Sunday, April 03, 2011

Birmingham will polish image with New York help

Birmingham's primary business group is turning to a New York firm as part of a campaign to polish the image of Alabama's largest metro area.

The Birmingham Business Alliance says representatives of Development Counsellors International will arrive in Birmingham on May 1 to meet with city business and political leaders as the firm drafts a strategy to improve perceptions of the metro area.

"DCI is the only firm in existence that specializes in economic development for cities and regions," said Brian Hilson, the BBA's new chief. "They have a proven track record and work with over 50 clients, from communities like ours to cities, states and even foreign countries."

Hilson, who took over at the BBA in mid-March, said he has already been talking about the plan with Birmingham Mayor William Bell, and will bring others on board to help DCI in its marketing efforts.

Hilson is very familiar with the firm, having worked closely with DCI during his 20 years with the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce.

He credits the firm with helping metro Huntsville generate considerable positive national exposure over the past decade. Last year, CNNMoney named Huntsville among the nation's top 10 places to retire and one of the most affordable cities. In November, the Milken Institute singled it out as one of the nation's top three performing cities.

"In Huntsville 10 years ago when we talked to companies about coming to the city, they knew little about us," Hilson said.

That changed after Huntsville's charm offensive, he said.

"We had businesses contact us saying 'I read great things about your city.' We want to do the same thing in Birmingham," Hilson said.

l Hilson said DCI's efforts will not replace traditional ways of marketing metro Birmingham and of recruiting industry, and he added that the BBA will continue to work closely with area public relations firms on initiatives. He said he sees DCI's involvement as a way to complement existing promotional efforts.

"Purchasing ad space in a magazine is the least effective way to market your city," Hilson said. "When businesses read positive stories about the Birmingham area, how we are a community that is growing and businesses doing well here, it will give us the recognition we need to recruit new industry."

Hilson said he and BBA senior spokesman Dave Rickey spoke with DCI officials about coming to Birmingham last week while visiting the firm's offices in New York City. Hilson was there with economic developers at a summit hosted by DCI about marketing methods.

Image development

"Image development is an important part of our strategy," Hilson said. "It also has a residual effect locally. When you have positive stories about businesses in Birmingham, it builds pride in the community. When I was looking at coming here, I called DCI and asked if I came to Birmingham, would they consider helping us like they did in Huntsville. I was glad they said yes."

Andy Levine, chief executive of DCI, said he is looking forward to working with metro Birmingham business leaders.

"In recent years, we've done a great deal of work with Alabama, and we're excited about exploring a relationship with the BBA," he said in a statement to The Birmingham News.

Bob Robicheaux, a marketing expert and professor at UAB's School of Business, said he believes it is a smart move for the business organization to partner with a firm that focuses on creating greater awareness and helping to shape a better image for regions such as Birmingham.

"Most people think that marketing is primarily about selling stuff to people," Robicheaux said. "In fact, it is all about determining what people want or need and working hard to produce and distribute the right stuff to the right people."

For cities and metros, that often involves image-building, and Robicheaux said communities such as Huntsville and others in Alabama are well aware "that not everyone knows very much about us and in many cases has opinions or knowledge about our communities that are not accurate."

"Before communities can get potential customers, corporate or personal, to consider making economic investments or planning vacation travel to Alabama communities, we need to ensure that the target customers understand what our communities are like and what advantages they offer over the competition," Robicheaux said. "It is the job of DCI to help create that understanding for places like Huntsville."

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