How New Haven should sell itself to the outside world

 

In the marketing profession the most talked-about concept of the last decade may be branding. What is your company’s/product’s/state’s ‘brand,’ and how does it at once encapsulate your most attractive trait to potential customer(s) and differentiate you from your competitors? For years now some very smart people have sought to confront a key question: Does New Haven have a ‘brand’? And if not, what should it be? To address this question, BNH invited not members of the Elm City’s best-and-brightest community of marketing and PR professionals, but instead a group of what might be thought of as ‘disrupters’ — young, highly accomplished professionals whose paths to success have circumvented conventional notions of brand-building but whose reputations in one way or another remain inextricably linked to their home city’s. They included: Anne Haynes, former CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of  New Haven and now a Sloan Fellow at MIT; Miles Lasater, co-founder and chairman of the New Haven financial-services firm Higher One and entrepreneur at large; Janna Wagner, co-founder of All Our Kin, a New Haven non-profit that provides community child care; Bruce Ditman, chief marketing officer of Marcum, a multi-state accounting and consulting firm; Pedro Soto, chief operating officer and executive vice president of  Space-Craft Manufacturing Inc. in New Haven; and Erik Clemons, president and executive director of the Connecticut Center for Arts & Technology (ConnCAT), a Science Park-headquartered non-profit that provides post-secondary career training. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation, which took place December 30 at downtown co-working space the Bourse.

 

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BNH: The genesis of this discussion came from a quote from mayor-elect Toni Harp, who said that New Haven needed a ‘bigger brand.’ Let’s start by asking what that means to each of you.

 

Ditman: I agree we need immediate brand attention for New Haven. I don’t know if we need a bigger brand but I know we need a better brand — and a better understanding of what branding does,  how one does it  and implementing it globally.

 

Clemons: From my vantage point, New Haven is for lack of a better  term a tale of two cities.  In terms of branding New Haven needs to have one dream. There is a New Haven that is spawned from Yale [whose residents] are dreamers, and there are those on the periphery of that who have dreams deferred.  To the extent that we can have one dream for New Haven in terms of branding that would be good for me, and hopefully I captured what Mayor Harp was talking about.

 

Haynes: I would follow up on Erik’s comment. I think New Haven has a brand and that our problem is [presenting] that brand in a unified story as well as every little story that makes up New Haven makes up the larger.  I think it is very typical of New England: New Englanders don’t self-promote and they don’t communicate well.  After being away for a year not too far up the road near Boston, and recognizing what we got is everything that Kendall Square [in Cambridge, Mass.] wants.  A lot of people that I brought down from the Boston area really couldn’t believe what they were seeing.  I would say it doesn’t need a bigger brand — it needs a more visible and communicable brand.

 

Anne, if New Haven has a brand, what is it?

 

Haynes: It is a really complex brand to communicate. Other people have said it is a big town that feels like a small city. But it is incredibly complex — a little bit of everything, all wrapped up in a package you can put your hands around.

 

Wagner: It’s a small city with everything that you want in a big city — as well as all the problems of a big city.

 

Ditman: That’s not branding; that’s the reality. Branding is the act of  communicating what you wish [the subject of the brand] to be perceived as. We have all the realities, the good and the bad. What we are communicating is how we wish to be viewed by someone who is not here.

 

Lasater: The brand [New Haven has] actually now is probably not what we want it to be — and maybe that’s what the mayor-elect was trying to get at. I think what you’re pushing the conversation toward is: What do we want people to understand about our city?

 

Wagner : You know — ‘The Greatest Small City in America.’

 

Ditman: I love that.

 

Wagner: The Greatest Small City in America is aspirational, but it also includes people that I care about and work every day for. I think you’re right [about] the disconnect [between] what we have and who has access to it.

 

Haynes: Cities like Palo Alto [Calif.] could claim to be the best small city in America because of the wealth, and things going on. But they have the reality of what cities face. It is an advantage to have the diversity we have.

 

Soto: The dig against New Haven has always been it is a small city with big-city problems. I think that turning that on its head is what we all hope the reality should be — that we’re a small city that fights above our weight class.

 

Haynes: That’s nice.

