It’s been seven months since the North Carolina Department of Commerce, in conjunction with the North Carolina Electronics and Information Technologies Association, unveiled a new brand for the state’s high tech community: “North Carolina: A State of Minds,”

So far the effort has yet to achieve “first flight,” or to even roll onto the runway.

Jim Nichols, an economic development recruiter for the Commerce Department, says a marketing campaign has yet to be developed because the state’s possible $2 billion budget crisis leaves almost no resources available for a serious publicity drive.

Also, Nichols says no one has figured out how to pair “A State of Minds” with current the state-supported branding efforts, “A Better Place to Be,” which is geared toward attracting tourism.

“It’s a fair statement to say we’re still in the development stage,” Nichols says. “We are continuing to meet with NCEITA and the governor’s office to try and flush out how to carry this brand to the effort outside the state. “We’re in the early stages of putting down some ideas about how we can fit North Carolina under one raw brand because tourism also is a major piece of our marketing efforts.”

Officials from the governor’s office did not return phone calls seeking comment.

State of Minds roots

The idea behind “A State of Minds” stems from a 2000 NCEITA survey of tech professionals working in Boston, Austin and San Jose that revealed how North Carolina’s high tech leaders often are confronted with colleagues who view the state as rural and somewhat agrarian.

For example, the study found that a majority of respondents knew that Raleigh and Chapel Hill formed two-thirds of the Triangle and that Charlotte was a major metropolitan area, but most people’s impression of the state “have been shaped by tourism,” the study says.

Nichols acknowledges the under-the-surface criticism from the state’s high tech community asserting that the Commerce Department blew its chance by not ramping up its focus on the sector during the boom days of the late 1990s, and he says there is no easy answer how that trend can be reversed considering the slowing economy.

The Department of Commerce has established divisions for tourism, film making and sports development, and last year the General Assembly voted to eliminate the Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology through, at least, the end of 2002.

“Even during times that were fairly flush with the state we never felt like we had a real surplus with the budget,” he says. “We always operated fairly conservatively and yes we’ve lost out on some notable projects, but that has more to do with the state’s overall business climate. Overall I don’t think there are many states that would trade places with us in terms of the overall success we’ve had over time.”

Budget crunch sidelines campaign

By now, it’s probably safe to say that a majority of people living in North Carolina know that government officials are trying to avoid falling into a possible $2 billion hole in the state’s budget.

Joan Myers, president of the NCEITA, a nonprofit that lobbies state government on behalf of the high tech industry among several other missions, acknowledges that sentimental opinion favors state-funded education and public assistance programs over economic development during times of economic crisis. But she says it still is crucial to seek out new opportunities for expansion no matter what the circumstances.

“There is a lot of excitement to bring forward from within the technology community, and assets to be found all across the state,” Myers says. “North Carolina has never promoted itself significantly to national and even international audiences, except as it relates to tourism. It’s important for us to get the word out that we are a knowledge-based state because even though we have Research Triangle Park we’ve found that people outside North Carolina don’t think of this is a hub of technology.”

NCEITA is attempting to sew together a concerted effort among public and private sector leaders to promote “A State of Minds,” but officials with the six-person nonprofit are finding it difficult to find enough companies who are willing to commit their own resources. NCEITA also is experiencing challenges of its own, such as the available hours people can contribute – basically on a pro bono basis.

“It’s a challenge, we admit,” Myers says. “But considering the current economic climate and the fact that all industry sectors are operating lean and mean right now — with a six-person staff we can’t spend as much time on some things we’d like to.”

Myers points to events such as the NCEITA-sponsored two-day conference last month sponsored at UNC-Charlotte as an example of its grass roots effort to build on the “A State of Minds” brand. She also knows NCEITA is limited by having a one-person public relations team in spokesman Nic Heinke.

Jay Levinson, author of “Guerilla Marketing,” which has sold millions of copies around the world since first being published in 1983, tells Local Tech Wire that he believes public relations and publicity would be a better approach for the “State of Minds” campaign simply because right now the recovery of the technology sector is hot news.

“A good publicity firm should be able to plant stories and information about what’s happened in North Carolina than running an ad in, say, the Wall Street Journall would,” Levison says. “Examples of technology thriving could get North Carolina the kind of recognition that it wants and needs.”

NCEITA’s resource battle

Heinke insists that NCEITA is being very proactive in getting the word out about the state’s high-tech sector.

“The conferences we put are a significant part of our efforts to make sure we expand our image in North Carolina, which allows people to then hear our message and to become aware of our campaign,” Heinke says. “We had about 300 people attend the Charlotte conference over a two-day span, which is more people than attended the first conference we held six years ago in Raleigh. When you think about it, to launch a new conference during the current economic climate and having that many people attend is a huge success.”

Ashe Lockhart, an attorney with Charlotte-based law firm Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice who attended the conference and says that at one point he was very involved with NCEITA, believes a lot of the criticism the nonprofit receives from high tech industry officials is unfounded.

“Ever since I’ve known Joan she’s had a mission to a statewide organization, not one that just is associated with the Triangle,” Lockhart says. “The organization has had this on its agenda for a couple of years and ultimately I think what has happened is they decided to go out and get themselves squared away before expanding their footprint to other parts of the state, and ultimately nationwide.”

Doug Ellis, executive managing director of Charlotte-based Decision Point International, a boutique investment bank, says he often has wondered if there are any easy answers to moving the high tech community past its immediate economic concerns and into taking on a more proactive role with NCEITA’s efforts.

“The Charlotte area is improving greatly in making itself known as a tech community but there is a lot of room for improvement as compared to the Triangle,” Ellis says. “This area is more in its infancy compared to Raleigh-Durham but it is growing in stature and prominence. For example, before we founded Decision Point we barely had any clients in Charlotte and now one-third to half of our business comes from here.”

To the future

Myers and Nichols agree that more resources are needed from private industry to help North Carolina’s high tech community to achieve the lofty status to which it aspires.

“I’d like to see people willing to come together to create an umbrella where private industry can pool and share its resources,” Myers says. “We need to expand on our strengths right now, such as the security technology that is being developed around the state and at UNC-Charlotte, as well as the financial technologies that are being developed.

“The legislature has serious challenges but in the future it needs to look at structuring at least some of its resources to market North Carolina as a technology state,” Myers says.

NCEITA Web site: www.nceita.org