Brands are vital in business, so it was no surprise to hear Forbes magazine publisher Rich Karlgaard focus on brand and image as he recently addressed the annual meeting of the economic development group Greater New Orleans Inc.
“New Orleans has a great brand,” Karlgaard said. “For population it isn’t in the top 20. But in brand it’s in the top 10, maybe the top five.”

One challenge for the region has long been turning its high-profile identity into local prosperity, but today economic development leaders and some outside observers say the opportunities to do so are better than they’ve been in decades. In fact, leaders with GNO Inc. are now making the case that New Orleans has shifted gears from a region in recovery to a place on top of its game. They say it’s high time to spread that message.    

“We’ve been playing defense since (Hurricane) Katrina, but we’re beginning to transition from defense to offense,” said Leslie Jacobs, the chair of GNO Inc. for 2011.

Boosters cite a number of important factors for the turn-around, including changes in business climate, political leadership and the local education system since Katrina, along with the region’s lower costs of doing business, its targeted business incentives and the appeal of a robust local culture. The result has been an influx of new college graduates, a surge in business startups and a rising number of companies relocating to the area. Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret singled out 2010 as “possibly the best year for New Orleans regarding business wins in over a decade.”

Yet with enduring images of Katrina devastation and the more recent crisis of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, GNO Inc. CEO Michael Hecht said the region must still fight a perception battle.

“Image is one of the biggest challenges we face,” he said.

To recruit more grassroots ambassadors for its cause, GNO Inc. has unveiled its new GNOi iPhone app, which users can tap to find up-to-date details on business incentives, rankings and recognition, cultural assets and trends.

Hecht said it would be especially helpful to equip people with hard facts when they encounter doubts or criticism about the region. It also allows users to submit business development leads directly to GNO Inc. Developed and designed by the local firms Touch Studios and Design the Planet, the GNOi app can be downloaded from the Apple app store.