 

Soto: When you compare who we compete against, when Alexion [Pharmaceuticals relocates to] downtown or Higher One decides to stay here, their options are not ­ just another regional cities, but you’re talking about Cambridge or San Francisco. You’re talking about moving up to a whole different place, moving to another similar-sized city. That is where New Haven has a lot of potential.

 

Before we started Business New Haven in 1993 we interviewed 100 CEOs to ask their opinions about what we were trying to do. One of things we heard was that using ‘New Haven’ in the name of the publication was a terrible idea because the city’s brand had been damaged so badly. Jenna’s idea is indeed aspirational. ‘The Greatest Small City in America’ is a big brand.  It is important to be able to live up to your brand or you set yourself up for a fall. Can New Haven live up to the Greatest Small City in America?

 

Clemons: To Bruce’s point it is [valuing] every individual. And I know it because I am the manifestation of it — that everyone has the opportunity to be great in New Haven. That is the charm.

 

[Several at once]: Yes, absolutely.

 

Clemons: We all have to believe in the idea we can be better, so how do you articulate that? And how do you create an environment where people actually believe it? The people we deal with have to own that and they have to trust you. We have to make a model [in which people believe] that things can work for you if you work for it.

Ditman: Well said. We have an incredibly engaged population in the city who are willing to put their names and their faces on the line for a cause. Look around the room. Not to pat us on the backs, but that is one of the very special things about our city. Couple that with access, you’re never far from the mayor’s office. I don’t have a personal relationship  with the mayor [John DeStefano Jr. at the time of this conversation] but  I never thought there is no way I can’t get all the way to City Hall. You have people who are willing to make mistakes and take risks, and government that does offer real access. That is what makes us great. Not that we have achieved greatness.  It’s not a list of lowest crime or highest per-capita income. We’re saying we have an environment for success.

 

Lasater: I think [New Haven has] a sense of authenticity of civic pride and engagement. For me as an entrepreneur I am very proud of the [city’s] history of innovation and Yankee ingenuity.

 

What’s the difference between a brand and a slogan? One of the most famous is ‘Virginia Is for Lovers.’ That’s a slogan, not a brand. It doesn’t mean you can’t live in Virginia unless you’re a lover.

 

Ditman: You use your slogan to drive your brand. Does [Virginia’s slogan] mean that only lovers can go there, not that it is a vacation destination that’s romantic and beautiful? That’s the brand that they’re going for, that this is a vacation destination. It doesn’t say Virginia is for entrepreneurs, or for biotech — they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive  but your slogan will drives your brand. Right now one of [New Haven’s marketing] slogans is ‘Make It Happen Here.’ That’s suggesting that our overall brand is an unfinished product — like, ‘Hey, guys, let’s make it happen here!’ That’s not the message I want to send to New York. To me, that’s not a dynamic message. I looked at Portland, Me. [Its slogan is] ‘Yes — Life’s Easier Here.’ That’s their slogan, but obviously that’s their brand — [that] life will be more pleasurable.

 

Lasater: Assuming you like snow shovels.

 

Ditman: That’s exactly the point — assuming you like one month of sunshine a year. It doesn’t say, ‘If you check our data you’ll learn life is in fact easier here.’ It’s  a good directional model, but they don’t have what we have.

 

Haynes: I love Portland, Me., but I wonder if everyone there agrees it’s easier to live there.

 

Ditman: They certainly don’t.

 

Haynes: Back to Erik’s point, there has to be a way — I don’t like the word ‘slogan’ per se — that whatever is being messaged is nuanced enough that everyone can own it.

 

Lasater: I like Connecticut’s new [tourism] slogan: ‘Still Revolutionary.’ It does try to get to the sense we have a real history here, but it’s not done — we’re continuing forward.

 

Haynes: The ‘revolutionary’ part doesn’t bother me; it’s the ‘still’ part that bothers me. It implies that’s we’re doing the same thing we’ve been doing.

 

Soto: You can interpret it two different ways — ‘We’re still relevant, please.’

 

Haynes: I’m not the messaging person, but it hits sort of the same dead note that Connecticut tends to do. It almost plays too many themes. I was working with the state when they were in the process of coming out with different ideas [for the ‘Still Revolutionary’ tourism marketing campaign]. [They were] complex talks [about featuring] everything from these little towns to this innovation center of New Haven.

