Telling a Detroit Story

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 you'd think.

If Detroit projects the right story to the right market, that could happen sooner rather than later, says Eric La Brecque, the 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 metro Detroit.

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 rich.

"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 that 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 thrive.

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 anywhere else.

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

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