As a Lafayette Parish designee on the Acadiana Regional Alliance, I’m a big believer in regionalism and have spent countless volunteer hours in recent years trying to help pull the ARA together. It’s a core group of Acadiana parishes uniting in pursuit of common goals that can lift the region to greater things. We’ve learned a lot in the process, which is part of the reason I have more than doubts about what another alliance — the much ballyhooed 10/12 Corridor Coalition — can really offer our region.

The 10/12 coalition was conceived by The Baton Rouge Area Foundation and was initially defined as the communities that touch interstates 10 and 12 — except for New Orleans. It’s the fastest growing corridor in the state, and BRAF saw an opportunity to define it as a lateral region with some economic development appeal. BRAF raised substantial dollars to support market research and the development of an advertising strategy. Then it began soliciting partners along the corridor. 

Above all, successful alliances are built on trust and, deserved or not, that’s the first challenge for any initiative that comes out of Baton Rouge. Here in Acadiana, one civic leader is often quoted as saying:  “If you like a 90/10 split with them getting the 90, then you’ll love doing business with Baton Rouge.” In New Orleans, the sentiment runs even deeper, especially since Hurricane Katrina. Critics charge that Baton Rouge pulled together a full court press to seize the title as Louisiana’s largest city while New Orleans was down on its knees; they see the formation of the 10/12 coalition as the most recent manifestation of what is widely-perceived as a power grab. Unfortunately, from the outset the coalition’s leaders made a strategic decision to exclude New Orleans from the group. “When people think of Louisiana they only think of New Orleans, and when people think of New Orleans they think of people on rooftops calling out for help,” reported researcher Haley Rushing in a briefing to regional business leaders at The Shaw Center in the fall of 2007. Rushing is an executive with the respected Austin-based marketing firm GSD&M Idea City, which was hired by BRAF to develop the 10/12 corridor marketing plan. Coalition leaders wanted a fresh face for Louisiana’s fastest-growing region and didn’t want to be saddled with New Orleans’ post-Katrina image. They have since back-pedaled and are attempting to make amends.

For Lafayette and the ARA, it was a similar scenario but much different strategy. The Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, keenly aware that more rural parishes would be suspicious of Lafayette’s motives, launched the concept with a well-attended regionalism summit in December 2007 and actively recruited members from seven other parishes: St. Landry, St. Martin, Iberia, Vermilion, Acadia, Jeff Davis and St. Mary. The group, with strong urging from Lafayette, adopted goals that specifically benefit the more rural parishes, even nominating Frank Fink from St. Mary Parish as the first coordinator for the alliance. Suspicion still surfaces, but Lafayette has placed a high priority on earning the regional partners’ trust.

I’m not much for conspiracy theories, though, so let’s put those aside. In fact, I’m a huge fan of Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden and greatly admire the work of BRAF. When it comes to the 10/12 Corridor Coalition, the bigger issue for me is the quality and credibility of the marketing message GSD&M has developed.

I’m still puzzled as to why the coalition leadership felt compelled to go out-of-state to spend the half-million-dollar budget for campaign concept development. Sure, GSD&M has a great reputation — it’s the firm that made Southwest Airlines so cool — but there is first-rate creative talent right here in Louisiana. The 10/12 coalition came out of the box with an affront to every ad agency in the state. And although the concept ads are very clever, frankly I was disappointed with the brand GSD&M submitted: The Creative Corridor. You’ll find Creative Corridors marketed in Detroit, Syracuse, The Minnesota Valley and Dublin, Ireland. And that’s just on the first two pages that come up on a Google search. It’s anything but a unique brand. As one reader commented recently on mediabistro.com: “How creative can the Louisiana Creative Corridor be if the kickoff to their campaign is the announcement that they are using the same name, concept and position that someone else is already using?”

But this is my biggest concern: The essence of what they’re marketing is Richard Florida’s “Cool Town” message, and that exists in only one place along the corridor — here in Lafayette (and by extension Acadiana). Sure, there are other communities along the corridor that can offer some of the qualities GSD&M’s campaign is selling — strong family and community ties, a casual lifestyle, a temperate climate that nurtures a Sportsman’s Paradise, fabulous food, incredible indigenous musical traditions, an interesting and unique culture, and the infrastructure to support creatives — but where else but here do you find the whole package? You don’t.

So, let’s just say I’m a specialist for a company that is looking to relocate somewhere in the South and I see the ads for Louisiana’s Creative Corridor. I do the basic research; it looks like a good fit. What a great life these people have! It must be the best kept secret on the planet. I hop on a plane and end up in Baton Rouge….and go no further, except back to my home office, wondering what the heck happened.

Don’t get me wrong: I mean no disrespect to Baton Rouge. It has its own special qualities that make it the ideal place for lots of folks, so here’s the point: Acadiana’s brand is truly unique. You can try to stretch it across the 10/12 corridor, but it’s not authentic, and if Richard Florida taught us anything, it’s that a community has to be the real deal. The kind of people we want to bring to Louisiana with this advertising campaign won’t be fooled. There’s a genuine risk for us if people are lured to other locations across the corridor expecting an experience that doesn’t exist there.

That said, I respect what the coalition leaders are trying to do. They are serious about raising meaningful dollars to market their region of the state, and I’d like to see that happen. Just don’t steal our brand.

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