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Boston’s Waterfront New Identity

In the land of improbable places

Putting faith in the power of words, government and business leaders rename neighborhoods to attract new companies. But often serendipity is the key to branding.

By Scott Kirsner, Globe Correspondent

People walked around near the Institute of Contemporary Art in the Fort Point area in the fall. In an effort to brand the area and attract more businesses, Boston officials have labeled it the Innovation District.

People walked around near the Institute of Contemporary Art in the Fort… (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/File)

Speaking to a group of techies at a breakfast in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood, Mayor Thomas M. Menino endorsed their efforts to give the area a new identity. “I want this city to grow and show its technology leadership,’’ he said. Menino officially recognized the area, home to a growing number of Web design firms and digital consultancies, as the “Cyber District.’’

That was 1997. Two years later, then-Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci launched a branding campaign to have the Bay State known as “Dot Commonwealth.’’

In January 2010, Menino was back with another name: the South Boston Waterfront and the same neighborhood he previously labeled Cyber District would heretofore be known as the “Innovation District.’’

Just the other day a group of five northwestern communities unveiled a new brand of their own: Middlesex 3, for the business corridor bisected by the Middlesex Turnpike and Route 3.

There’s always the possibility that the Innovation District and Middlesex 3 labels could take flight, but with so many previous attempts to plaster new names atop business clusters failing (Genetown, anyone?), does it make sense to keep trying?

Back when Silicon Valley was still mostly farmland, Massachusetts had an internationally recognized tech cluster: Route 128, the ring road known as “America’s Technology Highway,’’ and home to companies Polaroid Corp., Raytheon Co., Tracerlab Inc., and Digital Equipment Corp. These days, Kendall Square is arguably emerging as a brand that resonates beyond our borders, especially in the biopharma industry, but also among major corporations looking to establish research-and-development labs. (Walt Disney Co. recently announced plans for an R&D facility in Kendall, joining Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp.)

The Route 128 label “bubbled up of its own accord, starting in the 1950s. There was very little conscious planning around it,’’ says Alan R. Earls, author of “Route 128 and the Birth of the Age of High Tech.’’ The name remained relevant through the late 1990s, with Lycos and Monster.com headquartered in the western suburbs, but then faded fast.

Like Route 128, Kendall Square is an actual geographic place and not a fabricated tag. But it is a brand on the rise. It is home to the Cambridge Innovation Center, which houses numerous start-ups and venture capital firms; Akamai Technologies; and dozens of biotech companies big and small. When local businesses formed the Kendall Square Association in 2009 to market the area and attract new companies, they adopted the slogan “The Future Lives Here.’’

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