The Power of Idaho

Behind the “brand platform” is the reality of a growing science and technology economy

By now, most of us have some concept of what it means to create and defend a “brand”, even if we aren’t in the heady world of advertising and marketing. The power of encapsulating a set of associations in a single image or slogan, and commanding allegiance to those icons is one that we can easily appreciate in a consumer driven economy.

For many consumer products, a “brand platform” is simply a unifying concept and expression of that product’s best attributes. Saying that Maxwell House coffee is “Good to the Last Drop” is a fairly obvious statement of that product’s “value proposition.” More recently, however, Nike set a new standard for power phrases that may not seem as obvious – but that ultimately packs tremendous iconic value. “Just Do It” may not be as obvious a way to sell a pair of athletic shoes as a slogan such as “Run Faster. Jump Higher”. The power of Nike’s now famous phrase, however, is not in its direct reference to shoes, but in its association with enabling athletic excellence – an association that could only be established by years of advertising and promotion.

So how does the concept of a “brand platform” apply to the image of a state’s economy? The answer is: no different at all. To promote the attributes of a state with the objective of economic development, whether in the form of tourism, manufacturing, or exports, requires the same careful consideration of how best to succinctly capture its essence, and how to communicate that essence in a way that can be reinforced over the length of a promotional campaign. In today’s media intense environment, failing to create or defend a brand position creates the risk that the market place of ideas will do so instead. This is as true for states as it is for companies.

The Idaho Economic Development Association (IEDA) is currently developing a promotional campaign aimed at raising awareness of the state’s growing science and technology-based economy. The campaign’s branding platform, “The Power of Idaho”, represents a creative execution through which the IEDA plans to make its case for Idaho’s enormous business potential to technology companies and workers.

But what exactly is the case? For a relatively anonymous western state with a population of less the one and a half million people to talk about its “power” may seem delusional, but the IEDA campaign is hardly the first time that the words “power” and “Idaho” have been used in the same breath. Idaho has long been recognized for its agricultural products, which include not only “famous potatoes” but wheat, beans, peas, and dairy products.

Idaho has also been acclaimed for the power of its scenery and recreational resources: mountain ranges that have been dubbed “America’s Alps”, high desert vistas, more miles of untamed white water than any other state, forest wilderness, and innumerable lakes. It is no exaggeration to say that Idaho is one of the last vestiges of what the West was like before the Corps of Discovery first navigated the Snake River.

“The Power Of Idaho” is multidimensional and is a reality far beyond an advertising concept. Idaho is one of the nation’s fastest growing export states, increasing the value of its exports by over 200 percent during the 1990’s. Its biggest categories include electronic components, machinery, food, building products, and engineering and environmental technology. Idaho’s more than 800 high-tech firms export $2.1 billion dollars worth of goods and services annually, placing the state among the top 20 for high-tech exports. Idaho boasts 120,000 miles of broadband connective fiber cable, the twelfth lowest crime rate in the nation, an overall tax burden that is second lowest in the west, clean air and water, and the seventh lowest business operating costs in the entire United States.

In a more obvious reference to Idaho’s power, the vast hydroelectric resources of the state make it one of the lowest cost energy producers in the U.S. – a selling point that is equally appreciated by manufacturers and homeowners. By any number of metrics, the “The Power Of Idaho” is quantifiable, and undeniable – so much so that the University of Texas recently ranked Idaho as number one in business opportunity.

Making the case for “The Power Of Idaho” is a cause that has been embraced by the IEDA in order to build an economy based on science and technology, food processing, and manufacturing. There is certainly a precedent for this in other states. Looking back at the history of the Silicon Valley and other technology hubs throughout the U.S., the success factors are very much the same. Start with a high level of intellectual talent generated through university science and technology curricula and labs, add some government and industry funded research and development programs, foster public and private sector technology transfers that leverage the resulting innovations, and make available pools of capital to fund the commercialization of this technology into viable products and services.

While the above scenario may sound logical, the span of time in which it makes the transition from concept to reality, if it happens at all, may ultimately depend on whether or not it is planned or left strictly to chance. For the very first time, the state of Idaho now has a roadmap for the expansion of a technology-based economy. The creation of this roadmap can be traced to an executive order signed by Governor Kempthorne in November 1999, which created the Idaho Science and Technology Advisory Council. The Governor asked the Council, which was composed of business entrepreneurs, engineers, technology experts and representatives of the state’s academic institutions and major technology companies, to develop a strategic plan for a science and technology-based economy.

Thirteen months later, the Council completed a strategic planning process that included an assessment of Idaho’s competitive position, and an analysis of how it ranked in terms of those factors needed to support and grow a strong technology sector. Among the state’s greatest strengths cited in the report were:

  • A strong research and development base.
  • A well-educated population.
  • Research laboratories, universities and private companies that are generating a significant level of new knowledge.
  • A quality of life that is attractive to technology companies and their workers.

During his “State of the State” address in January 2004 the governor announced the formation of the Office of Science and Technology to realize the Advisory Council’s strategic goals and, in the words of its mission statement, to foster a “vibrant technology-based economy that provides employment opportunities and high wage jobs for Idaho citizens.”

An aggressive vision indeed, but keep in mind that science and technology are already important drivers of today’s Idaho economy – a fact borne out by the following statistics:

  • In 2001, science and technology accounted for more than 25 percent ($9.3 billion) of Idaho’s gross state product.
  • Between 1991 and 2002, science and technology employment increased 38 percent.
  • Science and technology wages are 92 percent higher than the statewide average.

The intellectual capital of Idaho alone is tremendous, and is borne out by the fact that there are more patents per capita issued in Idaho than in any other state. The state is home for the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, and enormous R&D resources are continually being created not only by that entity, but by numerous colleges and universities throughout the state. Technology industry leaders such as Hewlett-Packard and Micron Technology have attracted science and engineering talent from all over the world, and the Boise area has become a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity.

Despite a growing science and technology infrastructure, however, Idaho has been largely unsuccessful in creating a “brand identity” that reflects this reality. Thus, the mission of the IEDA to communicate an image of the state that, in fact, reflects what most Idahoans have come to recognize: Idaho stands for more than potatoes and mountains. During the coming months, this message will be delivered through a marketing effort that will highlight the state’s intellectual property assets, human capital, successful technology companies, and its government-funded efforts to channel all of these into new commercial endeavors.

Ultimately, the IEDA believes that “The Power Of Idaho” branding platform will succeed for the very same reasons that “Just Do It” worked so effectively for Nike. Rather than focus on any one attribute of the state, the phrase hints at a multitude of factors that combine to make Idaho an ideal location for technology, manufacturing and food processing companies. These attributes are a skilled and technology-savvy workforce, numerous centers of R&D excellence, an abundance of natural resources, and a quality of life that is rapidly disappearing in so many other parts of the country.

As the many dimensions of “The Power Of Idaho” are communicated, the goal of the IEDA will be to issue an invitation to businesses to harness that power for not only greater profit, but for equally tangible lifestyle benefits that have lured increasing numbers of people to the Gem State. In short, “The Power Of Idaho” reflects a robust array of attributes and resources that are not well known outside the state, but which in the coming months will be more widely, and dramatically, recognized as the IEDA invests in the branding platform it has boldly created.

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