What is The Essence of Hampton Roads?

Flag of Hampton RoadsMarketing within Hampton Roads is hard enough. But what if the task at hand is marketing Hampton Roads period? Or, to make things more complex, what if the task at hand is branding Hampton Roads? That’s the task that this year’s group of emerging community leaders in “LEAD Hampton Roads” has taken on as a class project. LEAD is a yearlong development program that is a part of the Hampton Roads Chamber, boasting more than 1,200 alumni in its ranks.

As an alum and a former board member, I’m pretty close to the LEAD mission. The group is very connected and passionate about building both a strong region and a strong leadership base for the region as it grows.

I was honored to sit on a panel with some esteemed friends and colleagues at a recent LEAD retreat to talk about the history and background of the market, the never-ending naming debate, and what it would look like to promote the “brand” of Hampton Roads. Each panel member brought a rich background of marketing inside, outside and aboutDelcino Miles, Mike Carosi, Joel RubinHampton Roads. I can tell you that in the hour-plus that we talked, we (see the sidebar for who “we” are) barely scratched the surface of what I feel is the real issue the group needs to grab hold of.

The group has to be clear about the objective of branding the region in the first place. There are two very-high-level targets and objectives: 1) those who live and work here, and 2) those we want to live and work here (for purposes of growing the region). If I were this year’s lead class, I would focus on point number 1 first.

I’ve written before of what a brand is and what it is not. It’s easy to get caught up in what it is not. A brand is not a name. It’s not a logo, or an image. It’s not a tagline or a spokesperson. It’s not the number of people that can recall the name. It’s not a product, it’s not a service. These are all elements of the brand. The brand is the embodiment of all of these elements (and more) and their ability to be linked together instantly and subconsciously in the mind of the consumer to conjure an impression. That brand impression is what creates a behavior, and marketing is all about creating behavior. More on that one in another post.

There is, already, a brand that is Hampton Roads. It defines where we live. It has attributes. It has features. It has strengths and weaknesses. It is compellingly different from other regions, cities, and areas of the country. For instance, the fact that our hometown is NOT identifiable with one specific major city (a la New Orleans or Charlotte or Cincinnati … all similarly sized markets) makes it unique. That lack of a central hub fosters geographic and lifestyle diversity different from any of those markets. There are brand impressions, created by the various symbols, cultures, geography, names, trades, communities and historical elements of the brand.

At the core of the brand: essence.

Brand essence. What does the brand stand for? How do the people who ARE the brand Project Achievability Testdefine it? What are the organic and emotional elements that make the brand unique and lasting? Why do people come here, live here, thrive here, STAY here? These are all impressions that exist and are deeply, justifiably rooted. When a marketer creates a brand strategy for an existing product, or in this case a region, he or she must define the core essence of the brand, starting with the legacy that already exists. From there you can imagineer a bold brand strategy that embodies new elements and begins to transition impressions over time.

Promoting the brand of Hampton Roads means both understanding the essence of what the brand is and creating a strategy for what we want it to be over time. That is a daunting task. There must be a lot of overlap. Consider the existing essence as a firmly planted pivot foot. If we know where it is planted, we can pivot 360 degrees, addressing all types of audiences and opportunities, without contradicting the true essence of the brand.

A brand core essence is very succinct, but it is not a tagline and it most likely will never appear in an ad. It guides both business development and marketing communication. It is simple, believable and defensible. Most importantly it is honest. All stakeholders need to understand it and believe in it.

What does a core essence look like for a market? Take a look at Las Vegas. I don’t know if the marketing team for the city has articulated a core essence, but to me it’s simple: “unbridled adult fun.” Vegas has always been about fun — the kind of fun you can’t have anywhere else. You can see why a slogan like “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” is so fitting. But that crazy experiment in the early 90’s to market it as a family destination? Clearly a pivot foot violation.

So my challenge to the class of 2016 is this: define the core essence of our region. Forget about the name. Forget about a tagline. Not important right now. Explore the work that Chris Bonney and the folks at Bonney & Company did in “Envision Hampton Roads” as a starting point. Help plant the pivot foot, and that alone will be a huge accomplishment. And call me if I can help.

Back to My Marketing Roots

Joe GenieMarketers go through a lot of stages and phases. Consumer Behavior changes. Technology changes. The economy, the competition, the demographics; they all impact the work we do, and what we focus on. But I’ve found, as I’ve added a new challenge to my marketing bucket list, that the fundamentals never change, and it’s important to get back to your marketing roots.

You see, along with my work with ad agency Seventh Point, I’ve added another business challenge–that of a local franchise owner. It’s one of the reasons this blog has seen a bit of a hiatus. In my search, I wanted to find a business that IS NOT technology driven, IS in-demand and will be for the foreseeable future. A stable business model that I can build through MARKETING. I’ve found that business and brought the first “Window Genie” franchise to Hampton Roads. You can learn more about the company by clicking on that link, but the focus here today is those fundamentals of consumer marketing that this whole initiative has reinvigorated in me. The five key pillars that are key to any business owner operating a small business in a competitive market place…which is 99.7% of all employer firms in the US, according to the SBA.

