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.