a quality of life index that could provide you data, rather than just anecdotal evidence and beautiful photographs?
EVANS:
I think that is [an interesting idea]. I am always skeptical of indices, because it is hard to create an index that accurately reflects an overall experience.

I’ve spent a lot of my career in market research, particularly in customer loyalty, and when you ask someone to rate a company or place overall, they are doing a complex internal calculation, which is different for every person. But it’s hard to capture some combination of underlying variables.

I wonder how we would be able to create a quality of life index. Also, what it would mean to have our own, if other states don’t have the same index.

That said, I think, to your broader point, that’s important for us to have quantitative measures about quality of life and to promote those.

An example that I’ve been thinking about is: one of the great things in Rhode Island is how close we all are to waterfront, and can we pull a stat on the number of properties in Rhode Island, or houses in Rhode Island, that are within a certain distance of the water, I think we will be able to get this from Zillow or Realtor.com. But I do think that’s an example of a contributor to quality of life that would be nice to quantify.

ConvergenceRI: In Massachusetts, they’ve been doing what’s known as the Index of the Massachusetts Innovation Economy for roughly 22 years now, it’s been an important tool for them to market Massachusetts as a top knowledge economy state, which has served as an important tool in attracting new companies, new talent, and venture capital. Would a similar tool be valuable for Rhode Island in its marketing efforts? [See link below to the Index of the Massachusetts Innovation Economy.]
EVANS:
I am not familiar with Massachusetts index, so I am going to check it out, and we’ll talk about it another time. I think that it is a very interesting idea.

ConvergenceRI: One of the top research docs in Rhode Island, Dr. Jim Padbury, described Rhode Island as a scalable research lab within a regional universe, looking at Rhode Island’s relationship to Boston and Cambridge in regard the research enterprise. Do you think that is an accurate description?
EVANS:
Does he mean it metaphorically or does he mean it literally?

ConvergenceRI: I think he means it literally in terms of the quality of the talent here in Rhode Island. I will send you a link to the interview I did with him a year ago. [See link below to the ConvergenceRI story, “Rhode Island as a scalable research lab in a regional universe.”]
It was an interesting view of how Rhode Island could position itself within the regional knowledge economy and the research enterprise. I know that there was a lot of Twitter chatter today about what would become the second tier of the Boston-Cambridge innovation ecosystem that the innovation reporter for The Boston Globe, Scott Kirsner, wrote.
EVANS:
I’m not sure that I quite understand his quote, so I’ll have to see the article.

I’m familiar with the article that came out today. We certainly see Providence Metro, I like to call it, which is a 1.4 million person metro area, as a great alternative to Boston.

Particularly for Boston and Cambridge companies expanding here. Expanding in the region but feel that they’ve tapped out the talent and/or real estate in Boston/Cambridge.

ConvergenceRI: With the opening of Wexford this week, what are the messages that you want to drive home as the big takeaways?
EVANS:
I’ve been in this job for only two months, six weeks really, so much of my work, Richard, is forward-looking, and working on developing [future] strategies. So, your questions are more informative for me, than ones that I feel confident answering.

To me, Wexford is the culmination of a lot of work that’s been done before I got here, and so it’s very exciting looking at Rhode Island as a place that can attract and foster entrepreneurial businesses.

The Cambridge Innovation Center being located there is exciting for the state, and all of that will be part of the messaging.

I’m really not driving the shorter-term press relations messaging around that.

ConvergenceRI: I wasn’t asking about the shorter-term press relations; I was thinking that, rather than looking at the past, this would be an exciting new platform to talk about how it positions Rhode Island in the future. How the success of the Wexford Innovation Complex can become part of a marketing positioning of Rhode Island, looking ahead.
EVANS:
It’s clearly a very exciting development to have this center and the continued development of the 195 land; having additional modern office space in Providence is helpful for attracting businesses. And, plus the CIC [Cambridge Innovation Center] is going to be helping us to market [Rhode Island], because they have a robust network, and will be marketing that space.

I’ve been thinking more about what’s our positioning to businesses, to woo them from away from Boston and New York. I haven’t been focused on individual properties and what [they can] contribute; it’s just part of the momentum.

ConvergenceRI: In terms of the strategies to woo businesses away from New York or Boston, or even New Haven, what are the challenges?
EVANS:
I think the biggest challenge is the size of Providence. New Haven is comparable, but the other two cities, both of which I’ve lived in, are just much bigger and much denser. And, I think that the challenge, besides the general reputation issue – that we are not known the way they are, there’s just a real physical challenge, which is that we are a smaller city.

Which is why, to me, it is really important that we promote the Providence metro area and not just Providence. The Provide metro area includes the entire state of Rhode Island with the exception of Westerly as well as a chunk of southern Massachusetts.

We are the 38th largest metro area in the country, and part of what contributes to that is we are a densely populated state, but the city is not that big.

I think from a lifestyle standpoint, the fact that we have these small, historic cities, it offers people some of the lifestyle benefits for people of all ages, but including millennials, who are really the workforce of the higher technology companies that we are trying to attract.

