County looks to improve perceptions with new marketing initiative

Both County Executive Matt Ossenfort and Montgomery County Business Development Center CEO Ken Rose believe the county has an image problem that is hampering its economic growth, and they’re ready to implement a comprehensive marketing plan to fix that. Guiding their initiative is a branding study recently completed for the county by Nashville, TN based North Star Destination Strategies.

The study surveyed county residents, county leaders, as well as residents from outside the county on a number of questions about the strengths, weaknesses and overall perceptions of the Montgomery County region. One question the study asked of county residents was, “On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being ‘not at all likely’ and 10 being ‘extremely likely,’ how likely would you be to recommend conducting business in Montgomery County to a friend or colleague?”

Respondents who chose anywhere from 1 to 6 were grouped together as “detractors”, 7 to 8 as “passives,” and 9 to 10 as “promoters.” What the survey revealed was that the percentage of “detractors” was far higher than the national average, and the number of “promoters” was far lower.

In regards to the percentage of “promoters” within the county, Ossenfort said, “When you compare those statistics to the national average, it was significantly below, so it’s clearly identified as an issue.”

“What was glaring to us was the perception that people within the county have is worse than the ones outside the county looking in,” said Rose.

The final report does not differentiate between different municipalities within the county, however Rose said, “When North Star was out there, they really saw the negativity within the City of Amsterdam compared to when they interviewed individuals that were not from the city of Amsterdam.”

According to the study, residents, community leaders, and residents outside the county mostly perceived the various towns and villages as being rural or farming areas. However, the City of Amsterdam was known for crime and poverty, even though statistically, Amsterdam fares better than surrounding cities in those areas.

Rose pointed out the negative image of the city was shared by both residents and community leaders alike.

“That’s from our leaders,” said Rose. “That does concern us.”

Later, Rose said, “If you don’t believe in yourself as a community and the great things that are happening here, and the potential that is here, how are you ever going to get that message across to someone who is looking to potentially invest in your area? It’s so important.”

According to the study, one of the biggest factors in the perceptions of the county held by those in surrounding areas was lack of familiarity. The majority of respondents from areas such as Albany, Syracuse, and Utica/Rome said they had “no familiarity” or were only “somewhat familiar” with Montgomery County. However, once respondents who had “no familiarity” with the county were shown a map of the region, those respondents then said they were “somewhat familiar.”

Ossenfort and Rose both said that the study has shown them the aspects of the county’s image that they need to focus on building up. Ossenfort said that he plans on utilizing the county’s $30,000 marketing budget this year to help improve county resident’s perceptions of their own region.

“So the executive office and the legislature, we’re going to really focus on that community pride piece and boosting the area from that perspective,” said Ossenfort.

In addition to designing a new logo for the county, North Star provided a condensed marketing message that summarizes the positives of the area:

For people of strength (strong will, strong convictions, strong work ethic, strong character), Montgomery County, New York, nestled in the natural beauty and abundant resources of the Mohawk Valley, is a place where a history of determination and hard work welcome the future with a firm handshake, providing you, your family and your business a home you can count on.

According to Andrew Santillo, Communication Specialist for Montgomery County, all the county’s marketing materials, including the web site, social media presence, brochures, and press releases, will be overhauled to reflect the new branding vision.

“The logo emanates from the research,” said Santillo. “Among the people [North Star] talked to…strength was something that really came through, all the people that they interviewed.”

Even though the study showed differences in the perception between the city and the rest of the county, Ossenfort believes the new marketing plan can work for the entire county.

“Whether it’s the history of the mills or the history of the canal in the western part, there are some commonalities here,” said Ossenfort. “And the river seems to be the main one. But at the same time this idea of strength and blue-collar grit – that’s the same whether you are in St. Johnsville or City of Amsterdam. We feel it can fit to the entire county, no doubt about it.”

Ossenfort says he hopes to get the entire community, especially local artists, writers, county employees, and hospitality workers on board with the new vision.

“If you want to settle down and raise a family here, this is a wonderful place to do it. But that message isn’t always getting out there. There’s a lot of those stories that I think we can do a better job of getting out. And that’s what we’re really trying to do at a county level, both east and west, and really work hard toward that over the next few years.”

For his part, Rose said he will be concentrating on the county’s perception in the wider Capital District area. Rose said he will be committing $40,000 of MCBC’s funds for marketing the new vision to businesses outside the county. Rose says he will be contracting a Syracuse based marketing company to help with the effort.

“We just didn’t do this branding study to let it sit there on the shelf,” said Rose. “We’re putting financial resources behind it to implement it.”

Rose said he would especially like to see more positive coverage of Montgomery County in the Albany Times Union and Capital District Business Review.

“We always get overlooked in the Capital District,” said Rose. “The only time they ever report on us, let’s face it, is the negative stuff.”

Rose said the study showed that both Montgomery County and the City of Amsterdam were missing the mark as far as positioning themselves as a “bedroom community” for the Capital District.

“The Albany responders, not one said they consider Montgomery County or the City of Amsterdam a bedroom community of the Capital District,” said Rose.

“We want to drill deeper into why that is, with the Albany respondents,” Rose continued. “Is it that we aren’t promoting ourselves well enough down there? Or are there real issues that are perceived? Is it our schools [for example]? What are they perceiving as to why they don’t consider us a bedroom community?”

Rose added that one of the most valuable pieces delivered by North Star was a list of prospective businesses who were most likely to be attracted by what the county has to offer.

“There have been companies that have been interested in the county from the Capital District,” said Rose. “These are companies, some of them are family owned companies, they’ve been in the Capital District for decades, they’ve never been to Montgomery County. When they’ve come up here to look at a site, whether it’s an existing facility or land in our [industrial] parks, they were surprised by how close we actually were to them. There’s that misconception.”

“We really have to hammer that message home, “ said Rose, “that there’s a real untapped potential there with some of the Capital District businesses who are looking to expand or looking to relocate.”

“When we’re competing with a site down in the Capital District, our land costs are much cheaper. You’d be surprised what our land costs are for shovel-ready sites compared to what they’re going for down in the Capital District. So we’re highly competitive there,” said Rose.

Ossenfort said that the county’s marketing efforts are an important aspect in following the Fulton/Montgomery County Regional Business Plan.

“We’re just trying to stay focused on those goals. I think by having an executive and a legislature that is really focused on a county-wide perspective, that helps keep that plan in place over the long-term,” said Ossenfort.

Download the entire branding study from North Star here (.pdf)

Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of Anthem Websites Inc. which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.