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Iowa’s New Buzz

State gets creative to lure residents, launches flashy new campaign with internet hit


The fake real estate office in New York City was just the beginning. 

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, the Iowa Economic Development Authority, the Iowa Tourism Office and others in June launched an integrated campaign that is big on facts and flash. They call it “This Is Iowa.”

The goal: get more people to visit Iowa. Because, as Reynolds says, many of those people will consider moving here once they see what Iowa has to offer. “If we get them here, we keep them,” she said in an interview. The campaign is meant to do both. 

Luring people to Iowa is a critical issue for business. Why? Iowa has a workforce problem that could border on crisis if something doesn’t change before the baby boom generation fully retires. The state’s population has been relatively flat for decades. Areas that have seen strong growth, such as Greater Des Moines, have seen the full brunt of some of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. Ames has had the lowest unemployment rate among U.S. cities several times recently. 

The upshot for businesses: It’s tough to find workers, and it’s time to attract out-of-staters because the birth rate in this state won’t solve the issue. 

With the state still facing an image that is largely neutral or undefined, it’s time to get creative to get the word out on a state that has plenty to sell — including cheap housing and short commutes. 

So naturally Director Debi Durham and her team at IEDA, working closely with Reynolds, decided the thing to do was to open some eyes in New York City, a place where it can be hard to impress.

So as a buzz-fueling opening to the “This Is Iowa” multimedia communications and recruiting campaign, the Iowans hired actors to set up a fake real estate office in NYC. Over and over, they pitched real estate with the laughably low price tags of perhaps $200,000, and commutes of 20 minutes — a span that wouldn’t get you down a freeway entrance ramp in many major metros. The shock of the interviewees was entertaining, as was their reaction when the “real estate workers” revealed they were talking about Iowa. Some of the people said they’d check this Iowa place out. 

Which is good, because IEDA found in a comprehensive research effort that, at least nationally, 64% of poll respondents who had considered moving at all after visiting a place had seriously considered the move. Job opportunities, low housing costs and a low crime rate were among the top reasons people actually moved. Natural landscapes and recreational opportunities were mentioned, too. 

However, the state’s research showed that Iowa isn’t associated with job opportunities and recreational opportunities — two of the big factors — and “This Is Iowa” is designed to address that.

The state interviewed and surveyed adults of varying ages who live around the country but would consider moving for the right opportunity, as well as human resource managers, veterans and new Iowa residents. The research began last year and spilled into early this year.

The marketing campaign, organized by LS2, will combine high-profile events such as the fake real estate office with distributing pro-Iowa materials to human resources, pitching stories to out-of-state media outlets, continuing research and running thisisiowa.com, a clearinghouse for stories about residents that show their diversity and extreme happiness with the state. 

And there is reason for hope. Poll respondents noted that they saw Iowa as more desirable after they heard about some of the amenities. For example, 66% of respondents said knowing that Iowa has 72 state parks and thousands of county parks made the state seem more desirable. Iowa’s low cost of doing business and high graduation rates also caught attention. 

Reynolds said the multimedia campaign is an important addition to the state’s workforce development programs such as Future Ready Iowa, which encourages education and retraining, and Home Base Iowa, which helps veterans rejoin the workforce.  

“We have a diverse and growing economy, despite some significant challenges,” Reynolds said in an interview. “And as I talked to business and industry across the state time and time again, they were indicating they had seen significant growth and they still project growth. But it was all about workforce. So we launched several initiatives with a multifaceted approach. Future Ready Iowa. Home Base Iowa. STEM [encouraging education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics].”

But there’s more to do, the governor said. “I think our capacity to grow this economy is even bigger than that. To do what I believe that we’re capable of, we need to bring people to the state of Iowa. So Debi and her team are always looking at different ways to do that. Even with all the things we’ve put in place, we still need to do a better job of bringing people to Iowa.” 

In an interview, Durham said “This Is Iowa” grew out of the state’s existing practice of reviewing its national marketing campaign every three years. The new campaign started in June. 

“We looked at market segmentation for 22-year-olds through 55-year-olds and basically tried to drill down to how they get their information,” she said. “First, we started with their perception of Iowa. It wasn’t a negative perception, so that’s always good. But it’s a pretty narrow perception. They know that we have agriculture, they know Iowa is an affordable place.

“If you’ve had this great experience traveling, and if you actually thought you might live here, what’s the next question? Well, the next question is career,” Durham said. “And they really didn’t see Iowa as the field of opportunities for careers. So that’s where we knew we had to make the case. And that’s everything we’ve talked about with the diverse economy and the growing economy, and you can live big in Iowa. And so it’s taking all that information and delivering it in a package that actually speaks to those different market segments.” 

Reynolds agreed. “I think we just realized that we have such great stories to tell, we just have not done a good job of telling them. Iowans tend to be humble.”

The campaign helps address that, Reynolds added. “The way they’ve tied tourism into recruitment is phenomenal.” 

Visitors often are people who are looking for “a quality job in a dynamic and cutting-edge career,” she said. Iowa has plenty of those, with the emphasis on STEM, including jobs in information technology, biotechnology, advanced agriculture and other fields. 

“Sometimes they don’t realize the fact that we absolutely have it all,” Reynolds said. “We have the cutting-edge careers, and everything else, in Iowa. This campaign was a way to kind of wrap it all up and tie it with a bow and say, look — amenities, quality of life, trails, restaurants, culture and great jobs. There is tremendous opportunity in Iowa. We just need to do a better job of talking about it.”

Durham said the combination of the jobs currently available and the need to replace retiring baby boomers in the workforce makes Iowa an attractive place to look for a job. “And we’ve had pretty slow population growth. You put that all together, and it means we have to grow the population. We believe the “This Is Iowa” campaign is a great way to do that,” she said. 

The splash with the New York City pop-up “Hawkeye Real Estate” office — which has drawn several million views online — will be followed by other splashy plans that aren’t defined yet but may focus on San Francisco, parts of Colorado and Chicago, for example, Durham said. 

She added that the state will look to advertising online on Hulu and other sites, and may even wrap cabs with ads in an effort to draw younger workers. 

“We want people to look beyond the crop. We know we feed the world,” Durham said, not mentioning the grain that is used in ethanol and sweeteners. “But our industries also prop up the quality of life and our beautiful scenery and parks. We need to make that connection.”

Reynolds said many don’t realize the significant changes in the rapidly developing Greater Des Moines market. “When they come in, they are just taken aback by the vibrancy and energy and young people and the opportunity for development and growth,” she said. “Actually, that is happening in communities all across the state. 

“We continue to exceed expectations, and that’s what I love.”

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