Welcome to West Mass: Experts hope new brand name for region catches on more than Pioneer Valley did
Decades ago, those attempting to lure tourists and industry to communities in western Massachusetts hit upon the descriptor Pioneer Valley, a way to honor and recognize those who had settled the region centuries earlier. Pioneer Valley made a lot of sense as a way to market the Connecticut River Valley to the Boston area, said Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce President Tim O’Brien, during an era before many highways and interstates were built and putting the state capital three or more hours away. And while the moniker has worked well since then for those who live and work in Hampshire County, experts say it’s value as a tool to promote beyond the region’s boundaries is far less effective. “Pioneer Valley has been successful internally, but has never gotten any traction with external marketing,” said Suzanne Beck, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce.
Beck and others hope that’s about to change with the launch this week of West Mass, a new regional identifier that will be used to promote the region — and supplement and possibly supplant the Pioneer Valley name. The new name and initiative was announced this week by the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts. Beck said that the regional tourism councils in the area are already unified in using Western Massachusetts as a locator. West Mass, as an umbrella brand, will combine the various products these councils promote and make the offerings in the region, from the Basketball Hall of Fame to Yankee Candle, more accessible to visitors, she said. “From a tourism perspective, that kind of layering is common and helpful because we’re leveraging each other’s markets,” Beck said. O’Brien agrees.
“This will help the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce,” he said. “This will help the Hampshire County Regional Tourism Council. This creates a new splash of marketing. We hope it will spark new visitors to the area.”
New name has benefits
The benefits are echoed by Sarah la Cour, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District. “As a broader region, we’re trying to brand something as other than Boston and the Berkshires,” la Cour said. “I think that’s helpful to us in the Connecticut River Valley.” EDC Executive Director Rick Sullivan said the focus of the new promotion is that the region is a great place to live and to operate business. “We’re excited from an economic development and tourist standpoint to be able to brand the region,” Sullivan said. Sullivan said one of the main challenges for employers is recruiting people to work here, with workforce development programs insufficient to meet the demand for current and projected job openings. Promoting quality of life through the West Mass logo and terms could help, he said. Beck agrees. “I think West Mass can also serve that purpose,” Beck said.
“If a business is trying to attract people to Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties, and even Berkshire County, I think West Mass is a home run,” O’Brien said, adding that it will also work for businesses seeking to relocate, or site a plant, office park or retail store, as well as for visitors and tourists through what he calls three “A’s:” access, attractions and appeal. Julia Sorensen, a spokeswoman for Cooley Dickinson Hospital, said in an email that hospital administrators are looking forward to learning more about how West Mass will benefit large employers. “Cooley Dickinson supports efforts that aim to increase visibility and attract potential employees to the area and appreciates the work so many individuals and organizations have put into this project,” Sorensen said.
Initiative has critics
But the West Mass launch is not without criticism for both its graphics and phrases that can be used, such as suggesting that people deploy the term “maverick” when talking about those living and working in the Valley. “That is really troubling,” said Paul McClain, who works as an independent design consultant based in Northampton, McClain said he is bothered by spending $80,000 for an out-of-state company that simply dropped the “-ern” from Western Mass, and a graphics package that doesn’t appear to be unique. “It’s galling to me that the company comes from Tulsa, Oklahoma,” McClain said. Fellow design consultant Aaron Wood, who works in Northampton, said a local design company could have brought more warmth and passion to the project, rather than what he views as “very sterile and bland.” “It is dated, looking like something you’d see created in the late ’80s, early ’90s,” Wood said. “The font choice feels cold and impersonal.” “Nothing about it evokes the rich history and background of the Pioneer Valley,” Wood added.
Jason Edson of Millers Falls said he loves the idea of a regional branding, but has concerns with what he sees. “Unfortunately the new name is a phonetic nightmare and the other terms they’re using don’t represent the region or who we are,” said Edson, who works on campaign technology at Asymmetrical Political Solutions LLC. Beck said she feels these critiques miss the point of the endeavor of enhancing the branding, and not competing with what is already being done elsewhere. Mavericks, she said, can be seen as preferable to pioneers, which, in the context of the region, connotes rural woodland and people living without internet access. La Cour said the rustic idea of pioneer is in conflict with the area being a technology hub, an economic generator and a Knowledge Corridor with a focus on higher education. “A more modern choice gives us a chance to brand ourselves as innovators and entrepreneurs,” la Cour said. Sullivan said the West Mass package is cohesive, but also flexible enough so that individual businesses, as well as the cities and towns, could also use its graphics. But he acknowledges that it is just one part of changing the dynamics. “If you’re going to change, change will come slow, that’s OK,’ Sullivan said.
Pioneer Valley history
The use of Pioneer Valley is believed to go back to Elisabeth Linscott, a public relations expert who popularized the term through tour guides. Articles in the Gazette note the 1938 formation of a group called the Pioneer Valley Association, aimed at encouraging tourism and business. Pioneer Valley Planning Commission Executive Director Tim Brennan said legally the name of his organization can’t change, and he’s not sure he would want it to. “The label works fine within the region, it’s when you get outside that it’s a bit of a mystery,” Brennan said. Brennan said West Mass could possibly become a more focused element of the popular Knowledge Corridor idea, which extends into Connecticut. “That mo2niker does have a cache that’s caught on, to some extent,” Brennan said. Beck and la Cour said they aren’t sure how often they might use any of the graphics. O’Brien said he anticipates piggybacking on it, adding components of the graphics package to letterhead and publications. “The new brand doesn’t suppress or eliminate use of Pioneer Valley, but in trying to market out of market they are de-emphasizing it,” O’Brien said.
Linda Lowry, an associate professor in the department of hospitality and tourism management at the University of Massachusetts, said in an email that the challenge in coming up with a new moniker is to reflect both the unique attributes that make the region special, and at the same time indicate where the region is located, what is known as “situated placeness,” for those unfamiliar with it. “While the ‘West Mass’ brand does convey a situated placeness, albeit a very general one, tourism professionals may find it challenging to fill it with the attributes of innovation, education and the arts that make the Valley special,” Lowry said. For tourists, at least, have many places they could visit, and need to gain awareness and interest for the cities and towns in the region to gain market share. “Will the new West Mass brand be more effective than Pioneer Valley?” Lowry said. “Time will tell.”