Did Commerce RI Have Another Iceland Moment in Amazon Proposal?

Thursday, November 09, 2017


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RI's Amazon rendering - IGT Building removed for Amazon

It looks like the quality control group at the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation may have been out of the office when Rhode Island’s submission to recruit Amazon’s 50,000 employees and $5 billion investment was being prepared and submitted to win Amazon’s HQ2.

Renderings prepared for Rhode Island’s application --  including the Providence site -- just recently submitted to Amazon in some instances appear to eliminate two of Providence’s largest and newest buildings. 

The Blue Cross tower and the IGT Building (formerly GTECH) in at least one photo appear to be missing; other renderings show the state government buildings behind the State House consumed by Amazon construction, along with other private properties directly adjacent. In contrast, other competing cities competing for the "economic development grand prize" created and submitted applications with detail and specifics as to how they would fund, incent and meet the needs of the new Amazon HQ2.

Rendering Response

When reached in his Cambridge office, Preston Scott Cohen, with the architectural firm that developed the rendering, responded to GoLocal’s questions by saying, “I am not supposed to get into details.”

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RI Tourism Iceland Video

Cohen is a professor of architecture at Harvard. When asked to explain why Providence's most prominent buildings appeared to be missing, he said, “ Oh..hmm. I don’t know. It is a visual expression.”

In 2016, Commerce made global news when it launched a tourism video that included file footage from Iceland.  This time major buildings were eliminated.

Rhode Island became a national punchline for the miscue.

Rhode Island Tourism Iceland Video

In 2017, national media weighed in on "Iceland":

“The campaign’s rocky start marks a public setback for Governor Gina Raimondo, a Democrat and former venture capitalist who has basked in waves of positive press since taking office in early 2015,” wrote Jon Chesto for The Boston Globe on March 31 of the tourism debacle. 

“A world-renowned designer was hired. Market research was conducted. A $5 million marketing campaign was set. What could go wrong?”  quipped Katharine Seeyle for The New York Times in the post-mortem a week later on April 6. “Everything, it turns out.”

“The anatomy of a disastrous state branding campaign,” wrote Aarian Marshall for City Lab for The Atlantic Cities. “After Rhode Island’s epic screw-up, a five-step guide to doing better.”

Commerce’s Explanation for Renderings: 

The Providence renderings prepared by the Massachusetts firm are near to scale and include a high level of detail.

“The goal was to create visions of an urban workspace for Amazon on some of the submitted sites, providing an interpretation of the specifics described in the company’s RFP. These renderings are preliminary and conceptual. They should not be interpreted as precise real estate determinations but should instead be understood as the designers' illustrative sketches of the possibilities in general,” said Matt Sheaff, spokesman for Commerce.


Related Slideshow: National Press Critique RI’s Embarrassing Tourism Campaign - 2016

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New York Times

A world-renowned designer was hired. Market research was conducted. A $5 million marketing campaign was set. What could go wrong?

Everything, it turns out.

The slogan that emerged — “Rhode Island: Cooler and Warmer” — left people confused and spawned lampoons along the lines of “Dumb and Dumber.” A video accompanying the marketing campaign, meant to show all the fun things to do in the state, included a scene shot not in Rhode Island but in Iceland. The website featured restaurants in Massachusetts.

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Boston Globe

After the slogan’s unveiling, the blunders just kept coming. A promotional video to accompany the campaign included a shot of a skateboarder in front of a distinctive building that turned out to be the famous Harpa concert hall, located almost 2,500 miles away, in Iceland.

The new website erroneously boasted that Little Rhody is home to 20 percent of the country’s historic landmarks. And officials needed to remove three names from its restaurant database, after realizing the information was so outdated that two of the restaurants aren’t open right now.

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City Lab

“Cooler & Warmer.” It took me roughly 30 minutes of reading about Rhode Island’s new tourism catchphrase to realize that “cool” is a double entendre—as in, the occasional temperature of the Ocean State, but also “hip and awesome.” And I still didn’t quite get it? This was not a good sign. I may be dense, but lordy, was I not alone.

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The Rhode Island Tourism Division had to pull its latest video shortly after it was posted online Tuesday because it contained footage shot in Iceland. The three-second scene in question shows a man doing a skateboard trick outside of the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik, the country’s capital.

IndieWhip, the company that edited the video, and the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, which hired the firm, have apologized for the error. “The footage in question is of a Rhode Island skateboarder, filmed by a Rhode Islander,” IndieWhip added in a statement.

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A Big Price Tag Puts a Target on Your Back. Rhode Island spent a reported $550,000 to develop the “Cooler & Warmer” campaign. Development costs for the Florida and Washington campaigns cost $380,000 and $422,000, respectively. That’s before the first piece of media was ever purchased.

My advertising agency brethren will argue you have to invest money at the start of the campaign to “get it right.” But from my perspective, the above numbers seem exorbitant for a program built on public dollars. And in each case, an angry electorate agreed.

Creating a great “place marketing” campaign is a difficult job. Don’t make it more difficult by ignoring the lessons from states like Rhode Island, Florida and Washington.


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