If ever there was a time that it could help the reputationally depleted Detroit area to recast its brand, that time is now. Soon, the city will be hosting two more of the US’s major sports events: the Major League Baseball All-Star game next summer and the Super Bowl itself in 2006. So, in an attempt to optimize this rare confluence of opportunities, Detroit’s marketers are putting the finishing touches on a new brand-identity program. The goal is to help Detroit, once and for all, dissipate the perceptual black cloud that has hung over the city for the last 40 years.
“A lot of good things are happening here, so there’s never been a better time to do it,” says Renee Monforton, a marketing executive for the Detroit Metropolitan Visitors Bureau. “Because it’s Detroit, a lot of people have to see it to believe it.”
The brand-building effort involves state and suburban officials and area business executives as well as Detroit’s brain trust. “We’re putting together a cohesive message and the money to promote that message,” promises Dave Manney, Detroit’s communications director. “We’re always doing stuff, but now we’re working on a coordinated game plan. We’ll be kicking it in after the Ryder Cup, when we’ll have everyone’s attention.”
But for Detroit to actually emerge from this period with a strong and positive brand identity for the future, it will have to battle both its past and present. The city’s image took a decided plunge after race riots in the late sixties. But unlike other major metropolises that either rose from that nadir or developed other things to recommend the place, Detroit stayed in a funk. “White flight” to the suburbs during the seventies and eighties dealt a bigger blow to Detroit than to many other urban centers, exacerbated by open hostilities between Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and suburban leaders. High rates of violent crime bestowed the moniker “Murder Capital USA” on the city. Public schools plunged into non-performance. More than half of the city’s two-million population of 1950 disappeared in a half-century.
During the eighties and nineties, little changed, as national media focused on major indicators of Detroit’s troubles, including the fortress-like design of the Renaissance Center, the city’s tallest structures; a lack of progress on cleaning up thousands of acres of abandoned buildings; and residents’ own masochistic predilection to set hundreds of fires throughout the city on Halloween Eve (called “Devil’s Night” locally). The image of drunken fans’ rioting outside Tiger Stadium after Detroit’s 1984 World Series Championship (which included overturning a police car, as referenced in Reilly’s Sports Illustrated column) reverberated through the years.
Popular movies such as Beverly Hills Cop added to the impression of the city as toothless and anarchic. Detroit’s lowly image cast a pall over the entire metro area of 4.5 million people, even though some suburbs are among the nation’s wealthiest.
Over the last few years, the city has managed to staunch the bleeding and materially improve in many ways. The opening of a $1.2-billion state-of-the-art terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport has been a lynchpin. Luring three casinos to the downtown helped make central Detroit more of a destination for suburbanites. Another robust entertainment district has flourished just north of downtown with hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in the new Comerica Park baseball stadium, Ford Field football stadium, the Detroit Opera House, the renovated Fox Theater and other adjacent entertainment venues and restaurants. Refurbishment, and its occupation as global headquarters by General Motors Corp., have helped make the Renaissance Center friendlier. The city now is two administrations removed from Mayor Young, and regional economic-development efforts have been engaged in earnest.
All of that progress—and lots of arm-twisting by powerful figures such as William Clay Ford Sr., scion of Ford Motor Co. and owner of the Detroit Lions, and Michael Ilitch, owner of the Tigers and founder of the Little Caesars pizza chain—helped land the series of premier sporting events that Detroit just now has begun to enjoy. Now the city and the area need only to capitalize on the unprecedented attention that they received this year with the Ryder Cup, the biennial US-European grudge match that visits American shores only every four years.
Most important in that effort is for the city to be making real progress economically, socially and culturally, and Detroiters make a strong case that they’re doing just that. Consider the progress in controlling pyrotechnics alone: Local fans’ model behavior after the Detroit Pistons won the National Basketball Association championship this summer was a far cry from 20 years earlier, after the Tigers’ win; and city police and community leaders have managed to just about douse the Devil’s Night fires. On top of the other positives, real estate developers finally are plowing serious money into new local housing. And while commuters have been grumbling loudly about the disruptions, local officials are unapologetically patching and upgrading the area’s tangle of major highways to make sure that All Star Game and Super Bowl traffic isn’t an issue.
