Opinion

Detroit – forward!


Detroit has declared itself bankrupt.

Is this the first step in repairing a damaged brand, or the beginning of the end for Motor City?

Wow.  The news that Detroit has filed for bankruptcy has left me feeling…  What, exactly?

Sad?  Melancholy? Hopeful?

All of the above.

The city that got America moving and grooving is down.  The brand, once glittering, now tarnished with collapsing public services, dwindling residential population and spiking murder rates, is in imminent danger of complete destruction.

That makes me sad.  Deeply so. (Mostly because I’d give a select appendage get the chance to run a place branding and marketing campaign for somewhere like Detroit.  That would be awesome. You know how to contact me.)

And especially downcast because the ‘Imported from Detroit’ campaign had such promise.  (OK, it was really a vehicle for Chrysler to shift more units, but it had some significant place branding potential.)

How brilliant is that?

How fantastic that Chrysler put their money where their mouth is, and played not only to their heritage and their aspiration, but to the heritage of the people and place that spawned them.

Even as a non-American, I want to punch the air and give a whopping ‘Hell YEAH’ to that ad.

The work rightly won awards.  In fact, here’s an extract from the official press release that accompanied its Effie (via autoblog):

The challenge for the Grand Effie winner, according to its entry, “after Chrysler’s 2009 bankruptcy, the 200 launched with no loyalty to leverage and no eager buyers waiting to see what was coming. Unfortunately, America had turned its back on American cars. In turn, America turned its back on Detroit. If Chrysler could bring back Detroit, it could take back its rightful place within it. Success required us to keep the public’s eye on Chrysler’s future – to see the possibility, energy and will-to-win in Chrysler. Chrysler launched “IMPORTED FROM DETROIT”, which punctuated every piece of communication that has come from the brand since. The first-ever two-minute commercial in the Super Bowl (featuring Eminem) formed the centerpiece of the campaign. As a result, the effort achieved a PR extravaganza and Chrysler search and sales skyrocketed. The success of this campaign has contributed significantly to the company’s sales growth over 2010, and as a result of this success, Chrysler has paid off their government bailout six years early.”

Ah, but, wait.  Look at this line:  “If Chrysler could bring back Detroit…

That’s the worm in the apple, and the proof that all the awards in the world won’t stop bad things happening.  You know, like bankruptcy.  And murder.

They didn’t, they haven’t.  But they sold a lot of their units, which was nice for them.

But now Detroit is slowly becoming cool.

Check out this Google ad for one example:

(I didn’t realise, initially, that this was Detroit.  Thanks to Buzzfeed for the original source)

And it appears that there are some grassroots movements aiming to bring the city back to life.   The Detroit Future City plan is particularly inspiring and far reaching.

Some of these ideas aren’t new – in fact, there’s a lot of resonance with what you can read today with this piece published by Alan ‘Brand’ Williamson in 2006.

This article by David Muller also speaks a lot of sense, advocating cities such as Detroit leverage existing assets rather than succumbing to Shiny New Object Syndrome (perfect advice which any place, or brand, would be wise to take before splashing cash on un-needed and ill-thought-through frippery).

Like London’s Hoxteth or The Annex in Toronto, the grit of the place appeals.

Places such as these become hotbeds of creativity as those who can’t afford to live in ‘nice’ areas move in, and force a gentrification.

They suddenly start to pull themselves up, redefine their sense of purpose, create a desirable brand around themselves.

Yes, they’re not perfect, but they’re ‘real’, ‘authentic’.

And that counts for one hell of a lot.

By using this sense of the real, the city could find its saving grace…

Detroit still has potential.  By playing to its heritage while taking the opportunity to redefine and (literally) rebuild itself as a City of the Future, we could see one of the most important, audacious and inspiring rebranding exercises in recent history.

Watch this space.

Neil Hopkins is a Marketing and Branding Theorist at heart, and a Marketing Communications Manager by day. His blog – interacter – is the primary location he shares insight and information relating to marketing, branding and advertising strategy.
You can follow Neil on Twitter, circle him (like an escaped bull) on Google+ or track him down in any number of other ways.

And he really, really, really, would like a ticket to Detroit to chat branding and marketing.  He REALLY would.

Image credit: femaletrumpet02 on Flickr

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9 thoughts on “Detroit – forward!

  1. Having spent a fair bit of time in D-Town this news was sadly inevitable. An entrenched political system of graft, corruption and waste, an intractable industry (read union) scenario with little incentive and appetite to diversify and, for many years, a degree of Washington-sanctioned protectionism. Its way too easy to over-simplify what happened, as I just did, but there are lessons to be learned from not considering the future and an inability (or lack of appetite) to build contingencies. It is broadly analogous to the shipyards along the Clyde. Glasgow, a city where i have family, spent many years struggling with redefining themselves after the ships left. Detroit, sadly, has that very painful journey ahead of itself.

