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Region leaders briefed on ‘757’ branding

No matter what was chosen to be a regional brand, most people would have been disappointed, the president and chief executive officer of the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance told the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission Thursday.

Doug Smith, the HREDA president, said that the recommendation to rebrand the region “757,” came out of the Envision 2020 Regional Branding Initiative. The rebranding was first presented by the Hampton Roads Chamber and the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce in December. Southeastern Institute of Research conducted the branding assessment.

The study noted that residents of the region most preferred Hampton Roads as a regional name, while business leaders preferred Coastal Virginia. There was little support for a geographic anchor name such as Norfolk-Virginia Beach.

The further up the James River, the less support there was for the Coastal Virginia name, and no support for a geographic anchor name. The study noted that the informal name resonating with people is “757,” the support for it consistent across all segments and geographic areas.

Smith noted that “757” soon will not be the only area code for the region, as the new “948” area code has been designated to relieve the future exhaustion of phone numbers in the area. However, Smith noted “757” is already in use as a regional identifier, especially by young people.

“I”m going to get you past the area code. Don’t worry about the area code,” Smith said. He said 757 is a way people connect to the region emotionally. “It has already transformed from an area code,” he said.

The Envision 2020 study noted that the Hampton Roads region has a marketing issue, not a naming issue, and that the region is not united.

Smith noted some of the comments from the study that pointed to the lack of unity as a region.

“We should act like the big metro area we are,” Smith read from one of the comments. “Instead, we act like one medium-sized market and six small markets all fighting each other.”

Smith noted the study’s recommendations to position the region to easily connect to each other, the coastal environment, the country and the world, and use the region’s leading place assets and experiences to highlight the region’s story.

He said the narrative that the region’s localities don’t collaborate with one other is outdated, citing several regional projects encompassing transportation and broadband.

The study called for “757” to be used as the region’s place name because it is the way many people and entities connect with the entire region.

“It has been used so much that it has transformed from an ‘area code reference’ to a brand place name,” the study stated.

In a study directed at “potential visitors” — those who have never been to the region or hadn’t lived here in 10 years — only a third of respondents were previously aware of the Hampton Roads region, and just 15 percent could locate it on a map. However, 93 percent of people surveyed had heard of at least one city or county in the region.

In that study, 29 percent of survey respondents were aware of Suffolk, finishing behind Virginia Beach, Williamsburg, Norfolk, Chesapeake and Newport News, but ahead of Hampton, Portsmouth and Smithfield.

The city of Suffolk is undergoing its own initiative to develop a brand for downtown as part of the Downtown Suffolk Master Plan, having held a pair of public meetings in November. Dianna Rogers, director of new business for BrandFirst Creative Agency, a branding and graphic design firm out of New Jersey that was selected to develop the brand, said it wanted to develop a “unique and true” identity for downtown.

Smith said “757” can be added easily to a business or organizational tagline. For instance, he said Coastal Virginia could become Coastal Virginia757.

“This is about the 18 to 34 (year old) crowd,” Smith said. “Candidly, it’s not about my (older) generation.”

He said that while more than 2,900 people took a survey as part of the study, more people from smaller communities took similar studies.

“I think that is symptomatic of one of the challenges that we have, which is a lot of apathy about us as a region,” Smith said.

Out of the 39 most populous regions in the country, the Hampton Roads region, in the last 10 years, was 35th in job growth, 36th for wage growth and 37th for gross domestic product — not numbers to be proud of, Smith said.

“Whether you’re looking for a certified welder, or a nurse, or a data scientist right now, we don’t have them,” Smith said. “We don’t have them here to fill the jobs that we’re trying to bring into this town. And that battle is only going to get harder.”

Smith said the region is a bit of a blank slate, and said many of those surveyed about the rebranding initiative were not fully aware of the assets in the region. He asked for localities to use the “757” moniker in their existing marketing efforts, and asked for the commission’s support for the initial six-month launch.

“If we don’t know who we are,” Smith asked, “how do we expect others to know who we are?”