(Editor's Note: Late last year, Business Editor Dan
Luzadder was invited to attend confidential meetings and
discussions with officials of Detroit's Convention and Visitor's
Bureau and marketing consultants as they planned the final leg of a
campaign to revive tourism in the long-troubled city. Details of
the resulting branding and marketing campaign were made public for
the first time last week at the CVB's annual meeting. This article
offers a look at how the campaign developed and where Detroit is
DETROIT -- Night
darkens the cityscape, the October air grows chilly and Chris Baum
stands in front of his pricey seat along the third-base line with
several reporters as Tigers right fielder Magglio Ordonez steps to
home plate. It is the bottom of the ninth, the game tied, and there
are two outs. Yet with two runners on base, the struggling Tigers
-- almost unbelievably -- are only a hit away from sweeping their
way to an American League pennant.
There is a sense
of promise in the air, a palpable anticipation. The Oakland Athletics' pitcher
bears down, intent on forcing extra innings and denying the Tigers
what they, and hundreds of thousands of fans in the Motor City,
have long prayed for: the team's first World Series berth in more
than two decades.
There is a sense
that this is more than just baseball. Baum would later characterize
the Tigers' drive for the pennant as one in a string of changes
symbolizing a revitalized Detroit. But at the moment, he is on his
feet with thousands of other screaming fans.
On the second
pitch, Ordonez takes a deep cut and the sound of wood on horsehide
cracks through the stadium like a lightening bolt splitting oak. A
deafening roar rises from packed Comerica Park as the ball soars
over the fence into the left field stands, guaranteeing what the
Tigers, and the city, are craving: Validation -- and a trip to the
biggest show in baseball.
"How about that!"
Baum yells as he turns to high-five a reporter from the Chicago
Sun-Times. "How about that!"
ear-to-ear grin, and for a newcomer to Detroit -- one who not very
long ago was cheering the Boston Red Sox -- he couldn't be happier.
The victory is nothing if not a good omen, he says. The Tigers are
on the move.
And so is
"It really feels
like we're on a roll here," Baum says quietly as he files out into
the noisy streets of downtown Detroit with other happy fans. But he
has a lot more than the Tigers' victory in mind. The pennant
splashes the Tigers' name and images across the front pages of
every daily newspaper the next morning, providing another needed
boost for Detroit. It seems to verify that things are indeed
finally moving in the right direction for the city.
Remaking the brand
Two days later,
Baum, recently named senior vice president of marketing for the
Detroit Convention and Visitor's Bureau, along with his boss, CVB
President Larry Alexander, helps lead the first of a series of
crucial internal meetings to finalize decisions and make financial
commitments to an innovative -- some would say radical -- new
branding campaign for the city.
They are doing so
by reviewing marketing recommendations in preparation for a major
meeting the next day with the bureau's advertising firm, Berline,
of Royal Oak, Mich. They work for more than two hours hammering out
final guidelines in order to pick images, messages and strategies
from Berline's creative team as part of a sweeping overhaul of the
city's tourism marketing plan.
Eric La Brecque,
a California-based brand consultant who helped shape a new identity
for the Dearborn, Mich.-based Henry Ford Museum,
has laid out a series of recommendations in a PowerPoint
presentation that distill what Alexander and local stakeholders
have been working on since late 2005: The branding of
Detroit as urban cool?" La Brecque asks the dozen people gathered
around a conference table, all of whom have contributed to the work
in progress and are seeing the recommendations for the first
Moordian, president of the Henry Ford Museum and chair of a CVB
economic advisory subcommittee that pushed to initiate the branding
effort, quickly offers: "Maybe Detroit is the brand. Detroit, quote
unquote, is what you're building. Detroit is powerful ... Detroit
is cool ..."
"What is 'cool'?"
La Brecque asks the group softly, rhetorically, flashing additional
possibilities onto an overhead screen. "What defines Detroit as
The answer is
certainly not to be found in the scars of the past. The Detroit
race riots of 1968, which left major parts of the downtown and many
neighborhoods in smoking ruins, have cast a shadow on the city for
decades. Nor is it found in the unwanted image, painted by years of
crime statistics, of "America's most dangerous" city, a cauldron of
urban decay in the Rust Belt.
But while those
images hang stubbornly in the American pysche, they constitute an
obsolete perception, largely retained by older generations, says
Baum. Fortunately, he adds, it is not a perception widely held by
the target group of the CVB's campaign, 21-to-34-year-olds, who
were born long after 1968.