The fact that you’ve got a Bristol, a Warren, a Wickford, these places actually have some of the attractiveness of a larger city, so thinking about how we promote the quality of life that you talked about, without having the real density of a city like Boston or New York.

ConvergenceRI: Is the density important in terms of collisions?
EVANS:
No, I think of it as how people think of the lifestyle, in a city, like New York, or Boston, what attracts a young person to live there.

As I think about marketing Rhode Island to businesses, part of it is that they are going want to feel that they are going to be able to attract talent.

We have some pretty good statistical evidence, industry by industry, that we have the talent these businesses are going after – in life sciences, in technology design, and ocean technology. We do have people, but making sure that we have the pipeline of people who want to stay after college or live in Rhode Island, I think we have to think about how we market the state to them, because that is going to be important to the employers.

ConvergenceRI: How are you planning to market the new innovation campuses moving forward, with three chosen and another two potentially being chosen by CommerceRI? I was wondering if you have been involved with marketing these new innovation hubs, in a similar way that the innovation hub in New York City, as part of a collaboration with Cornell, has become a magnet for talent?
BRIAN HODGE:
The Wexford Innovation Complex and the new innovation hubs, the state is always pushing to make more and even greater strides in the innovation field and this will definitely be another [way] to promote the state in that regard.

EVANS: Let me tell you about some of the things that I am thinking about marketing Rhode Island.

One of the things is aligning tourism marketing and our business marketing. Again, addressing the issue of young people wanting to live here. Do you have kids?

ConvergenceRI: Yes, I do.
EVANS:
So, I have four kids, ages 21 to 29. And, they live in New York City, and San Francisco, and one of them is looking where to live.

How you found it a challenge to have young people want to live or stay here in Rhode Island and how would you pitch it to them?

ConvergenceRI: That’s a good question. My sense is that one of the things that people visiting Rhode Island are very attracted to is diversity. Which I think is an under-marketed part of one of Rhode Island’s biggest assets. People who come from diverse backgrounds actually find that Providence and Rhode Island is a very welcoming place.

They feel very comfortable living here. Which is probably under the radar screen, but particularly in terms of attracting talent, is an interesting dynamic.

EVANS: I agree with that, very much. In fact, that is an example of how I think we’re re-envisioning our state’s social media strategy for tourism, in a way that I think will help both the tourism business and, more broadly, help us attract young people to live and do business in Rhode Island.

Those are the kinds of things, just as you described, that we are thinking about as we change our social media emphasis.

On the tourism side, the benefit is that there has been a lot of success in marketing Rhode Island as a summer destination; the regional tourism offices do a lot of work with that.

To me, for the business goal we have, as well as to really drive tourism revenue, we need to make Rhode Island a year-round destination.

And, I think it is a fabulous year-round destination, with some of the aspects of the urban culture are really important in marketing the state that way.

ConvergenceRI: I have lived in Rhode Island for the past 30 years, despite numerous stints working in Boston. The quality of life is what has kept me here, as well as the access of being able to connect with people at all levels.
EVANS:
I think quality of life is a great thing to market to businesses as well as to individuals. I agree with you. It is an incredible quality of life. I think [demonstrating] that in a quantitative way is going to be a really important part of our marketing.

In addition to that, illustrating that through our social media and advertising, through campaigns that will both attract people to live here and do business here as well as to come here as tourists.

ConvergenceRI: One of things that everyone will have to deal with, in looking at the future, is climate change. When you look at Boston, it turns out that the entire Seaport Innovation District may be entirely flooded in the future as a result of rising sea levels.
Is there something that connects with the fact that Rhode Island has undertaken a fairly aggressive effort to deal with climate change, focused on blue ocean technology and sustainable practices. Does that become a potential creative way to market Rhode Island as a place of the future, looking at sustainable, resilient and restorative practices?
EVANS:
I think that Rhode Island is doing some really interesting work; I was at a RISD workshop on the topic, a couple of months ago, Barnaby Evans and others have some really interesting ideas about how we can address long-term sustainability.

When I think about marketing the state to businesses, though, what I really think about is how do we address the current view of Rhode Island and the current concerns of people who are starting businesses.

I think you’re right, and I’m surprised that people aren’t more focused on this, but they don’t seem to be, so far as I know, it’s not affecting commercial real estate prices yet.

Until it’s an issue for our audience, it’s hard to make something an issue and then solve it. I think there are things that are top of mind for people, and it comes back to the search for talent, where we can address their current concerns, and offer attractive things about Rhode Island.

In the short term, I don’t think that is going to help our short-term marketing.

I think in the short-term, some of the things we’re doing around concierge workforce development, what you see with Real Jobs RI and [its ability] to deliver for companies. On the flip side, for employees, they are assured of job placement.

It’s demand-driven, and therefore, it’s beneficial both for the employer and for the potential employees.

That kind of thing is really innovative and addresses the issues that people looking to relocate or expand is top of mind.

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