Detroit on the mend: City takes the wraps off new campaign

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(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 headed.)

 

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!"

Baum is 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 Detroit.

"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.

"What defines 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 time.

Patricia 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 urban cool?"

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 come.

Selling that 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 testing.

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!'

Outside Berline's 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.

The photographs 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 comprehensive.

The type across a detailed photograph of a manhole cover says, "Gritty. Pretty. Motor City." They like it.

Another features 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" travelers.

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 different.

Alexander said 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 entertained."

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: No slogan."

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 production."

One major thing the campaign leaders easily agree on is that the city is its own iconic brand.

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 steel.

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' there."

   

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