It’s time to brand Maine

Posted Dec. 06, 2010, at 6:30 p.m.

Maine has lost about 40,000 jobs in the last two years. Maine’s businesses are not growing fast enough to make up these losses, much less add more net jobs. The same is true around the country with more than 20 million Americans under- or unemployed.

In the face of these challenges, Maine has an array of independent economic development agencies, all charged with improving the state’s economy. In 2006, the Maine Development Foundation estimated that Maine spends more than a quarter of a billion dollars per year on economic development. Year after year we spend hundreds of millions of dollars and yet we have not delivered a coherent brand or robust private sector employment.

We simply need a better organization and better tools to accomplish our economic growth goals. There are public and private sector models that can show us the way. It is remarkable that in these difficult economic times, Apple Inc. is setting revenue and profit records.

Apple has carefully constructed an extraordinary brand. From the feel of their stores to their online presence, the Apple experience is carefully managed. Apple’s brand is effective across a variety of customers and products. The company that is considering buying iMacs for its high-powered computer users has little in common with the preteen set who downloads the latest Justin Bieber MP3 from iTunes, but the brand experience is the same for both. The Apple brand is consistent, relentless across products, and incredibly disciplined.

Compare Apple’s development effort to Maine’s. According to the Department of Community and Economic Development, or DECD, website, “Economic and community development is defined as the process of enhancing labor, capital and technology to improve the economy and our global competitiveness.” To that end, the department has offices of Business Development, Community Development, Innovation, Film, Tourism and International Trade.

The Maine International Trade Center, headed by a DECD employee, gets funding from the state and some businesses. Amazingly, the Atlantic Canada Opportunity Agency, the province of New Brunswick, and the Consulate General of Canada in Boston all help fund Maine’s international trade effort.

The DECD’s website says, “The Maine Office of Tourism is the office within DECD serving as the state’s customer focused travel marketing organization whose core responsibility is presenting the activities and amenities of Maine to position the state as a world-class, four season tourist destination.” However, cruise ship attraction, a significant tourism driver, is done through the Maine Port Authority and an organization called Cruise Maine.

There are other organizations that also attempt to improve our economy. According to their website, “The Maine Technology Institute, or MTI, is an industry-led, publicly-funded, nonprofit corporation that offers early-stage capital and commercialization assistance in the form of competitive grants, loans and equity investment for the research, development and application of technologies that create new products, processes and services, generating high-quality jobs across Maine.” Since 1999, MTI has given more than $106 million to more than 600 companies in Maine.

According to its website the Small Enterprise Growth Fund is a professionally managed venture capital fund that invests exclusively in Maine companies that demonstrate a potential for high growth and public benefit. The fund has been actively investing in Maine companies since 1997. The fund has received $13 million in capital contributions from the state.

There are even more public organizations that have some role in economic development, tourism and job creation. The university system, the community college system, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Maine.gov, Maine Department of Agriculture, the Maine Potato Board, the Maine Department of Marine Resources, Small Business Development Centers, Finance Authority of Maine, and various work force training programs all have some role in promoting Maine or its products to various audiences.

This system might be defensible if it worked; but Maine’s current effort fails at creating sustainable opportunity. At the same time, other states have developed successful public-private partnerships that manage all aspects of branding and economic development.

Maine’s haphazard approach is simply not acceptable. Job creation is just too important to be left to an uncoordinated $250 million per year effort that lacks performance measures, a prioritization process, or a consistent brand. We need to develop a better organization with competitive incentives to drive job creation.

It is time to brand Maine the way Apple brands itself: consistent, relentless and disciplined.

Matt Jacobson is president and CEO of Maine & Company. He was a Republican candidate for governor.

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