 

If the TV commercials showed somebody walking into the Whitfield House in Guilford and walk out of  the Connecticut Science Center, or walk into a home in the Northwest Hills and walk out onto Chapel Street, you would have a better sense of what they mean by ‘Still Revolutionary.’ It’s like they were afraid to execute that because of all the criticism that got.

 

Ditman: So if we were to call this the Greatest Small City in America, what would be the conversation be about?

 

Clemons: I think we have to understand the stories of folks who have lived in New Haven for decades [but who have] been voiceless while New Haven has moved forward and is being branded as such. There is a whole group of folks who don’t think that way because of their experiences, so how do we in a unifying way collect their stories and hear from them? I love New Haven because I believe there are holes in New Haven that filled by people like me. [But] there are a lot of folks from New Haven who don’t believe that because they are from New Haven. How do we have that conversation?

 

Haynes: We can have a unified message that says, ‘This Is My City.’ Everybody’s [notion of] city might be slightly different, but everybody feels like they can call it ‘my city.’ It doesn’t have to say this is the best city, although I actually do think it is the best small city in America.

 

What are some examples of a successful ‘place’ brand — whether it’s organic, like Jerusalem as the Holy City, or a tourism brand like ‘Virginia Is for Lovers?’

 

Lasater: I would say Brooklyn.

 

Soto: I was going to say Brooklyn.

 

Ditman: Brooklyn has the best brand in America.

 

And that brand is…?

 

Soto: Brooklyn­ is just on the leading edge, on the forefront, of absolutely every single trend in the United States.

 

Haynes: Including negative things like gentrification.

 

Ditman: I think their brand is hip and exciting, and fashionable and historic. [Another example is] Portland, Ore. They don’t need a slogan at all; everyone wants to be in Portland. From modern city design to bicycle and pedestrian routes and organic foods — they’ve had to do almost nothing but give people the experience.

 

Haynes: I think that goes back to places that are most successful. They don’t need a slogan but they have a user experience that people can feel and know what it is.

 

Wagner: But these are all places where we might want to live. They are all the same kinds of places — brands that are similarly young, high-tech, progressive, people who like bikes and are white, who have money.

 

What is New Haven’ core competency?

 

Clemons: I think it is at this table. We are very diverse in what we do for a living and who we are, but we can sit at this table as successful people and talk about this incredible city all together and try to brand it. The idea of bringing together this intellectual capital to talk about this city in our different experiences, that to me is the charm of this city.

 

Lasater: If you look outside of the city and ask what we’re known for being good at, it’s higher education and architecture and some food categories. Not only pizza.

 

Ditman: The city will be successful in branding New Haven when we can control what someone says when they hear the words ‘New Haven.’ Whether that person is a banker or a parent or a fiancé from another state. When I travel for work and you say New Haven, people say Yale or they say, ‘Ooh, what’s that like?’ Which is ridiculous. Yes, we have problems, not like you can’t function [with] problems. If we don’t control the conversation someone else will, and that’s what is happening.

 

Speaking of image problems, for a lot of young people in the suburbs the city’s ‘brand’ is ‘Gun-Wavin’ New Haven.’

 

Lasater: I think that can be embraced for having the challenges of being a city, of having those kinds of problems. We can flip it around because we do have a place where people are wiling to pitch in and make it better. We can look at the formation of new non-profits and civic organizations in New Haven and it’s off the charts. I think there are two sides to that coin.

 

I don’t think talking about restaurants or arts is really big enough. That’s why I do like ‘Greatest Small City In America’ because New Haven needs a big change.

 

Lasater: What we have is historic progress on school reform. You may not agree with all of it, but the fact that the [teachers] union and the Board of Education [came to a sweeping reform agreement in 2009]. I think we can bring to light our ability in solving civic problems. That is unique.

 

Haynes: Social innovation and civic innovation is something we’ve done from the original town planners in 1638 all the way through now. A lot of people here don’t see it as such a unique asset to be able to communicate that as what an amazing place it is.

 

Lasater: Bruce, what is the 50-word message of the ‘Greatest Small City in America’?

