Marketing Detroit (and other places): the deeper challenge

As I wrote last week, Andy Levine from DCI asked me and a few other economic development professionals to respond to the “Extreme Makeover: Detroit Marketing” challenge, as a part of a post he was preparing for Forbes.com.  I posted the full piece that I had written, on the expectation that Andy would only use a bit of it, and he used more than I expected. Here’s the piece.

As I used to tell my writing workshop students back in my teaching days, the more concrete you make your writing, the better.  So, of course, the part that ends up in the Forbes article includes the oh-so-pretty picture of covering up a nasty scar with a thick application of makeup.  I think we all know how well that trick works…

To my surprise, the Detroit MetroTimes picked up the article, and said:

We particularly like this quote from Della G. Rucker, principal at Wise Economy Workshop:

“I know an extreme makeover sounds appealing. You spend a lot of money, you get a brand new fantastic look, right? But it is Detroit’s flaws that make Detroit unique. And real. You can’t hide them anyway. So be honest about them. Strive to address and fix them, but own them. Trying to hide them, when everyone and their mother knows they’re there, just makes them all the more obvious. It’s like putting a heavy layer of pancake makeup over a big scar — it might look better from a distance, but when you get close enough to connect, the caked mess says more about you than the actual flaw does.”

That was nice to see.  Thanks, folks.

But as I look at it again, I’m struggling even harder with the basic premise:

Is Detroit “the toughest sell in America,”as Andy said?  Well. maybe, possibly — if you’re talking only about the largest US cities, and you’re talking about marketing that city to everyone, everywhere.  And that’s what he probably meant (Forbes doesn’t want to run War and Peace, after all).

I would argue that Detroit already has a hell of a brand, a whopper of a marketing presence — at least in certain circles, among people who are attuned to what Detroit has to offer.  For crying out loud, I can’t go a week anymore without someone trying to tell me about Shinola, the Detroit-based watch manufacturer that completely bases its own branding on the Detroit Brand.

Now, caveat emptor: I live in the next-door state to Detroit, my husband is a product of the Detroit suburbs, I visit southwest Michigan pretty regularly, and I pay closer attention to Rust Belt and city revitalization and all those kinds of stories than the average joe.  So I might be a little too close to the situation to see what EveryOne Else in the world sees in Detroit.  And that powerful “brand” might be a niche thing, like a Shinola watch, and it might not have enough supporters to support the level of market presence that its population size and its physical scale needs to be sustainable.

But… Detroit most definitely has a brand, an it’s a powerful one.  Detroit right now is this collection of amazing, compelling, incredible stories…some hopeful, some tragic, many unresolved.  All powerful.

It’s a place that, even at the lower level where these stories have been finding their voice, you can see people of all types and of all backgrounds…resonating to it.  Responding to it.  Relating to it.

In a sense, the Detroit Story, writ large, is like a sweeping cinematic experience that pulls you in from the opening scene and then you can’t bring yourself to get up to go to the bathroom or get your popcorn out of the microwave.  Of course, the incredible and often cruel struggles that many Detroit residents face aren’t entertainment, and it’s crucial to the future of the city and the country that their situations improve, by a lot.

Think about the power, the emotional pull, of a place where people are fighting and trying and sometimes failing and rising with determination again.  Consumer goods use all kinds of tactics to tease an emotional response out of us.  For cryin out loud, they use lost puppies to sell beer and teddy bears to sell toilet paper.

Why?  Because we, all of us, make spending decisions based on our emotional response, in addition to logic.  Doesn’t matter what our income level, education level, self-importance level is. Otherwise, all marketing would consist of press releases.

Detroit doesn’t have to manufacture emotional response.  Detroit has it.  In bucketfuls. And I assure you, it’s more intoxicating than any mega-brew.

That’s why I said that a city that faces challenges like those Detroit has needs to own its flaws.  That history, that striving, even the striving among the wreckage, that’s what makes a place real.

We have so many Botoxed cities, pretty spin jobs, places that are desperately trying to invent overnight the kind of real-ness that Detroit and Cleveland and Milwaukee and their neighbors have.  Because they can see that when people only choose you because you’re cheap and you require little effort, they don’t have any reason to build the emotional connection that compels them to make a real investment.  They can see that because they’re living with it now.