“We have a record number of housing starts here now, with new homes, renovated apartment spaces and the like,” says William Phillips, a local attorney at Pepper Hamilton and an economic-development player. “When people see cranes, they know a city is moving forward.”
Besides the city’s true economic, cultural and other accomplishments over the last several years, Detroit has several other things that bode well for its new brand-identity efforts. One of them is the fact that other cities have been able to succeed in turning negative images on their heads over the last decade or so, ranging from Milwaukee to New York City. Atlanta, for example, which seemed to spend the eighties in decline, was able to leverage the strength of its entire metro area to create an image as a vibrant headquarters of America’s New South. And Cleveland’s downtown revitalization and environmental cleanup have blazed trails for other Rust Belt cities.
Second, there seems to be true dedication to change by leaders ranging from Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to area corporate chieftains, an attitude that is reflected in their daily decision-making. “The big secret,” says Travis, “is that it’s not about saying something, it’s about doing something. You have to be very careful in that, because the little things that you do are more important than the big things you say.” New York City’s image makeover succeeded during the nineties, for example, in large part because then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani made a successful effort to remove graffiti and fix broken windows in blighted areas of the city.
Third, Detroit has been making progress in an area that some brandmeisters consider crucial for the success of this effort: separating itself perceptually from the Big Three automakers. Formerly a plus when GM, Ford and Chrysler Corp. dominated the car business in this country, the connection unfortunately has become decidedly mixed as the manufacturers have lost ground to foreign competition.
“That’s Job One for Detroit,” says Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates, a brand-consulting firm that has helped overhaul perceptions of places as small as Traverse City, Michigan, and as large as Hong Kong and the nation of Jordan.
Among other things, the Detroit area has been building its reputation as a center of high technology, based on—but also branching off from—its heritage as a tinkerers’ town. “We have the advantage of being able to build on the intrinsic assets of the region, including the fact that the automobile is the most technologically advanced mass-produced product in the world,” says Jeff Sloan, founder of Digital Detroit, a Birmingham, Michigan-based not-for-profit outfit that, among other things, has conducted a yearly economic-development conference.
Fourth, there is a new willingness by suburbanites, many of whom long have been estranged from Detroit proper, to give the city another chance to impress them. “Suburbanites used to discourage their kids from coming here, but now they’re coming downtown to live and have fun and to work,” Phillips says.
On the other hand, part of the reality of Detroit still underscores its problems of the last few decades. Gun violence in Detroit jumped by 70 percent in the first half of this year compared with a year earlier, including a particularly notorious episode in late June that involved the shootings of several individuals near the end of the city’s annual fireworks display—with more than a million people in attendance, including Super Bowl representatives. City-suburb grudge matches continue, most recently involving a balk by an outlying-county executive to help with funding an expansion of Detroit’s Cobo Hall convention center. Digital Detroit has been struggling to obtain funding for its fifth annual conference.
The city’s various minority populations have become engaged in bitter conflict over a proposal for a black economic-development district in Detroit that is being called African Town. Unemployment continues to push 17 percent. And a new Gallup Survey finds that Detroiters themselves don’t have much to recommend about the city: They posted a “loyalty rate” of only 11 percent in the measure of overall satisfaction with their city and willingness to recommend it to others.
In any event, Detroit’s brand stewards must do more than attempt to upgrade in general how the city is perceived; They must try to make it stand for something that stands apart. Some branding consultants suggest that, somehow, Detroit should spin factors that may appear to be disadvantages. For instance, Detroit isn’t known as an exciting place; but that means it’s good for families. Its rough-and-tumble persona could be repackaged as gritty and edgy. Miami, for instance, has a history of crime and racial disturbances to rank with Detroit’s, but city image makers have managed to recast the area as a cosmopolitan haven based on its energy and its Latino heritage.
“The fact is that there’s no message about Detroit that has broken through that positions it as new and different,” Adamson says. “It’s not just about Detroit being big and good enough to host these sporting events. That isn’t a differentiating enough of an idea. But repositioning a city is hard to do.”
Still, Detroiters like Phillips are optimistic. Detroit’s negative image “has existed for so long that we have to have a plan to work toward something better,” he says. “We need to be patient.”