A few years ago North Dakota erected some clever signs at its border with Montana. One sign advised anyone headed west to remember what happened to a certain long haired cavalry commander who left North Dakota in 1876 and ended up in a sorry state on the banks of the Little Big Horn in Montana.
With all due respect to North Dakota, given a choice, does Montana sound like a lot more interesting place – to visit, to live, to work?
George Custer didn’t live to contemplate what I think of, and many others think of, as the allure of Montana. It has always fascinated me that the land of the Big Sky has a certain “brand” that states like Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado – not to mention North Dakota – never seem able to match. Maybe its because Montana has been building the brand since that fateful day in June of 1876 when the tourist from North Dakota misjudged his welcoming committee.
I got to thinking about what the Montana “brand” means to the economics and, perhaps more importantly, the image of the state while reflecting on two recent pieces of information.
The first was a program at Boise’s City Club a while back that focused on the “creative economy,” often identified as the critical mass in an area of artists, cultural non-profits and cutting edge businesses. Amoung the laments before the City Club was that 30-to 45-year olds are in danger of – or actually are – picking up and leaving Idaho, while an emphasis on developing home-grown entrepreneurs is waning.
When I first came to Idaho nearly 35 years ago, the Boise economy was largely defined by three amazing, home grown success stories. Harry Morrison had started his construction company – Morrison-Knudsen – in Idaho and shaped t into a world-wide powerhouse that pushed the dirt and poured the concrete to construct Hoover Dam and built a good deal of the American military infrastructure in South Vietnam, among many other big projects. In much the same time frame, Boise Cascade went from a small regional timber products concern to a major national player in the wood and paper industry. Joe Albertson pioneered the modern super market from the ground up with his first store in Boise’s North End and went on to build a national brand.
All three of those home-grown companies are still around, but in much different form than just a few years ago and none has the power or influence in the local economy that the old M-K, the old Boise Cascade and the old Albertsons had. The transformation of those three companies makes one wonder where the next great home-grown business will come from? I wonder particularly were the next great business will come from if we’re failing short, as many smart folks think we are, in encouraging a “creative economy.”
I know a handful of smart and aggressive young Idaho entrepreneur’s in the high tech world Idaho, but many of them will tell you they fear Idaho may not be the place where a new Micron, the last really big home-grown business, gets its start. The outlook is cloudy for a number of reasons.
Idaho has whacked its support for education at every level over the last two years. College is costing more and more and we don’t seem to be producing the workforce we need for a 21st Century economy. Idaho high school dropout rates and the number of young kids headed to post-secondary education is abysmal. As the Idaho Statesman reported yesterday the dropout numbers may be even more dismal – by double – than previously thought.
Bob Lokken, who built a successful high tech business in Boise and sold it to Microsoft, asked at that recent City Club event, “What if we took all the money we spend on K through 12 and create an information-age school system, not one that continues to make a labor pool for an industrial-age economy?” Good idea, but Idaho hasn’t even had a serious debate about what kind of education system we want – or need – for more than a decade. Building a 21st Century creative economy without a genuine strategy – a strategy that really engages the education establishment, business and those young entrepreneurs – is a bound to be about as successful as Custer’s trip into Montana. So, Idaho’s creative economy seems, at best, stuck in neutral.
Which brings me back to the Big Sky state and the second data point. The data came to me in the form of a special four page advertising section on – you got it – Montana that appeared recently in The New Yorker magazine. Before you dismiss an advertisement about Montana in the elitist New Yorker as self-serving fluff, consider the Montana message.
The Montana advertisement – really more an essay than an ad – was all about the creative economy. The piece quotes 20-year Montana resident Walter Kirn – he wrote the novel that became the hit movie Up in the Air – and Alex Smith, a film director, who will be making a film this summer based on a novel by Jim Welch – another Montanan – about life on an Indian reservation.
Montana officials say the piece was aimed primarily at encouraging tourism, but I think it works on a deeper level. It says, in effect: Montana values creativity, smart people like it here and we welcome such things.
The ad, or whatever it is, continues: “Montana captivates the imagination of remarkably imaginative people – writers, yes, but actors, directors, musicians, painters, sculptors – not because of what’s so obviously here or not here. Rather, creative people keep finding themselves amid unplanned moments of clarity that resound through their lives.”
That, my friends, is the language of brand building; not to mention the language of a creative economy of the 21st Century.
The Montana New Yorker piece ends with “few states have their own literature; Montana’s runs broad and deep, reaching far beyond familiar titles like the Big Sky, The Horse Whisperer and A River Runs Through It and into the lives of its people.”
Any ad guy, particularly one with a well-considered point of view, sort of like Don Draper in Mad Men, will tell you that a brand can’t last if its built on spin. It must be authentic and it must be true. Montana, I think, has an authentic brand.
Like Idaho and most other states, Montana also has big troubles with budgets, schools are hurting. What might be different, and it might explain why Montana is perceived differently – why the brand works – is that deep down in the land of the Big Sky they get the fact that captivating the imagination of deeply creative people is the economic road map into the 21st Century.