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.

Selections From new Book: Why This Work Matters

I’m so, so delighted to be able to start sharing with you a few selections from the upcoming Wise Fool Press book, Why This Work Matters.  This book contains 11 essays from community professionals from all over the country, telling us in their own heartfelt words how they maintain the courage and the determination to do the work they do… and how they keep at it when things go badly.

This selection is from a consummate downtown professional, Jennifer Kime of Downtown Mansfield, Ohio.  I asked Jennifer to contribute because I knew she would write something amazing and beautiful.  And she did.

Why this Work Matters will be launching soon.  In the meantime, keep it tuned here for more updates on the book and a few more selections from some of the essays.

Thanks.  Here’s Jen:

If I made widgets, I could tell you exactly what my production has been in the last six months; including profit margins and every economic indicator you could ask for. But economic development and building community is a messy job.  The victories are slow, and most often don’t occur for years.  There are no grand award ceremonies for us, rewarding us for the best sense of community created.  The value of the work is in the giving, and the reward is creating community pride.

I was raised at the mall. Seriously. My mom would drop me off with my friends and we would hang out all day at Little Caesars, the record shop and the Limited.  Those stores were our gathering place.

I’d hear stories, though, of a community where my parents grew up. A place that was authentic and safe, where children would walk to school and stop at the shops on the way home.  The business owners were friends and family and even neighbors.

That didn’t make much sense to me.  No one knew who owned or even managed the Little Caesars, even though I spent an embarrassingly large portion of my time there.  We were friends with the breadstick boy, but that was just good sense.

It took a move to Chicago, where I managed a flower shop in the Printer’s Row neighborhood, to really understand community.  The business owners were friendly, the restaurant managers knew each other, and they all knew I was “from the neighborhood.”

If I’m being honest, it was kind of uncomfortable at first.  I wasn’t from Chicago and I didn’t even know these people.  But the owner of the deli knew that I loved the Italian sub, no onion, and we all knew that the coffee shop barrista was moving to London and we sent her flowers.

Mansfield’s downtown was well on its way to revitalization before I came around, but I plugged myself in — with overconfidence in my education and travels and self-assured problem solving skills.  I applied the equations and formulas that I had learned and observed.  Progress was made and I was feeling pretty good those first couple of years.  Our achievements were measurable and I kept a running tally to show exactly what had been accomplished.

That’s where it gets messy.….

How people feel about a place goes in cycles.  a community’s pride or self deprecation can be charted, I’m sure of it.  

Here’s how that cycle goes.  First, something changes and everyone feels good.  A unique new business opens and the community wraps around it and takes a little piece of it as their own source of pride.  But a month later, when an older business closes, the public begins the rhetoric: “

Someone needs to do Something about this town…”  

That continues for a while, until the next big event where thousands gather and the moms and kids chat endlessly about how fun it was to be downtown. Pride is temporarily restored….

When I got into this work, I didn’t know how messy it would be.  Especially coming from finance where there is a right, a wrong and an end to each column.

But I did come to the work with a vision that I continue to hold all these years later.  It’s not a particularly specific vision, it’s not complete and it’s not particularly pretty either. My vision of where we are going doesn’t look like a new outdoor mall, or the past, or even what I’ve seen in other communities.

My vision looks like a unique place where people who live in the community feel a bit of ownership.  That’s the difference that I see most strikingly between communities that are dying and communities that are fighting this great revitalization challenge.  The key element is developing ownership, and it’s best measured by listening to people talk about a place.

It’s the stark difference between, “they need to do something about that park” and “have you been to our new coffee shop?” And that’s my single most motivating factor in the work I do…..

Making a difference in a community is really about building ownership.  My most valuable work is not only in re-creating ownership where it has been lost, but also growing it in the younger generations.  When I see children wanting to be here, I get a sense of relief:

Someday they won’t have to worry about “someone to fix things” because they will be fixing them themselves.  Then, perhaps, I can go back to finance, or maybe I’ll finally make some widgets…