Learning from LEX: Indy Leaders Head to the Twin Cities

CVR is proud to belong to the Indy Chamber, and to count the region’s largest business organization as a client – our PR team helps spread the word about the Chamber’s agenda.

lex-logoLast week, I joined the Indy Chamber’s annual Leadership Exchange (LEX), which sends a delegation of local business and civic leaders (and apparently even a PR flack or two) to peer regions to learn what’s working in other cities, and gain a broader perspective on our own community and economic priorities.  This year’s destination was Minneapolis-St. Paul, for a three-day agenda that highlighted issues like mass transit, educating and recruiting a competitive workforce, regionalism and early childhood learning. You can read about those issues in depth elsewhere; for this post, I wanted to share just two observations from our tour of the Twin Cities.

Turn challenges into strengths:

I’m not a winter person, so I was surprised how enthusiastically Minneapolis embraces its cold weather.  Speaker after speaker boasted about locals enjoying the outdoors year-round, helping the region be one of the healthiest and "fittest" by many rankings.  (Let’s just say Indy has some catching up to do.)  One panelist remarked, “There is no bad weather…just bad clothes.” Another (half-jokingly) explained that the frigid air keeps people moving faster (and working harder), contributing to the area’s economic success.

From a marketing standpoint, there’s a lesson to be learned here:  Sometimes it’s smart to embrace an uncomfortable reality, and figure out how to make it into a strength – you’ll appeal to your target audience on the basis of authenticity and a unique value proposition. (Of course, you have to be able to live up to the brand – and Minneapolis does:  The city has invested in one of the country’s top urban parks systems, and supports a busy schedule of sports and fitness activities, including well-attended winter festivals.)

One old-school advertising example of this approach is the Avis “Number two tries harder” campaign – there was no denying rival Hertz was bigger, but in what David Ogilvy called an act of “diabolical positioning,” Avis successfully promoted itself as the hard-working David who would go the extra mile to earn customers versus the Hertz Goliath.

People make cities – and companies – succeed:

Residents are obviously buying into the message, because the Twin Cities region has a well-educated workforce, filled with people who could find success anywhere but choose Minneapolis. This was cited repeatedly as the critical catalyst for its booming economy: High wages, low unemployment, the same number of Fortune 500 companies as San Francisco and a thriving "advanced industry" sector (technology, life sciences and other cutting-edge companies).

Marketing agencies live squarely in the talent economy – our only product is our ideas and creativity.  But brainpower is the top priority for most growing employers these days, regardless of industry. Life science companies like Eli Lilly need top scientists, and major manufacturers like Allison Transmission need engineering talent and tech-savvy production employees.

Minneapolis civic leaders are very aware that the region’s large population of smart, skilled workers attracts employers and strengthens the economy, so they have a deliberate, aggressive campaign ("Make It. MSP.") to recruit and retain talented people.  It’s a top priority, strongly supported by the business community.

The idea that people are a competitive advantage applies to every business.  For successful executives, hiring the smartest people and giving them the support and freedom to innovate is a winning strategy.  And for marketers, it’s important not to neglect internal communications – energizing employees around the company’s goals (and being known as a great place to work, keeping the best and brightest happy and productive) will do more to guarantee long-term success than any customer-focused advertising campaign.

The Indy Chamber Leadership Exchange packs a lot of content into less than 72 hours. I could go on and on about the ideas we heard in Minneapolis that could impact Indianapolis as well as our individual ventures.  But I’ll simply offer a closing thought that captures the value of LEX to me:  If people and organizations stop learning, we start falling behind…and there’s always something to be gained with a different perspective, whether it takes flying a few hundred miles north or just running an idea by the co-worker in the next office.