 

Ditman: It is a story about innovation,  it’s success, inspiration and accountability and access. We need to express that if you want to get something done in New Haven you can do it.

 

I do think when they created the slogan ‘Make It Happen Here’ that is what they meant it to mean.

 

Wagner: That’s the story that I tell — that you if you see something that you don’t like you can change it. If you want to start something you can start it. If there aren’t enough fun things to do, you make them. If you don’t like the graffiti on your wall you figure out a way do [something about it]. I think that is something that is attractive to people who want to make a difference. I think that what makes New Haven special is all the people who are willing to get things done. The people I spend most of my time with, most of them haven’t given up yet. It’s using each other and the relationships you have to make the city better, not just for you but for other people as well. Everyone at this table it does that on a daily basis, and I think that is really contagious. It’s what Erik and I do for our jobs — to model for people that they can do that in their neighborhoods as well. It doesn’t have to be in the downtown area, or just with white people, or just with middle-class people.

 

Clemons: How do we capture the transformative power of that process? That, to me, is where the magic is. How to market that to people who for the most part  have no hope and purpose — that’s where my life is.

 

Ditman: If [the slogan] was ‘New Haven: Dreamers and Doers’ we would still need relatable stories, not propaganda stories. We do have them. How does that drive retail? It doesn’t, but it certainly drives the brand by the vibe.

 

Pedro, you speak every day to business people from outside New Haven and Connecticut. What do they tell you?

 

Soto: Some of it I have to come from the defensive — ‘Why in the world are you here? There is a strip club up the street [on East Street, near the Space-Craft Manufacturing shop]; there’s old people right there. You guys could be out in the suburbs in a new facility.’ My dad [company founder John Soto] put Space-Craft here for financial reasons in 1993; there is no reason we would be moving any time in the near future. We love it here. A lot of it is because of the relationships — because of the EDC [Economic Development Corp.], being able to call the mayor’s office for something. That level of accessibility. Also, a lot of my [workers] live in New Haven or Bridgeport. They live in urban environments. A lot of what I hear is, ‘How are you as a manufacturer actually manufacturing goods in the city? The taxes must be this…’ — a lot of it is misinformation.

 

So we don’t send a message that this is a place where things are made?

 

Soto: I think because we used to be one of the global manufacturing centers, along with Bridgeport, and we’ve fallen so far from that perch. There is still an enormous amount of manufacturing happening in the city, but [in the early 20th century] we were at a stratospheric level with Winchester, Sargent, Olin and others. We [have] gone through a 20-year dry spell with manufacturing being a  bad word. Now that things are coming back I think it is time to re-visit just how much product is being [manufactured] in the city. It is pretty impressive.

 

A lot of the words you’re using are intangibles — relationships, accessibility. Should we also be talking about tangible advantages?  Nobody’s mentioned the arts, for example. New Haven has two Equity theater companies, amazing museums, restaurants, music. Should we not be touting our tangible competitive advantages over other mid-sized New England cities?

 

Ditman: When we brand our city properly, we need to be able to [emphasize] manufacturing, and culture, and innovation, and citizenship — it all needs to work. That is the test. We should be talking about it but it should not be in our slogan. We have the second-largest collection of free art [in museums and galleries] in the country, second only to Washington, D.C. No one outside of the city knows that.

 

Haynes: No one knows that.

 

Clemons: I didn’t know that.

 

Ditman: Incredible, but no one knows that. We need to talking about this stuff. But we also want to be careful about getting into the stats business.

 

Clemons: People ask me, ‘Why are you in Science Park?’ For me that was a big issue, for our own branding. [Science Park] is branded as a Yale property and [there is an] issue of infighting with Yale and colonization of Newhallville and Dixwell by Yale. ‘Why are you in a relationship with these people and how are you setting up shop in a place that no black people will come to?’

 

I always thought Science Park was built to tie Yale to the community more and provide jobs in the community.

 

Haynes: I was actually surprised to not have someone at the table with a direct affiliation with Yale. That’s a problem that we often had at the EDC. They’re such a huge institution [but] they weren’t always choosing to take a leadership role in New Haven.

