Chicagoans were posed a simple question in a message displayed on billboards along Interstates 290 and 294 starting last November: Who wants to save 300 percent on property taxes?
The advertisements, placed by the Indiana Economic Development Corp., are part of a marketing plan launched in late 2016 to more deeply target four strategic markets—Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Atlanta—with messages consistent with the state’s overall “A State that Works” economic development campaign deployed in 2013.
The ads appear on or in billboards, magazines, newspapers and internet and mobile platforms and are geo-targeted to a particular city for three months. They display messages that compare quality-of-life factors in the various markets.
For instance, from January to March, San Franciscans were informed in advertisements about a “crazy idea”: affordable rent, “minutes away from the office.”
Atlanta residents from March to May were asked, “Does your commute feel like a part-time job?” And the same message greeted New Yorkers from May to July.
The state has placed ads out of state before—Remember the infamous “Illinoyed?” ads in Chicagoland in 2011?—but the more recent blitz has been an effort to make a bigger splash in the months leading up to sales meetings in a particular market, said Commerce Secretary Jim Schellinger.
“Economic development across states is a full-contact sport,” Schellinger said. “It’s a very competitive market. We try to hit areas of the country where we know we can significantly compete.”
The recent campaign also comes as IEDC has more to spend on its advertising efforts. The agency has allocated $4.45 million per year for marketing during the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years. That’s up from 2015 and 2016, when the state had $3.7 million per year to spend on promotion.
Schellinger compared the recent strategy to battle. First, the state goes in with “air cover,” a blitz of positive advertising messages about Indiana.
“Then—boom!—we send a ground group,” he said. Officials visit site selectors, follow up on sales leads, and chat with companies that might already have a division or location in Indiana.
The four cities targeted during the recent blitzes were chosen, Schellinger said, for their stark contrasts with Indiana in particular metrics the state wants to highlight.
“Depending on where we go, we try to emphasize our strengths,” he said. “We’re just pointing out truths.”
Todd Bolster, vice president of client services at The Basement, the ad firm that contracts with IEDC, said Indiana’s message is “an interesting balance between making sure we’re accurately portraying the innovation and technology that’s here … with the fact that the tax climate and a lot of other costs of doing business are less here.”
Industry experts say marketing a state or municipality is much more complex than your typical retail campaign.
“Marketing an economy is different than marketing soap or vodka,” said Guillermo Mazier, CEO of Denver-based Atlas Advertising, which has worked on economic development and tourism campaigns for several cities. “The national or global economy is a variable. You also have variables in infrastructure, in workforce, in incentives, in public policy, in demographic trends. It has a lot of layers to it.”
But Mazier said done right or wrong, campaigns can make big impacts.
“There’s plenty of good states for business,” he said. “There’s others that are OK, but they’ve changed perceptions about the state and provided and communicated the opportunities available in such a clear way that the market is starting to take notice.”
But campaigns can also be flops. Rhode Island’s notorious “Cooler and Warmer” campaign in 2016—which viewers never understood and which featured footage shot in Iceland—resulted in ridicule on social media and the ouster of the state’s chief marketing officer.
The trick to doing it right, Mazier said, is to have a clear strategy of whom you’re targeting and what message you’re trying to get across—staying “consistent and hyper-targeted.” He also said campaigns need a clear way to measure the impacts after they deploy.
“All of this doesn’t matter if there are no results to back it up,” he said.
Schellinger acknowledged that the success of Indiana’s advertising efforts can be difficult to measure.
“Everybody knows that 50 percent of what you spend on marketing is a waste of money and the other 50 percent is worthwhile,” he said. “It’s not an exact science or an exact art. You have to be as diligent as you can. There’s some hit and miss to it.”
But Schellinger noted that the agency has been “smoking every one of our metrics” in trying to attract jobs so far this year. As of June 30, he said, the state had secured 164 company commitments that could result in 17,823 jobs over the next several years, with average wages of $28.60 per hour and a total capital investment of $5.4 billion. He said the state is on track to beat commitment totals in 2015, which was its highest year on record.
IEDC spokeswoman Holly Gillham said the agency has gotten “a lot of positive feedback” from site selectors in the four markets it targeted.
“Results aren’t always immediate, so we’ll continue to track our efforts and adjust our messaging and markets based on those results and feedback,” Gillham said.
Overall, J. Mark Mayer, a clinical assistant professor of marketing at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, said he believes the “A State that Works” campaign is “a great tag line, something that conveys the message, is memorable and reflects some of the equity of the state.”
And Mayer said he thinks the messages about property taxes, commute times and rent costs were likely effective.
But he wasn’t sold on one of the new components of the campaign: advertisements that play off of a shared Hoosier insecurity, the state’s perceived lack of natural beauty.
On one advertisement, which has run in Bloomberg Businessweek, the message—“Mountains of Savings. Oceans of opportunity”—is set on a background of a rocky landscape and crisp, blue water.
Mayer said the state has to be careful about “using humor in a way that might actually decrease focus on that message.”
“There’s so many positives” about Indiana, Mayer said. “I don’t know if I’d want to provoke the message of, ‘We don’t have these things.’ Because Indiana is, let’s say, the underdog, you don’t want to make people have a negative reaction to that message.”•