The same way a pro athlete practices the physical fundamentals of his or her sport on a daily basis, it’s important to stay grounded in these marketing fundamentals, evaluate your business and your plans against them and make course adjustments to stay on track.

My five key pillars of Business Marketing Success

Build a Memorable Brand5 Pillars

I love this oversimplified definition of brand: “The variance between your product and generic.” Everything that follows will contribute to your brand and what consumers perceive about you, but the important word here is memorable. In a hyper competitive world your brand look and feel needs to be something that sticks in the psyche of your target consumer. Working with (purchasing) a franchise operation can give you a huge leg up, and it was one of the key elements I searched for.

The brand look and feel has to differentiate your company, stimulate Top of Mind Awareness and inspire confidence in your company. It also has to be consistent in look and customer experience in order to build presence and over time.

Promote and Deliver Recognizable Value

Businesses can’t survive if everyone is the low-cost provider. Consumers don’t demand the lowest price, they demand the best value and perceived value is a huge variable from one consumer to the next. Marketing price, whether a retail product or a transactional service like cable TV or even window cleaning does not have to be the lowest price, but it does have to be competitively positioned and attractive enough to drive lead traffic.

Finding one key price point and driving it home can establish value, aid in recall, drive leads and protect your margins, all at the same time. Want a couple of examples? Watch for Stihl’s seasonal price point advertising. That same entry-grade blower is $149 every time. Looks like a sale, but it never is. Weber grills, same thing. Window World windows, home of the original $189 window. Price point advertising at an established value for a memorable brand does not have to put you in a race to the bottom.

Execute Persistent, Targeted Paid and Owned Promotion          

Diversity of promotion is the key here. Identify your target consumer, but now more than ever you have to reach them through as many channels as possible.

  • Be where they are in a communication form they are comfortable with. Social media and content marketing, the types of information you can own (and earn) present a level of authenticity and engagement that fosters referrals.
  • Targeted disruptive channels, digital, direct mail, print, outdoor, etc. build awareness and drive leads.
  • Build your online presence so that you are easily found and well positioned.
  • Event, guerilla and sponsorship marketing create association and personality in the environments where your customer lives.

Develop a balance in all of these areas, track and be persistent. Advertising shouldn’t be looked at as something that just drives short-term leads. It is the road map that builds long-term business.

Focus on Customer Loyalty

Inevitably, a start-up business has to spend a disproportionate amount of time dumping new customers and leads into the top of the bucket. But nurturing customers and relationships is something that has to be done from the onset. It is critical to building loyalty and no matter what your product or service is, your success will be built on your ability to create loyal customers.

Every employee must know his or her role in delivering high quality customer service.

That means strong training not only in the areas of product or service performance, but also in understanding the expectations of your customer. The employee’s ability to see his or her performance through the eyes of the customer is vital to truly satisfying or delighting customers. It’s the only way to create repeat business, and the best way to develop referral business.

Have a Plan and Stick To It

Every new business, even a franchise operation in a new market, needs a strong, well-developed business plan. Identify the market, know the competition, project sales, seasonality, profitability, Build the plan that drives leads and plan for the resources to deliver top quality service. Disciplined business and marketing plans are critical to success. It’s easy to start second guessing, but one key, vital attribute for successful businesses is this:

Successful businesses plan for success.

That takes courage. It takes vision. It takes discipline. It takes effort and late nights. Develop your plan and follow it. Go back to your original plan. How far off are you and how did you get there? Track and allow for course corrections, but make them quickly and deliberately.

So those are my big five. There are thousands of marketing books and even more marketing gurus who will provide variations. I believe you will find these key elements inherent in most of that thinking. If not, I would propose that something big is missing.

Try an evaluation test with your company or business. Run an audit against these five pillars as sort of a tune-up. You’ll find that returning to your marketing roots is a healthy exercise; one that should be repeated regularly for your personal marketing health, as well as your business.

The Crowded Higher Ed Marketplace

Zero to bachelor’s in 2.5. Bring a spark, light a fire. From here, go anywhere.Higher Education Marketing, Higher Education, Marketing, Hampton Roads

Those college taglines are comfortingly familiar to Hampton Roads residents. On any given day you’ll hear a radio ad with one, whiz by a billboard with another.

Which one are you most familiar with? If you answered #1, stay tuned.

With 5 traditional universities (including 2 historically black schools, Norfolk State and Hampton University), 2 colleges (including the second-oldest in the nation, William & Mary), the world-renowned Eastern Virginia Medical School, and a robust community college system, Hampton Roads is spoiled for choice when it comes to higher education.

But the competitive pressure continues to escalate from for-profit schools, most of which are based outside the region altogether. Perhaps the best-known locally is ECPI, which is HQ’d here in Virginia Beach—and who belongs to that ubiquitous tagline #1. (Recently replaced with “The best decision you ever made.”)

And that’s pretty telling. You know ECPI’s hook—but do you know ODU’s? Virginia Wesleyan’s? (It’s #2 above) NSU’s?