 

By way of explanation, we steered completely clear of any institutions or political people in putting together this panel discussion. We were more interested in what we saw as culture builders coming out of the community.

 

Haynes: People at Yale are part of the messaging, they’re also voices in messaging to the rest  of the world about what New Haven is, and not just, ‘What can we do for New Haven?’ But we all live in New Haven and it is important to have that voice in the picture. I’m not saying Yale should drive the boat. It can’t be just that we have Shake Shack now — which is great.

 

Soto: That’s a big deal.

 

Lasater: It puts us up there with Dubai and New York.

 

Ditman: My sense is that Yale is more ready than ever — that feels more New Haven-centric.

 

That was [former Yale president] Rick Levin’s legacy: engagement with the community.

 

Lasater: And [incoming Yale] President Salovey’s inauguration was open to the public. I don’t know how many community members actually went, but even that is a step forward.

 

Ditman: What do you think our relationship with  New York City is, and how do we manage that?

 

Clemons:  When I lived in Norwalk it was always this direct relationship. Whether explicit or implicit, New York was right there. Here, I see no relationship [with New York]. It hit me how many Red Sox  fans are in New Haven. Which [illustrated] how far we are from New York.

 

Soto: When they won the World Series in 2004 they came down to New Haven and brought the trophy there.

 

But a lot of people will say that the key to New Haven’s success is to establish itself as the eastern terminus of the New York metro area.

 

Ditman: That deeply offends me. I think we are our own amazing place that need not be the sixth borough. As the Greatest Small City in America we are in arms reach of the greatest city and also Boston, Providence. We have our own identity and we do our own things our own way.

 

Soto: And we’re not Stamford.

 

Wagner: We can’t compare to New York; we’re too tiny and too special. I think a lot of the same people who want to live in New York live in New Haven. Because there are so many amazing opportunities in New Haven you forget how small it is. We sometimes compare ourselves to New York because there are amazing businesses, entrepreneurs and the culture is as rich. And there are challenges like New York. The comparison is a faulty one.

 

Lasater: On more a practical consideration, if you say we should be able to get into Grand Central in 45 minutes by train, I’m all for that.

 

Haynes: New Haven has to have its own identity because it has  links to both Boston and New York and more and more to other cities in the world. The connectivity of New Haven to the rest of the world is the critical piece.

 

So, is New Haven metro New York, or is it New England?

 

Haynes: We’re a little schizophrenic that way. The advantage is that we are both. More and more I think people have to have a foot in both places, and we already have it.

Clemons: If I look at [New Haven] in the context of Greenwich Village, it can have New York grittiness. But at the same time we’re a Toggle coat — preppy and real cool at the same time in a fashion sense.

 

Ditman: I think we’ll be successful when Stratford tells businesses it’s interested in attracting how close it is New Haven.

 

In the past eight or ten years we’ve seen  thousands of young people move to New Haven, especially downtown. New Haven’s brand is established for people 20 to 35 years old wanting to live in a hipper place. If you’re a young person who can live anywhere in Connecticut and you’re not New York-centric, you pretty much have one choice, and that is New Haven.

 

Lasater: It’s interesting that you mention in-migration, because there is an opportunity with this brand, ‘Greatest Small city in America,’ with those who are 20-something living in larger cities: ‘I want to go to somewhere smaller and have a connection and to feel that I haven’t completely left a city.’ I think this is a great opportunity; it’s a trend and I think it matches that brand.

 

Haynes: And also the return of empty-nesters [to New Haven]. It’s already happening with both generations. It’s authentic and I think we can be telling a better story about it.

 

Lasater: At one point my wife was working outside of New Haven and I told her I would be happy to move to the suburbs so her commute would not be so crazy. She said, ‘No way am I moving outside of the city.’ That fervent feeling is important to some people. It is not always a negative. Urban isn’t always code for bad.

 

Ditman: We are a city. We are not the ‘Greatest Small Utopia,’ or folksy small town where nobody locks their door. It’s a city, and we have real challenges. I don’t know a city that doesn’t. But we have tremendous people in this city, whether it is Yankee ingenuity or our history of immigrants coming here to make a better life and staying.  And I think we’re the Greatest Small City in America.