So… I don’t think Detroit is a hard sell.  Detroit has pride.  Detroit has determination.  Detroit has a past and a present and a future that are complex, and messy, and unpredictable, and interesting. And it’s a place where a person, a business, would have a fairly decent chance of being part of building something that they can truly care about.  And Cleveland, and Buffalo, and Mansfield, and Elyria, and South Bend, and Rockford… you can pick the flavor that suits you best, but if you want a place you can sink your teeth into, I can show you several dozen.

Marketing, traditionally, was about razzle-dazzling you into thinking Product A was the answer to all your needs. After a hundred years or more of traditional marketing, it’s pretty clear that the bloom is long off that rose.  Marketers of all types are desperately trying to convert from flash to relationship building.  And if you have a relationship with someone or some place, that means that you care about it.

I’d say that for marketing Detroit, and other Rust Belt cities, the time has come.  You have the kind of product to sell that a lot of people are looking for.  So the real task, and the focus of your marketing, is actually pretty simple:

Start spreading the news.

No more lipstick on the pig: community branding and marketing from smart people (plus, me)

Last week, right as I was marching off into a string of conference gigs, my esteemed friend Ed Burghard of Strengthening Brand America launched this impressive E-book full of community marketing and branding advice from the brightest names in economic development marketing… and me, for some reason.

Given Ed’s undisputed marketing pedigree and the experience of many of the other folks Ed reached out to for this project, I was glad that I could add to the conversation.  I don’t typically think of myself as a marketing or branding specialist – most of what I know about those topics has come from years working with some of the brightest minds in the consumer marketing and branding world.

But because I work so closely with emerging issues in communities, technology and communication, I had something to contribute, after all.

You should read the whole e-book — and, if you don’t already do so, follow Ed for more excellent information on this topic.

To give you a taste, here’s what I submitted.  But I think the most important thing you can take away from this exploration is that, in parlance I learned from P&G marketing wizards, “your brand is your promise.”  It’s not about a pretty picture, it’s about sharing and communicating what your community is about.  And it has to be honest, now more than ever.

Here’s…uh…me:

—-

Others have talked a lot about authentic-ness, truthfulness, the promise nature of a brand, etc. That’s gospel truth, now more than ever. Branding/marketing of all types has become more about human-ness, real-ness, and relationship, and the demand for that from potential consumers intensifies every year. The more “brands” learn to do that, whether they’re selling shampoo or cars or downtowns, the more the audience that views and judges brands demands that real-ness.

The public’s ability to sniff out what’s fake or dishonest, or just too overly cleaned-up, is increasing at a speed that should leave us all reeling if we think about it.  And the younger the message recipient, the more intense that ability seems to get.

Whatever slight wiggle room we used to have for spinning the story, for putting lipstick on the pig….it’s just about gone.

pig with lipstick
From “2guystalkingmetsbaseball.com.” No idea where they got it.

And that puts an enormous, and potentially impossible, burden on the usual approach of trying to capture the “essence” of a brand in a logo and a color scheme and a tag line. There has to be much, much more substance and meaning behind it — much more than we in this field have usually bothered to develop, and much more than I suspect most communities typically want to invest in.  Until they realize that they have no choice

The other piece of community branding/marketing that is changing is the expectation among “consumers” (not sure that’s the right word in the community branding context) of not just a two-way conversation, but a relationship.

Look at what’s happening with popular music, the way bands and singers and the like not only share more, but interact more, with their audiences. Fans post stuff about their favorites, and more often than not the singer actually responds. Saul Kaplan had a great piece on Medium last month about Taylor Swift and how she has built this incredible fan base though public responses to individual questions/requests- it’s as close to a personal relationship with a few million people as you can get.

I think people who are in branding and brand management for both consumer goods and places probably don’t really understand how high that bar is rising.

The brand management — the ongoing, organic, situation-specific communication, in lots of little pieces over lots of time, is increasingly what seems to separate the successful brands from those that fall flat. We know and say that people respond to people (or at least personable-ness), and that’s both easier, and harder, than designing a logo or a “brand campaign.”

I still think one of the most potentially cutting-edge models of community branding that I have every seen is the Agenda 360 Story project in Cincinnati. Nick Vehr probably knows the inner workings of that better than I do, but I was so struck by the depth, the meaningfulness, the extendability of that initiative — which, as far as I can remember, didn’t involve a graphic design package at all.

Postscript: Ed chose to call out this line in big orange print:

“Whatever slight wiggle room we had for spinning the story, for putting lipstick on the pig….it’s just about gone..”

Thanks, Ed.