If you’re struggling, it’s not your fault. Chalk it up to market saturation.

When you add up ALL higher ed advertisers, including those outside the region, a staggering $25.4 million is spent on higher education advertising in Hampton Roads each year, with an additional $80.6 million spent on marketing and promotion. That’s to reach an audience of 718,820 TV households and 1.5 million adults in Hampton Roads. (Nielsen)

In 2014, regional schools spent close to $3 million on higher ed TV advertising in Hampton Roads (Kantar). More than half of that $3 million was ECPI. In other words, excluding ECPI, local schools purchased less than 15% of all higher ed TV advertising in Hampton Roads last year.

You see, it’s not just about competing for enrollment anymore. It’s competition for airtime, for screen time, for ears and eyeballs.

And in Hampton Roads, that’s some pretty fierce competition. In fact, if you add up the total number of colleges, universities, trade school and tech school locations within Hampton Roads the options total over 250!

So, higher ed marketers in Hampton Roads face big hurdles to break through the noise and capture the attention of prospective students.

Aside from having the deepest advertising pockets—how do you stand out in Hampton Roads’ crowded higher ed marketplace?

Higher education is a service-driven industry—just like health care, real estate or banking. Any lofty ideas about the Ivory Tower or historic campuses need to take a backseat to deciding what your school excels at, and how to sell it.

Maybe start with recognizing that the average local student looks very different from even 15 years ago.

Hampton Roads is home to one of the world’s largest populations of military personnel, many of whom earn GI Bill benefits. Those are adult students whose needs are very different from those of 18-22 year olds. Students, Hampton Roads, Higher Education, Marketing

Many of them are pursuing education while serving full-time, or they are retraining for a new career and want to complete their degrees as quickly as possible. They’re looking for shorter semesters. (Hence the appeal of “2.5,” brought to you by ECPI’s 6-week sessions).

Incentivize military and adult students. Spotlight any benefits unique to military. Explain how your school can help with any red tape. Bear redeployment in mind: is the coursework portable? What are you willing to do to retain students or help them transfer? And what about those shorter sessions—can your school compete?

Student veterans seek out degrees in business, criminal justice and intelligence studies. Promote these programs if your school offers them. If they don’t, start a conversation.

Norfolk State is leading a $25 million effort to educate a new cybersecurity workforce. That’s a massive opportunity to connect with military and veteran students and help them on the path to a future career with local defense contractors.

Beyond the military community, consider the growing adult student population. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2000 and 2011, enrollment of students aged 25+ rose 41%. From 2011 to 2021, NCES projects a further 14% increase.

Hampton Roads has over a half-million adults with “some college” education, and over 194,000 say they plan on going back to school in the next 12 months.

These students enroll for a variety of reasons—to join growing industries such as health care and technology, retrain for a new career after job loss or retirement, or to enhance their current career. Those goals don’t typically translate to a 4-year undergraduate degree. More students are seeking 2-year degrees and certifications, while many professional students want graduate certificates or master’s programs.

Find out what adult students want—and let them know you’ve got it. Don’t forget most of these students are working while in school, too. Regent University’s grad program just switched to two 8-week terms for spring 2015. That’s a good sign it’s listening to the needs of its MBA-seeking students, many of whom likely work full-time.

The smart higher ed marketer is also engaged with Hampton Roads’ top employers and tying those opportunities into their messaging.

Help prospective students envision themselves in a future career. Share real-life success stories (Regent University and ECPI have done this for years), or show that your school positions graduates to land the “hottest jobs” in “growing industries.”

According to Sonya Schweitzer, University Director of Marketing at ECPI University, “We’ve been using real graduates or students for our TV ads for quite a long time—testimonials.” She added, “Every effort is made to show graduates who represent different demographics, as well as making sure their stories are believable and represent the average student.”

Make the most of integrated multimedia marketing. Seventy percent of prospective students go to the college website first. But remember, the path to enrollment is long and winding and needs to include traditional media as well as integrated digital methods (online and social media marketing).

Schweitzer explained ECPI’s perspective: “Even though most people will have seen an ad or a billboard in this market, they will convert through our website, or search [marketing], at a much higher rate. We use social media to have a conversation with our prospects, as well as our current students and grads. It is a very strong selling tool for prospects who are researching who we are. They can hear it from people other than ourselves—unfiltered. That is powerful.”

Meet these prospects where they are, through targeted marketing such as programmatic buying, and through artful social media marketing. Aim for a conversation, a relationship—not just a one-size-fits-some banner ad campaign.


So, ready to graduate with honors from the Hampton Roads school of higher ed marketing? Look over your campaigns and make sure you’re not overlooking any of these opportunities. If you are, take some time to regroup, reimagine and revitalize. With any luck you can still enhance your efforts for fall 2015 recruitment.

And bear in mind that statewide, Virginia public college enrollment declined in 2014—for the first time in 20 years. Things just got a little more competitive.

If you have questions about anything in this article, feel free to post or contact me at jdelatte@seventhpoint.com