That target group
is the emerging demographic for most travel marketing these days,
La Brecque says, the age group that has become the trend setters,
early adopters, embracers of new media and the most likely
consumers of cultural experiences for a long time to
group on what makes Detroit unique, interesting and fun, and thus a
revitalized city, has, over the past 18 months, been the subject of
focus groups, study sessions, internal research and community
Armed with the
resulting intelligence, the group agrees it can support assertions
that what makes Detroit "cool" is "cars, culture, gaming, music and
sports." It all represents, they say, a Detroit that has stepped
into the 21st century.
The approach that
emerges from the meeting, and from the
session that follows the next day with local advertising guru Jim
Berline, concedes that although Detroit may not be for everyone, it
has something unique to offer, something interesting to those
unburdened by the past.
The slogan: 'No slogans!'
offices in Royal Oak the next morning, Alexander pulls his suit
coat over his head and makes a dash for the front door as a cold
autumn rain pelts the sidewalk. He is followed by a videographer
hired to record the meeting. Inside, dozens of mat boards with
bright and provocative images spill across the table and the floor
of a large room.
and drawings have words stenciled across them, matching language to
ideas in an attempt to visualize Detroit's uniqueness and what
makes it "cool." They all revolve around themes of music, art,
architecture, cars and sports teams. The elements are
The type across a
detailed photograph of a manhole cover says, "Gritty. Pretty. Motor
City." They like it.
a sexy woman sitting on the front wheel of a chopped and channeled
hot rod, a Detroit specialty. One by one, Alexander, Baum and La
Brecque make picks. The one they like best uses these words:
"Detroit. Where cool comes from."
The goal all
along, Baum says, has been to convey the "story" of modern Detroit
in few words and many pictures, and through the less-traditional
media that appeal to their target demographic.
The images that
Berline's staff has composed are dramatic: a gritty city that
exudes power; an urban center of wealth and influence; a metropolis
that trumpets a diverse culture, including some of America's most
innovative music. Detroit: birthplace of the
Motown sound and, more recently, techno music; home of such legends
as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder plus new artists
like the White Stripes and Eminem.
As the three sort
through the standing images, the video camera rolling behind them,
it is clear that many fit a detailed plan already unfolding. The
CVB has laid groundwork to hire young actors to energize and
deliver the message of urban cool to "young and hip"
They have set
schedules and made plans to focus on the new media that their
demographic prefers: Podcasts and Internet-accessible video; blogs
to reach tourists and raise awareness of Detroit; marketing skits
featuring iconic personalities. Like the language that describes
the city, all these will evolve over time, reinforcing the image of
Detroit as a cultural and industrial center that is
the gravitation toward new media came from studies and focus groups
revealing their targets' preferences.
"They don't like
being marketed to," Alexander said. "They don't trust traditional
marketing. They are savvy, and they know instantly when you are
trying to sell them something. They want to learn about what you
have to offer, not have it sold to them. They want to be
They also want
something, he said, beyond the traditional messages that dominate
tourism marketing in most cities, beyond the ideas of sightseeing
and museum prowling: a sense of a city's "beat," its culture, and
the chance to participate in and "be stimulated by it."
In the end, the
group and its advisers conclude that one thing the campaign does
not need is a slogan.
"A lot of people
look first for a slogan when you talk about a marketing campaign,"
Baum says. "When we unveil the campaign, it comes with a surprise:
In fact, slogans
have proved effective for only a handful of marketing efforts, most
notably for Las Vegas' "What happens here, stays here."
"A slogan locks
you into one idea," Baum says. "What we want is to unlock the
potential of the brand itself."
La Brecque adds:
"For a Detroit, a diverse city that breathes music, settling on one
slogan seemed needlessly contrived. We needed to focus on imagery
of the city's cultural diversity and cultural
One major thing
the campaign leaders easily agree on is that the city is its own
They see the Old
English "D", which the Tigers created and made famous, as perhaps
the best-known symbol of the city. But efforts to adopt it for the citywide
campaign eventually derailed over copyright issues.
Instead, the CVB
adopted a slightly different version, one of their own making. It
looks dynamic, engineered and bold, as if hammered from
Clearly, a lot is
riding on this campaign. Not only have several million dollars been
budgeted for it, but there is also a feeling that the time has
never been better to encourage visitors to discover that Detroit
has changed dramatically.
"That there were
negative images of Detroit absolutely crossed my mind immediately,"
La Brecque says, recalling when he joined the effort in March 2006.
"My concept of Detroit was really a mystery. I had the impression
of most outsiders that it was a pretty gritty place, probably more
than a little dangerous, and a city that had seen better days. I
decided on one visit to find the real Detroit and go downtown. But
it was such a spread-out city, and I couldn't find the 'there'