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Marketing a cluster

This past February, the Government of Canada announced an up-to $950 million investment to support business-led innovation superclusters to accelerate economic growth and position Canadian industries for global leadership. An in-depth application process led to the announcement of five regional superclusters:

  • Digital Technology (British Columbia)
  • Protein Industries (Prairies)
  • Advanced Manufacturing (Ontario)
  • AI (Quebec)
  • Oceans (Atlantic Canada)

The intent of this investment is bold: That this will not only “position Canada as a global leader in innovation,” it will also generate “tens of thousands of middle-class jobs.” More accurately, as Richard Florizone (President, Dalhousie University) and Scott Stern (MIT) put it in a recent Globe and Mail article: Can Canada’s disparate regions be harnessed to be more than the sum of their parts?

We believe the answer to this question is yes, but think that superclusters need to tell Canadians why they matter and set expectations for what can be accomplished. There are also some good economic reasons to market a supercluster:

  • Talent attraction and retention. Clusters need to be a talent sponge. Success looks like tomorrow’s thought leaders positioning the cluster as the hub where they blossomed, learned, and did their best work.
  • Investment attraction. Talent needs capital, and creating conditions where people want to invest and fund the talent is essential. And studies show that the closer the proximity between investors and opportunities the higher the likelihood of deals. Literally, clustered companies present investors with grouped opportunities that are complementary and convenient.
  • Attracting and keeping the energy of regional players. Organizations join a cluster because of shared objectives and shared challenges, as well as for proximity. The community housing the cluster—the supply chain, government, schools, chambers of commerce, industry associations, universities, SMEs, entrepreneurs—are more likely to be vocal and excited about a cluster initiative if they see themselves in it. To get a community on board requires awareness and buy-in. The more people carrying the flag of “we do this here and we do it better than anyone,” the more likely the cluster is to succeed and sustain.

How to Market a Supercluster

While no two contexts are alike, we can offer a few guiding principles:

  • Engage the cluster. Member companies. Industry associations. Potential investors. Community. Graduates. Like most marketing initiatives, audiences can be complex. But with clusters, there are always many, they are all legitimate stakeholders, and they all want a say and have an opinion. Make the space to engage and hear them.
  • Create a narrative. A narrative communicates the impact the supercluster seeks to have in the world and inspires people to want to support and take part. The narrative is a declaration of purpose and should be used as a guiding light for all communications plans and tactics.
  • Build a brand your cluster members can use and stand behind. This isn’t easily done when everyone has different roles and responsibilities within the cluster, but it gets easier with engagement. Do the research, engage with members, understand the customers, partners, and industries of the cluster. Build a brand your cluster members can rally behind to help their businesses grow.
  • Embrace the place. Clusters are not virtual; they are tied to specific geographies and people. Make it collegial, collaborative, and filled with legacy and meaning.
  • Hubs are good. There’s a reason people plant flags: It makes a statement. We are here. This is our ground. Clusters and the actors within are no different. Create physical and virtual hubs and events where cluster actors can congregate and work.
  • Track progress and celebrate successes. A cluster needs reassurance that the collective work has a positive impact—primarily for their own business and interests, and also for the field that they operate in. Otherwise, why not go it alone? Part of marketing a cluster is reporting on the outputs of the cluster to the audiences who care—and focusing on what they care about. Jobs. Patents. Foreign direct investment. Immigration. Research. Economic impact. Make the commitment to measure and share success.

Developing a Cluster Marketing Strategy

Meeting the challenge of big opportunities means breaking down complexity into manageable pieces. To get started, NATIONAL recommends three steps:

  • Define the cluster and its value proposition. What is the cluster going to do? Why should people care? Clusters are complex. By articulating clear objectives and why taking a cluster approach makes sense, the likelihood of buy-in from potential partners, investors, and community members increases.
  • Engage cluster members and stakeholders. If a cluster is to be defined and is to succeed, it needs buy-in from those within it and closest to it. They need to know what “signing up” means, how it will benefit them, how to plug in and what to expect. In turn and most importantly, the backbone organization behind an organized cluster needs the engagement of cluster members in order to learn from them and tout their individual and collective value propositions.
  • Execute on the plan. Marketing a cluster doesn’t have to complicated. By creating a plan that considers all audiences—members, stakeholders, investors, partners, and community members—clusters can build profile and momentum. Marketing plans should be logical and actionable to harness all that energy and turn it into something tangible.

Cited: Beyond ‘the next Silicon Valley’: Why many kinds of economic superclusters matter, Globe and Mail, April 4, 2018
Disclosure: NATIONAL Public Relations works with the Ocean Supercluster initiative in Atlantic Canada