“Lose Yourself” is the most famous track in the movie 8-Mile. It encapsulates the story of one B-Rabbit as played by Detroiter Marshal Mathers, a.k.a. Eminem. The song is a story about struggle, getting knocked down and overcoming obstacles. It’s about getting “one shot” and making the most of that opportunity and pulling through. 8 Mile was also shot on the streets of Detroit.
Now, that message of opportunity and urgency rings true for the city of Detroit itself as it emerges out of bankruptcy later this month and takes its’ “one shot” to fix what decades have torn apart. Detroit is a damaged brand, but ironically, also incredibly interesting and on the mend with some new energy. Here’s our take on the Detroit brand and the road to a comeback.
Detroit’s story is well known and dates back to the racial tensions of 1967. I was born outside of Detroit. As a kid, I remember helicopters flying over my house loaded with National Guardsmen en route to a smoky downtown to quell the riot trouble. From that summer, the city and the brand that is Detroit went into steep decline.
Over time, Detroit has been branded. Its’ become America’s black eye.
In the 1950’s Detroit had a population of nearly 1.8 million residents and over decades that number has shrunk to 700,000 with a steady stream of urban flight.
Some 80,000 structures sit abandoned in the cities’ 139 square miles. Ruin porn has become a bigger signature for Detroit than its surprisingly lovely skyline. Basic services like streetlights, EMS and police & fire response have deteriorated to unacceptable levels.
But here’s another truth. The Detroit brand is getting better. And Detroit is even…cool.
Detroit is different. And different matters big when it comes to brands. There’s an edge to this place. It’s unabashedly blue collar and real. It’s one of the last places in America that makes stuff with steel and real Americans working with it.
There’s a certain voltage with “Detroit-ness”. And brands have noticed. Chrysler was first to use Detroit’s hard edge with gritty images and the Lose Yourself anthem as its backdrop. The two-minute Superbowl spot featuring Eminem wore the tagline “Imported From Detroit” and has since been downloaded over 16 million times.
Shinola has famously set up shop with both retail and watch manufacturing in the city’s increasingly trendy Midtown District and positioned themselves around “Made In Detroit” and the proposition of a return to American-made craftsmanship. The Detroit brand allure is all about a hip urban edginess and independence.
According to Curt Cheyfitz, CEO of Story Worldwide and a Detroit supporter, “Companies coming to the Motor City for branding are wrapping themselves around a mythology that is outlaw. It is a safe way to be appealing to young people all over the country who embrace those kinds of feelings – of wanting to be outside of the mainstream while actually defining the mainstream.”
But beyond image, Detroit is also attracting newcomers with its unique brand promise.
That promise is opportunity. Nowhere in America is there a place that is trying to re-ignite the American Dream like Detroit. Since the city has bottomed out, investors, led by Quicken Loans Dan Gilbert, have been snapping up commercial and residential properties all over the city. Even Chinese investors are in the act of bidding up dilapidated buildings for renovation into loft apartments and hip office space.
Detroit is a place where cool things are rising from the ashes weekly and reports of investment hit the web with regular occurrence. Where else in America can you pick up an exquisitely-detailed four bedroom house in a historic neighborhood for under $200,000. In Detroit it happens every day. And they’re being snapped up by people that see a rare opportunity. What’s more, downtown Detroit is attracting a new crop of Millenial urban pioneers who want to live in a city with affordable rents and a place where they can be part of something coming alive. Digital start-ups are opening offices downtown. So are advertising agencies and other professional service firms. Trendy restaurants and retail are also coming back to the city.
But brands are as brands do.
And operationally, it looks like a new mayor and city council will fix the dysfunctional governance that has long been a signature of Detroit every bit as much as coney island hot dogs. Mayor Duggan, a former corporate turnaround specialist, has been able to assemble a strong team of A-list talent that looks to have a plan and a system of turning around core agenda items driven by metrics and tight status meetings where stakeholders are held accountable for delivering measurable results for city services; like blight removal, crime reduction and emergency response times. To the cities credit, crime is down 7% from 2012 to 2013. $160 million has been allocated to high tech LED lighting for city streets and over 200 houses are reportedly being torn down every week. It’s also refreshing to see a grassroots focus on Detroit neighborhoods versus the seen-it -before downtown-focused re-gentrification.
Numbers matter. But it will take more than brand metrics to truly turnaround Detroit.
Mayor Duggan has cited population growth as a key metric to judge the city’s turnaround and it makes sense. If the city can attract more residents, it must clearly be improving. But the real barometer for success will be the ability for the city to create a place where young urban pioneers might want to actually stay to raise their kids. So that will mean a radical improvement to a ravaged school system. And it will mean the creation of jobs to fill the void of a couple generations of job loss and welfare existence. And by the way, other cities are trying to attract investment to create those jobs too.
But the journey begins with the first few steps. Beyond a fresh start, Detroit has the opportunity and obligation to rebuild itself after the bankruptcy cleanse. A cool tagline will certainly be trotted out for all this. But the Detroit brand turnaround, more than anything, needs to be an inside job. The city needs to buy in to the turnaround platform and make things happen. And seeing will be believing for those inside and outside the city.
“Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity…
To seize everything you ever wanted. One moment. Would you capture it or just let it slip?”
The opportunity is now. Stay tuned.
Brandmachine is in the brand solutions business. And in the business of going to newer and better places.