By Jonathan P. LaBonté
Mayor of Auburn
Marketing. Branding. Logos. Taglines. So much time, energy and money is often spent trying to advance the latest approach to selling a community, and Auburn has often found itself involved in those efforts either on our own or funded in conjunction with the City of Lewiston.
In my time as mayor, and in other work I’ve been a part of, rarely have I heard that a logo or a tagline or marketing material made the difference exclusively for someone to visit, to invest or to follow up. In most cases, it was a personal contact or relationship or conversation that opened that door or led someone through it.
I’ve seen that potential to leave an impact play out on several occasions in the last few years. In one case, a buyer for an out-of-state company was staying locally, as they planned a visit to a regional manufacturer. A comment was made to a local restaurant employee about what a great resource the river was, right in the heart of the downtown.
Unfortunately, the employee wasn’t aware of the bass fishing or the riverwalk trails or the paddling along the canals; instead, the employee commented that the river was too polluted to use because of mills upstream.
Without all the facts, what could have been a positive interaction that sold our community and supported the manufacturer that employees local people ended up being the lead conversation between that buyer and manufacturer about the impact to the community.
No logo. No website. No tagline could have changed that conversation. But engaging and training frontline employees could have.
Fast forward to this past weekend. A random conversation with a gentleman at Gritty’s, who asks what’s happening in this town, yields a conversation that uncovers he is visiting from Detroit—he’s here to support a local manufacturer as it plans a major new equipment purchase and installation. He learns the region is home to a host of small to large manufacturers that could be ripe for further business development, as this was his first client in Maine.
As he described life back in Detroit, and how he had finished up a round of golf at the Detroit Golf Club before catching his direct flight to Portland, I asked about the era of the course’s construction, given the massive growth Detroit experienced in the early 1900s. He quickly proclaimed it was a course with an Albert Kahn-designed clubhouse. Name sound familiar?
I quickly encouraged him to look out the window at the famed Bates Mill No. 5 and its saw-toothed roof, then described its place in local economic growth and how it helped accelerated a new construction technique. And, of course, I added that it was designed by Albert Kahn. He was ecstatic. Other than some of the earliest pitches to save Mill No. 5 by Gabrielle Russell of Platz Associates, I had never seen such a reaction to the building and Albert Kahn’s role.
A brief conversation yielded not only some additional business contacts, but also a cultural connection and potential other links to Kahn’s work and its proposed preservation and revitalization.
Do we expect every citizen of our community and every employee of hospitality businesses to be equipped to sell our city, our business mix or its quality of life attributes? Of course not.
But I’ve seen firsthand residents and employees engaging with visitors, telling the story and making connections, to know that it can do so much more than any glossy brochure can.
We once deputized “Ambassadors” that would receive special training and get regular updates on activities with the request that they accept the role of passing along the story. All it costs is the staff coordination for recruitment and maybe a “thank you” celebration once a year.
Let’s save the slick, six-figure sales pitches and instead realize that our best sales people are each one of us.