The Commerce Corp. as RI’s Economic Development Geniuses


It’s important to remember that the Commerce Corp., aka CommerceRI, is nothing other than the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) with a new paint job.  That is, it’s the same quasi-public agency that brought us the 38 Studios fiasco.

It’s also important to remember that the quasi public is also pretty much the same thing as the state’s Executive Office of Commerce, which is fully a government agency.  And the state government is operating tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of economic development initiatives through CommerceRI, depending what one includes, which is out there picking companies on which to spend its slush fund in the name of economic development.  The Commerce Corp. is even the entity through which the state is taking out its bonds for the Dept. of Transportation’s RhodeWorks project, because it can call them “revenue bonds” and avoid a vote of the people of Rhode Island, which would otherwise be required by our constitution.

I bring this up today because the state government — that is to say the quasi-public Commerce Corp. — has just unveiled the first pieces of its $5 million marketing campaign, and all three components were a bust in one way or another.  The logo and slogan, which cost $550,000, were terrible, so bad, in fact, that there’s already a petition to get rid of them.

Next, the related promotional video had less subjective problems.  Whatever one thinks of the saccharine video-poem narrated by the clichéd gravelly-voiced man, the production appears to have been barely reviewed.  The logo at the end lacked the “Cooler & Warmer” slogan, as if somebody hadn’t bothered to get the latest version from the designer.  A scene in which the narrator proclaims that Rhode Islanders are “always moving forward, never turning back” is accompanied by video of parade marchers in Revolution Era clothing and muskets.  Phrases like “holds enough uniqueness” are of distractingly poor construction, and with its missing final word, the line about Rhode Islanders’ being “warm and hopeful to the last” reinforces the impression that the video was modeled after Maxwell House coffee commercials.

Most glaring, though, is that a prominent video clip toward the beginning of the commercial actually uses footage filmed in Iceland, not Rhode Island.  According to the Commerce Corp.’s Chief Marketing Officer, Betsy Wall, “explicit instructions were given to the local firm that helped with the editing to use only Rhode Island footage.”  Still, the Commerce Corp. rolled the video out without spotting the fact that its instructions had not been followed.  Wall, it’s worth recalling, is from Massachusetts, and was hired as the state’s lead marketer in December, for $135,000 per year.  Raimondo’s Commerce Secretary, by the way, has spent most of his career working in New Jersey and Connecticut.

The fact that the state is running its official marketing and economic development programs through a quasi-public agency guided by non-Rhode Islanders may also help explain the fact that the related marketing Web site has embarrassing errors, too, such as promotion of restaurants in Massachusetts and chefs who have either left the state or died.

If CommerceRI were a private company, it would be fair to limit reactions to wondering what went wrong and hoping it could recover.  But it’s not a private company.  It’s an agency that our government takes our money to fund and that makes decisions that define the very future of our home state.

A patient who meets his dentist for the first time and discovers that she has trouble getting coffee to her lips and holding a pen would do well to question how she’ll do with sharp implements.  Likewise, Rhode Islanders should take the Commerce Corp.’s marketing blunders as evidence that 38 Studios was not a one-off mistake by a particular set of employees and elected officials, but a warning sign that the entire approach of routing our community’s decisions through government is fatally flawed.