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.

I see usability

I see usability.

That was my dad’s favorite saying.  Dad was a dedicated junk collector, a man with no hesitation about pulling things off the curb in front of the neighbors’ houses.  But he wasn’t looking for salvage or a quick couple of dollars.  He was looking for usability.

 

Dad was what I guess you would call a tinkerer.  He always had projects in process – a car (or three) in various stages of disassembly on their way to being restored, an electronic gadget that he was convinced would work again if he could just find the loose wire, an idea for making something from the extra tin cans he brought home from the paint factory or the brass-plated  fittings that a friend at the foundry gave him or the pile of tire irons he found on garbage day around the corner.

When I was an adult and went home to visit, I knew he would want my undivided attention as he showed me his latest finds and described his new ideas for making flowerpots or bird feeders or paint brush holders or whatever.  One of my strongest memories of him: he would pull himself up to full (not very tall) height, puff out his (very slight) chest, hold up what looked like a random piece of junk, and declare:

“I…see…usability.”

Most of the time, I would nod and smile, but I didn’t see it.  And even when he did complete something (which didn’t always happen), I failed to see the achievement in it (these weren’t great works of art by any stretch).  But he never said he was going for artistry.  He saw usability.

Maybe this is why my dad, the paint factory worker, understood the value of old places long before I did.  Growing up in the small Rust Belt town where he also had gone to high school, the buildings and houses I saw everyday seemed…tired.  I didn’t know much better – I never travelled much until I was older – but I knew that my friends who lived in the newer neighborhoods had whole house air conditioning,  heat ducts instead of the metal radiator in my room that clunked and hissed but seldom seemed to heat anything, and walls that didn’t require tedious, unending paint scraping every damn summer.

I did eventually turn into a historic preservation specialist during the 90s — I have the distinction of being responsible for listing some of the ugliest buildings in the Badger State on the National Register of Historic Places.   In northern Wisconsin at that time, preservation was mostly on the minds of a few disgruntled… well, the common perception was crackpots.  I’ve written about Green Bay’s history with urban renewal before, and as late as the early 1990s, a blight removal plan that identified most old downtown buildings for demolition as soon as the city could get them was still in effect and being carried out.  I crawled through the basement of one of the final ones, documenting its last days, before it was demolished.  I’m sure I still have those photos.

Green Bay at that time was just starting to understand the economic benefits of preservation – but Dad understood entirely.  He started to mail me clippings from the Cleveland papers (remember actual clippings?).  And when I got on the phone with him, he was more excited to talk about a building or bridge rehab that he had read about than about what he and Mom were doing.

About nine months before my second son was born, Dad was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  My last time with him was about a month before the baby was due – last time I could travel from Cincinnati, where we had moved, to Cleveland, a drive of about 3½ hours.  Shortly before I left to go home, Dad sat me on the couch and pulled out a large envelope full of clippings.  By this point, the cancer in the speech center of his brain was wreaking havoc on his ability to read or write, and my name on the outside of the envelope was spelled with three L’s.  We spent a long time going through those clippings – all sorts of building rehabs and downtown revitalization stories in Cleveland and South Carolina and places that I had never heard of.  And at one point, he looked at me directly, and told me that he was proud of me, that what I was doing was important.

This at a time when I was continually wondering how I could keep working, with a toddler at home and a baby on the way,  when the cultural pressure to hang it up seemed to roar constantly in my ears.

These places matter.  What you’re doing to help them matters.

I see usability.

Dad died a week after Jonathan was born.  We gave Jon his name because that was one that Dad liked.

 

I still don’t really know why old places matter to us – obviously there’s the sense of history, the fact that these are often places that are built at the human scale and are thus more comfortable for us, the solid-ness of the materials,  so on and so on.  But why do they matter so much to so many, and on such a primal level?

Maybe it’s because even the most run-down, aesthetically unpleasing places have usability. They so often have the potential to be so much more than they are.

Maybe that’s what we really need to be working on: re-discovering and re-claiming our places’ usabililty.

Thanks, Dad.