    • Interesting, Hilton’ thanks.

      What do you think that Detroit could take from the experience on the Clyde to speed their passage?

      Do you think that the modern paradigm of social action/interaction will make any substantive differences?

  2. This is a fascinating subject and as Hilton says has no quick solution. My own view is that the sooner Detroit moves on from its past, the faster reinvention will come. If the great declines of the UK (docks, shipbuilding, mining, steel, jeez – pretty much all manufacturing) show us anything, it is that trying to recapture what was there simply extends the pain. What was – is no more. What is needed now is a clear vision of what can be. This does not mean throwing away history, culture or heritage, but recognising that the infrastructure needs to be reinvented and reimagined. Not replaced. Certainly not torn down, but given a new life – a new identity. The challenge is not to think how can we recapture what Detroit was, but how can the city create the conditions for growth?

    Time to read the Detroit Future City Plan … wow it is detailed.

    345 pages in fact.

    I wanted to be impressed. I wasn’t. I was shocked at how a document could be so long and comprehensive, yet fail to provide real direction to fix the city. 30,000 conversations, 70,000 survey responses and a highly detailed strategic framework that failed to inspire me within the first 20 pages of it. Perhaps the answer is in the remaining 325 pages … but somehow I doubt it. I checked … it isn’t.

    Nothing incorrect. Very comprehensive, but generic, long term and lacking clear action in defining the CHANGE and ACTIONS that are needed now. Will any citizens read this? I doubt it – not unless they are paid by the City to do so. So who is the document for? What is needed is a clear and simple set of priorities to deal with the problems today. What the document gives is everything – a completely sanitised non-offensive framework for what the city wants to achieve. And here is the greatest weakness. By defining everything, it focuses on nothing. It aim to appeal to everyone, but it needs to focus to make things happen. A strategy requires prioritisation – that means saying no. When you have 345 pages – you can avoid saying no.

    If I was a citizen I would demand the short version. Give me the 1 year, 2 year and 5 year plan. Nothing else matters until these are achieved. When they are – then you go to the next set of goals.

    Good luck Detroit.

    • @Gary – typical governmental response. Rearticulate the problem and stare through the rearview mirror versus the windscreen. Detroit has, like Philly and Pittsburgh, begun to try generate an alternate “tech” or “arts” hub persona. Detroit has one of the richest cultural archives in the US – part of the civil investment when it was the richest city in the world, literally – and one the City Council was considering selling to reduce their debt. There is some potential there but the long road to that investment trickling down to the blighted neighbourhoods is too long, painful and heart-breaking for people who are seeking an immediate solution. It is terrible to say but I’m glad the federal government didn’t step in to bail Detroit out. It forces them to make some really really tough choices without the benefit of money that could merely minimize the urgency to change.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Gary & Hilton.

    I agree with you both – the solution is long, and complex, as much about infrastructure as the internal/external brand confidence/aspiration.

    This piece makes great reading, but I would hope that there’s the structural investment in place as well – otherwise we could have the similar situation to the UK’s ‘Big Society’/’Localism’ thing which (from my perspective) really isn’t working that well in the majority of cases.
    http://www.policymic.com/articles/44725/this-is-what-budget-cuts-have-done-to-detroit-and-it-s-freaking-awesome

    It’s a fine line to tread.

    I came across this today, drawing a warning parallel between Detroit & the UK. Although I can see the inference, I’m not sure whether the writer has actually engaged with what’s going on…
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/local-government-network/2013/jul/26/demise-detroit-localism-goes-wrong?CMP=twt_gu

  4. So do these entrepreneurs, many of them white, who are moving into Detroit really get the problems of a city with a population that is 83 percent black? Are they really going to be part of the solution, or are they in it for themselves while turning their back on the huge structural problems Detroit now confronts?

      • Racial composition is a factor but it would be ridiculous to suggest its the whole story. Entrepreneurs are going to go where there are incentives – like any businessman. Their skin colour isn’t a factor is it? The more pertinent question would be are the right type of entrepreneurial ventures being supported or enticed to come into Detroit. Are they ventures that can scale? Are they ventures that can utilize the large numbers of unemployed – or provide new skills training that can make these folks more employable? Are they paying fair wages and providing decent benefits (which several US states don’t require of employers). On the flip side, is it solely the responsibility of entrepreneurs to “fix” Detroit? Where’s municipal and local government’s responsibility in doing more than laying out the red carpet?

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