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March 24, 2008

Making the brand | Efforts to market Biddeford and Saco run into local resistance

Wiscasset is Maine's prettiest village, you can get useless in Eustis and it's all happening in Lewiston-Auburn.

When it comes to local slogans, Biddeford and Saco want to get into the game.
The twin cities need a new image, the local chamber of commerce has decided. A volunteer committee at the Biddeford-Saco Chamber of Commerce & Industry for the past year has been planning a $180,000 branding campaign, with hopes of recasting the two cities as a vibrant business hub rivaling Portland and Portsmouth, N.H.

At least a few locals, however, worry a new brand would deny the city's strong working-class heritage.

The twin cities say they're in the midst of an economic uptick, with developers pouring money into old textile mills downtown. But they also have reputations as industrial towns in decline. That perception, according to some, can scare away businesses, tourists and families looking for new digs.

Like Biddeford and Saco, Maine's industrial cities have been forced to reinvent themselves as factories move overseas. Local squabbles in Biddeford and Saco raise larger questions: What, exactly, will the cities' new identities be? And how can municipalities get everyone ˆ— from the worker in the blanket factory to the banker ˆ— to agree on it?

In Biddeford and Saco, the chamber committee is forging ahead, now trying to gather community support and donations from local businesses. Financial supporters include the Saco City Council, Southern Maine Medical Center and Saco & Biddeford Savings Institution, according to Bernard Featherman, the chamber's president and CEO.

Local concerns swelled at a Feb. 19 Biddeford City Council meeting, when Bob Martin, a paid consultant for the committee, made a presentation on the benefits of branding. Martin, the chief operating officer at Mattson Development, an investor in the Saco Island mill renovation, has made at least four of these presentations in the area.

At that night's meeting, a few weren't keen on Martin's points, saying Biddeford's reputation as a blue-collar community is "perfectly fine," according to the Biddeford Journal Tribune.

Speaking later from his home in Biddeford, City Council President George Lamontagne said the presentation ignored blue-collar workers' role in the local economy. He worries a marketing campaign would do the same. "Biddeford is completely about labor," says Lamontange, who's worked for Biddeford's WestPoint Home blanket factory for 36 years. "He did not once mention those fine people [in the working class]."

Martin, for one, is convinced Biddeford and Saco need to move forward. "Neither town will ever again be filled with those mills. They're going to other uses," he says. "This is a cultural change."

The power of positive thinking
The cities of Lewiston and Auburn launched a combined marketing campaign five years ago, also hoping to shed a downtrodden image. The slogan, "L-A: It's happening here!" was deliberately broad so every industry ˆ— from manufacturing to health care to the arts ˆ— would feel included in the city's new direction, says Paul Badeau, marketing director for the Lewiston Auburn Economic Growth Council, which managed the campaign.

In all, the campaign cost about $116,000 to research and implement, a figure that includes in-kind donations from printing companies, for example, and newspapers that donated ad space, he says.

While it's hard to pin down the campaign's impact, its "can-do" spirit may have inspired community members, says Badeau. Public officials, he notes, will often say the phrase, "It's happening here!" at a ribbon-cutting or ground-breaking, for example, and companies have used the logo on promotional material.

Positive thinking didn't hurt the economy anyway: The city's gross domestic product from 2001 to 2005 grew 10.7% to $2.9 billion, a faster growth rate than in the Bangor and Portland metropolitan areas, according to a study released last year by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. (For more on this, see "The L-A effect," Nov. 12, 2007).

In Biddeford and Saco, those behind the branding campaign hope to have a positive similar effect. By this summer, Featherman says, the chamber committee wants to hold focus groups ˆ— one in Portsmouth, one in Portland, and one in Biddeford or Saco ˆ— to hear how people in each city perceive Biddeford and Saco. Then it plans to hire an agency to design a campaign, with hopes to begin advertising the two cities by fall or early winter.

The agency will have its work cut out. It's hard to sum up all of Biddeford and Saco, acknowledges David Flood, a Biddeford city council member and former owner of Mainely Newspapers LLC in Biddeford. There's the beach, wooded areas, the downtowns and the University of New England, among other elements to consider. "It's very tricky," Flood says.

Nancy Artz, a marketing professor at the University of Southern Maine School of Business, agrees, noting that the cities will have to choose their image wisely to appeal to multiple markets. "It's not like you're Procter & Gamble and you have 12 brands of laundry detergent that can target different niches," she says.

Then there's MERC. The Maine Energy Recovery Co. incinerator has been a smelly blight in downtown Biddeford for years. Artz asks if tourists lured to Biddeford-Saco will feel misled. She cites what she calls a basic rule of marketing: "You don't want to make it seem like something other than what it is."

Martin, the consultant, says while the brand would have an overall theme, it also would tailor specific messages to tourists or home-buyers, for example. As for the incinerator, he says the campaign will work around it. "We don't focus on MERC," Martin says. "With any brand, you can find drawbacks or negativities and we're not approaching it from a cynical standpoint."

Biddeford resident Scott Cochrane has been following reports on the branding campaign in local papers. Cochrane, who runs a commercial and residential painting business, says the effort is worth a try. "I mean, we've got a lot of stuff going on. It's not just about MERC," he says. A brand, he says, could help Biddeford and Saco stand out. "Everybody's doing it, and I guess you have to spend a little bit of money."

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