What is the North East’s brand? 

Alison Cowie talks to Guy Currey, director of Invest North East England, about how the region-wide inward investment agency has developed and asks what key regional messages are used to promote the North East to national and international investors

The dissolution of One North East in 2012 left a void in terms of delivering a dedicated region-wide strategic inward investment programme – something that was highlighted as an issue in Lord Adonis’ North East Independent Economic Review published a year later.

As a result, Invest North East England was established in September 2013 to provide a single point of contact for investors into the North East Combined Authority area.

Guy Currey, who has experience running the UK base of an international company and has worked in economic development roles for more than 25 years, was appointed to lead the new publicly-funded organisation tasked with attracting inward investment into the area.

“By inward investment,” Guy explains, “we mean either foreign-owned investment or UK companies that are currently outside of the area and are looking to set up an office, factory or other facility in the North East.”

Invest North East England utilises several methods to foster inward investment enquiries.

Digitally, the comprehensive Invest North East England website provides extensive information centred around five key sectors: advanced manufacturing, life sciences, IT/digital, energy and business services (aligning with the North East LEP’s Strategic Economic Plan), while ongoing social media activity includes sector-specific social media and other digital campaigns.

The three-strong team also attend a number of national investment events each year, while ambassadors have been recruited to share the region’s merits at events on a wider scale.

In addition, Invest North East England acts as the first point of contact for investment enquiries funnelled from the Department for International Trade, an organisation they work closely with.

More recently, Invest North East England has begun working with a global investment agency charged with generating leads.

“The mainstay of its work is identifying companies in London, particularly those in digital, finance or professional services, that are seeing rapid growth, but may be constrained by some of the negative issues associated with the South East. Things such as high property costs, high labour turnover and skills attrition,” Guy explains.

“We feel the North East can really hit the sweet spot in terms of what they are looking for.”

Once a company is identified – either reactively or proactively – Invest North East England sets about creating a bespoke proposition that mirrors each potential investor’s key requirements.

Key drivers tend to include market opportunity, appropriate property locations, skills availability, infrastructure coverage, access to support networks and quality of life.

After a proposition document is produced, it is then hoped a visit can be arranged where potential investors are shown key sites and facilities in person while meetings are set up with relevant influencers from the region.

“The main objective is to get prospect companies to come to the region, because once they’re here we always find they are blown away by what they find up here,” says Guy.

Invest North East England also works closely with the North East Combined Authority’s seven constituent local authorities’ business teams and their inward investment sub-brands – Invest Newcastle, Business Durham, Make It Sunderland, Invest Gateshead, Invest North Tyneside, Invest South Tyneside and Arch- The

Northumberland Development Company – in what Guy describes as a ‘hub-and-spoke’ operational model.

Invest North East England will coordinate the initial strategic region-wide assessment but if, consequently, a specific area is identified – either because it offers the most benefits or is preferred by the prospect investor – Guy and his team will then bring in the relevant organisation.

While each of these regional agencies have their own brands and key messages to promote, Guy believes that it is essential the North East portrays one unified brand which can represent the very best the region can offer, whilst at the same time making the most of the strong sub-regional brands where appropriate.

“It’s important that the North East has an overarching, umbrella brand that people can fix their initial ideas onto and make the decision that this is the area of the country they want to come to.

“They can then work towards identifying which specific area within the North East suits their needs best.”

He continues: “When I first came into post, we spoke to the local authorities and the private sector about what the North East brand should be.

“The sorts of things that emerged were that the North East was ‘pioneering’ and ‘innovative’ and its people were ‘hardworking’, ‘loyal’, ‘passionate’, ‘personable’ and ‘dependable’.

“We therefore came up with our tagline – North East England Works. – to try and get across to investors that people in the region will work hard for them and their business, whichever sector it is in, and that more generally, locating their business here will work for that business.”

Asked about misconceptions Invest North East England come across most, Guy reflects:

“I’ve lived in the region for more than 20 years now and I do think that there is a far more positive perception of the North East nowadays; we’re seen as far more than a place of football, fields of sheep and Greggs bakeries. It’s now recognised that our people are tremendously friendly and there as some fantastic cities here with a real buzz, vibrant universities, innovative companies as well as some great countryside.”

One issue that Guy concedes does come up regularly, though, is the North East’s perceived distance from London and the South East.

“A lot of foreign companies looking at the UK only really know London and they think the North East is too far away. But the fact is it’s only two and three-quarter hours away from London on the train, means it’s actually not – especially when you’re talking to companies in America that are used to travelling much further distances,” he says.

While, understandably, as the strategic inward investment agency, Invest North East England is looking to attract the largest possible companies operating in its five key sectors – thus, creating more and better job opportunities for residents of the North East – Guy is quick to point out that the North East’s warm welcome extends to SMEs too, particularly those going through rapid growth phase – some of the most dynamic and innovative businesses around.

He goes on to provide two examples illustrating the different scale of companies they deal with.

Invest North East England played an instrumental role in bringing global IT service management company Convergys to The Rocket office in Newcastle city centre – representing 600 jobs – while it also worked closely with Dublin-based Phonovation, which set up a three-person team to Gateshead after suffering skills shortages in Ireland’s capital as it competed with the likes of Google and Amazon. The communications software provider is looking to grow its North East England office to seven employees in the next few months making use of the region’s digital talent.

Guy reveals that in the 2016/2017 financial year, Invest North East England, plus its local authority and other partners, helped to create an impressive 6500+ jobs in the region from both foreign and UK investment.

The Invest North East England director is now hoping his team can build on this success, but with Brexit making foreign investment more challenging (at least in the short term as details of the deal are worked out), this year’s energies will remain focused on identifying and targeting companies in London that may be feeling the effects of an overheating market.

He concludes: “We want to show these companies that the North East is a place that they can grow, prosper and invest in.”

Invest North East England