Tourism happens in unlikely places. Would anyone have fingered Austin, TX, as a haven for hipness three decades ago? As many years ago, who'd have pegged Prague as a European hot spot? And now even Bosnia – a place synonymous with war and civil unrest just a decade go — is becoming a desired destination.
A city overcoming image problems and emerging as a tourist destination may seem difficult, but it's not impossible.
If they can do it, why not Detroit? The Motor City is positioning
itself to be the next cool thing. There's an authenticity and
uniqueness about Detroit that means it's only a matter of time before
everyone else discovers it. And if the recent 52-page Kate Moss spread
in W magazine is any indication, that time might not be as far off as
If Detroit projects the right story to the right market, that could
happen sooner rather than later, says Eric La Brecque
California-based expert hired by the Tourism Economic Development Council
to help build a new Detroit brand. "I actually believe this
could become a really strong tourist destination," he says.
The trick is tapping into that authenticity, and creating a Detroit brand that rings true and resonates with the marketplace. Sorting out our story
If every city has a story, right now Detroit's is all over the place. In the early part of the last century, Detroit's brand was clearer: The city was the center of innovation, creativity and industry. It was a city that built gorgeous skyscrapers and churned out amazing music and automobiles in equal measure.
Now, there's a story here, but we lack the language to tell it, says Jim Townsend,
executive director of the Tourism Economic Development Council, a
public-private partnership that works to boost tourism spending in
Detroit's story now has improved dramatically from the bleakest
chapters, no doubt. So much has changed, however, it's hard to put a
Detroit experience into words. And so much negativity has clouded the
message that many outsiders have no idea what the real Detroit is like.
"Good brands are really stories underneath. A compelling brand image
really invokes a narrative in your mind. It creates a story that people
respond to," Townsend says.
"What we've been lacking in Detroit is a positive narrative about
ourselves. There's a lot of negative imagery out there, and we haven't
been intentional as a community to get out our version of the story.
La Brecque says there's a lot of fodder for positive images, more than
in a long time. If you think of the city proper and the region as a
package deal — because La Brecque says visitors do — there's a laundry
list: Cars. Casinos. Museums. History. Shopping. A riverfront and a
border crossing. Big league baseball, football, basketball and hockey.
But even more intriguing is what's not as obvious. "Then there's this
whole underground unknown, all these scenes, all these things that are
cool about Detroit that people don’t even know about," Townsend says.
"The art scene, music scene, film community, historic buildings, the
history people don't even know about — all those things are really
"People don't recognize that they live, whether they live in the city
or near the city, in the midst of one of history's great cities," he
adds. "There really aren't but a handful of those in the U.S."A different kind of campaign
So when can we expect to see some sunshiny slogan and hear the syrupy jingle? Not likely to happen. This is not an effort intended to purely cheerlead or boost our own self-esteem, even though a successful tourism effort could indeed do that. That's not what La Brecque and the TEDC are going for.
Everything is extremely preliminary, but they are intrigued with the
idea of targeting the brand toward younger visitors, urban enthusiasts
and generally people who are interested in different types of travel.
The target could be, metaphorically, the younger siblings of the
hipsters and ultra-cool kids who "discovered" Prague. The resulting
marketing campaigns could be more underground — think online, viral,
Podcast, MySpace, Wikipedia, the blogosphere and everything that's
emerging in marketing to Gen X and Gen Y.
"I think there's a lot of acceptance of the idea that Detroit is a city
that appeals to young people, that the cool aspects of Detroit can be
really attractive to young people," Townsend says.
La Brecque and the TEDC also have been using unusual methods to collect
Detroiters' stories. In addition to focus groups and personal
interviews, they've been using an online survey and web-based mapping project
have people plot and list favorite places in the region.
They've assembled some preliminary findings but are still shopping them
around to TEDC's stakeholders. They still need more time to review and
study before they let their final brand objectives out of the bag.
Eventually, La Brecque will put together a Detroit brand or story. Out
of that story, the TEDC and Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau
will develop marketing campaigns and strategies. A slogan could
stem from that, Townsend says, but a catchphrase is not as important as
the brand – the overall image – Detroit needs to sell. Think of Coke's
different slogans over the years. The campaigns change, but the brand's
meaning in the marketplaces doesn't.
Slogans and campaigns help sell a brand, the way a blurb sells a book,
Townsend says. "You don't think of the whole novel, you think of a few
images of those books," he says. "The slogans and the short campaigns
tend to come and go. What stays around are the story and the larger
identity of the community."
Other cities have done branding work recently. Atlanta last year came
up with its "ATL" campaign,
based on a branding goal of associating the city with three O's:
"Opportunity, Optimism and Openness." Frequent fliers know the ATL as
the airport code, and hip-hoppers had adopted it as a term of
endearment for the city.
Pittsburgh just launched "Imagine Pittsburgh"
, hoping to
change outsiders' view of the region as a smokestack-filled,
industrial, blue-collar city to one where innovation, arts and science
Detroit's strategy could and should look very different. Townsend and
La Brecque are tossing around words like "edgy" and "risky." They've
realized that what's attractive to Detroit's visitors is different than
what sells a Florida vacation or Carolina beach holiday. Detroit can be
a wonderland, but it's a different kind of ride than you'll get
Selling a city is a lot like selling any other product, La Brecque
says. You have to identify what sets Detroit apart from the pack, and
send that story out to the audiences most likely to embrace it.
"Here are all of these cities. Think of them as individuals for a
moment in a marketplace. These cities are shouting, 'Come to me, come
to me,'" La Brecque says.
"And some are shouting louder, which equals more media dollars. And
some are trying to whisper. And some have a rhythm to what they say,
and you pick it up because it's repeated over and over, and it's
pleasing. And maybe you gravitate to one or another because of what
they look like or what they say or the rhythm. And then they begin to
talk to you, and it's an interaction."
What should Detroit say? It'll be months before La Brecque and the TEDC
finish their work. In the meantime, though, you can participate. Take the survey
and the opportunity to tell your side of the story.
The GM Renassaince Center from Canada
The Thinker at the Detroit Instittue of Arts
Eric La Brecque
The Spirit of Detroit
The Fisher Building
All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger