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Utah’s Tech Brand Needs “Dope Flow”

By Brad Plothow, Head of Communications, Womply.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 edition of Silicon Slopes Magazine.

My brother teaches middle school history in southeastern Idaho, where my dad has been a regional newspaper publisher for two decades. Recently, my dad spoke to my brother’s class on the topic of media literacy. Imagine trying to convince teenagers to think critically about the information they consume on Facebook and Instagram. Might as well be asking them to eat spinach.

Despite this uphill battle, something interesting happened during the presentation. The kids didn’t roll their eyes and tune out. They leaned in, listened, and engaged. Afterward, they wrote letters of appreciation. One of the students said my dad had “dope flow.”

Now, I may not be “hip and with it,” but I can understand what this student meant in context. For most teens, media literacy is probably about as relevant and interesting as monetary policy. On this day, however, my dad found a way to turn a captive audience into converts to his message. Years from now, those kids will remember what was communicated that day.

There’s a formula here. To get the dope flow reaction, you need to:

  1. Ahem! Capture an audience’s attention.
  2. Preach without being preachy.
  3. Use simplicity to make it memorable.

There’s also a lesson here for Utah’s burgeoning tech sector. Increasingly, we have our own captive audience as more and more people pay attention to national publicity about our fair state, but we have a limited window to use the spotlight to create lasting value. Brands abhore a vacuum — we can either fill that vacuum on our terms, or the public at large will do it for us.

Time’s ticking, folks. Our tech brand needs dope flow, stat.

Let’s start with where we are now, and then look at where we need to go. Currently, Utah has a unique asset in Silicon Slopes, which doubles as a moniker and a channel for sharing news within our tech community. This gives us a sense of community and a megaphone locally.

On the national stage, Utah generates publicity mainly on the basis of two strengths: our perpetually high ranking on various “best states for business” lists, and story, after story, after story, after story about why the state is fertile ground for producing high-value private tech companies.

These are important sources of relevance for Utah, and they’ve vaulted us into the national consciousness, at least temporarily. But, these are storylines — they are not our story. They’re means to an end, not the end itself. To establish staying power, Utah’s tech brand needs to be about more than our utter ownage of all the business rankings and the fact that our lovely Deseret is truly a land of unicorns. We need a rallying cry that doesn’t have a shelf life. We need a brand message that gets that dope flow reaction.

We can look at the evolution of any great brand as a model. In Utah, we have a few relevant ones. Over the years, I’ve been privileged to work on publicity and communications strategies for many of the state’s amazing tech companies, including Pluralsight, which is a great example of building a brand message with dope flow.

Pluralsight understands that its core relevance — now and in the future — comes from closing the tech skills gap. This message checks all the boxes:

  1. It has a captive audience in the millions of global tech workers and corporations that have a vested interest in acquiring and measuring tech skills.
  2. The inevitability of the skills gap message gets heads nodding without heavy-handed-preaching.
  3. The message is simple and easy to unpack.

With the skills gap framework in place, stories about ongoing efforts to support K-12 computer science and eye-popping wealth Pluralsight has created for its content authors take on new meaning. They reinforce the core message instead of distracting from it. They make the skills gap more relatable and understandable.

I saw this same formula in action nearly a decade ago, when I worked on the rebrand of Utah Valley University. The institution had, at once, a huge problem and huge opportunity. Due to its unique history and evolution, seemingly everyone in Utah County and beyond thought of UVU differently. Some remembered it as vocational school, others as a community college, and some just considered it BYU’s little brother.

The institution’s transition to university status provided a small window to frame the brand of the future while we had everyone’s attention. Rather than simply shouting “We’re a university!” we made the deliberate decision to articulate what kind of university UVU would become.

We rolled out a multi-year campaign to define and own the term “engaged learning.” At UVU, this meant the combination of academic curriculum and real-world practicum — graduating with a diploma and a resume, as one of our advertisements put it. The message was simple, resonated broadly, and bridged the institution’s rich past to its promising future.

Over the years, UVU has been one of the great stories in Utah, nearly doubling its headcount in the last 10 years to become the largest public university in Utah with a whopping 37,000 students. There are a multitude of factors involved in UVU’s rise, but the engaged learning message shouldn’t be minimized. People follow a message that clicks.

The word is getting out about Utah. We see this in the state’s press clippings, and in the growing wave of companies — like Snapchat and my current employer, Womply — that are expanding here from California and elsewhere to take advantage of the state’s favorable business environment and underrated talent pool.

Still, just because we’re attracting attention doesn’t mean we’ve arrived. If we don’t take some strategic steps to own our tech brand, entropy will take over and we’ll miss a golden opportunity. In 10 years, I want to be able to reflect on this moment in time as the start of our sizzle, not a flash in the pan.

To make things actionable, I propose that we gather a group of passionate people and figure out ways to promote Utah’s tech brand in a concerted manner. If you feel the same way, hit me up on LinkedIn, and let’s brainstorm.