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Reputation Redesign Needed for San Diego

When it comes to the tech sector, San Diego has a branding problem.

To outsiders, the city is better known for tacos than it is for technology. To insiders, the city’s longstanding technology firms are considered old-fashioned, conservative, and slow-moving. Indeed, San Diego’s entire tech scene has earned a reputation for being stale.

Neither perception is particularly true, but the impressions persist. The issue has become known as San Diego’s “branding problem,” and it’s been a popular discussion among business leaders for the past year.

The overwhelming consensus in both corporate technology and the local startup community is that San Diego’s branding problem is inhibiting recruitment and stymieing investment. The favorite line among business folks is, “San Diego is bad at telling its story.”

All of the recent attention on the subject has inspired a wave of action from business leaders to improve the technology brand of San Diego, as evidenced by the recent three-day visit by internet pioneer Vint Cerf. The hope is that the city can build a reputation for innovation in technology that could rival San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, and Boulder.

Why It Matters

While San Diego certainly has conservative and sluggish companies, it also has a dynamic startup community (and corporate players that are increasingly active in nurturing its growth). The city is also home to a fast-growing concentration of software companies, an advanced genomics-technology hub, and an emerging video game industry. The region has a particular flair for medtech and cybersecurity. But recruiters have a hard time convincing talent of that.

Although public and private groups have worked hard to promote San Diego as a biomedical hub, less of an effort has been made for the tech sector. When recruiting Bay Area talent to San Diego, technology recruiter Jared Sanderson said his biggest challenge is convincing talent that San Diego’s tech community is vibrant and varied.

“They want to know there’s going to be multiple opportunities, and that they’ll have plenty of exciting technology companies to work for if they move around,” said Sanderson, director at Sayva Solutions.

Attracting and retaining talent is critical to developing the local tech scene.

“For far too long, the best and brightest local university graduates have led an exodus from San Diego every spring to other tech clusters, including Silicon Valley, Seattle, New York and Austin,” said Kevin Carroll, executive director at nonprofit Tech San Diego. “Talent is the number one barrier to growth for the region’s small and mid-size companies, which are at a disadvantage when it comes to sourcing university talent.”

And it’s not just emerging talent San Diego needs. It’s the more experienced folks who are truly in demand, said Sanderson and Aliza Carpio, the head of brand and culture at software giant Intuit.

“The biggest need in the tech industry, whether biotech or software, is the midcareer person,” Carpio said.

Campaign Time

So far this year, numerous new efforts are being launched by business organizations to improve San Diego’s technology brand. Many have already heard of the splashy campaign led by San Diego Venture Group, which plastered its tagline “San Diego is better” on billboards in Silicon Valley. The campaign was an unprecedented effort to recruit tech talent from Silicon Valley to San Diego, with hopes of legitimizing San Diego’s technology brand and adding some fuel to the startup fire.

“San Diego has to become a more recognized technology brand,” said Mike Krenn, the Venture Group’s president. “We need to make an impression in Silicon Valley. We have to be up there consistently with powerful messages.”

Another tech-focused nonprofit, Tech San Diego (led by Carroll), has just created a new position called “university talent director” to manage a new initiative to engage students in San Diego’s tech scene. The hope is to help students get involved in the tech and startup scene early on, so that post-graduation they stick around.

San Diego Brand Alliance

Perhaps the biggest effort yet is still in the works. The initiative is called the San Diego Brand Alliance, and its members include some of the biggest tech firms in the city. It’s still underground at this point, but the effort has over 90 technology and life science companies on board. The idea is to get tech companies in San Diego to unite behind one message to better market the city’s technology brand.

After extensive research, surveys, and focus groups, the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., which is heading up the project, determined which message was most accurate and compelling to incoming talent. They found that people want to work for companies that are making an impact, or changing the world. The Brand Alliance website poses the question, “Do you want to optimize ads for mobile view or do you want to change the world?”

The marketing message is ideal for San Diego, as it’s a city best known for developing medicines, medical technology, environmental technology, and breakthroughs in genomics, all things that have tremendous impact.

That’s one reason local entrepreneur Andy Taylor moved to San Diego from Silicon Valley to run his startup, Approved.

“Companies in San Diego are working on real problems, not mere annoyances,” Taylor said. “Because money is more fluid in the Bay Area, it tends to flow into things that aren’t necessarily good ideas. They’re annoyances that might have a return, but they’re not real problems.”

Taylor said some good examples are fellow startups at local tech incubator EvoNexus.

“We’ve got a mortgage technology company, a company working to improve clinical trials, and one that’s improving grid management,” Taylor said. “These are real problems and it feels good to be a part of that.”

Life. Changing.

Sarah Lubeck, head of communications at the EDC, said the Brand Alliance is playing up the impact angle. The group’s tagline is “San Diego: Life. Changing.”

“Essentially, we’re building a brand to help companies attract talent from the ground up,” Lubeck said in an email. “We went through a full-scale market research and brand development (study) to ensure this was something that jived with most companies.”

The effort will include an online toolkit that will have pitch decks, b-rolls, and general facts for local companies. The Brand Alliance will also include general websites about working, living and playing in San Diego.

Lubeck said eventually the Brand Alliance, and the “Life. Changing.” campaign, will be used to attract external talent to San Diego. The campaign is expected to launch this fall.

The Brand Alliance is a pretty informal group, Lubeck said, with a “coalition of the willing” meeting up quarterly. The alliance members are largely not EDC members.

“As you can imagine, a campaign of this scale is not cheap, and we’re actively soliciting sponsorships to offset the cost,” Lubeck said. “However, we know that this won’t work if its pay-for-play. We need startups just as much as we need large companies.”

The committee is being chaired by Michelle Sterling, the executive vice president of HR at Qualcomm.

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