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Reinventing Detroit, One Story at a Time

Posted by: Paula Pou on July 29, 2013

While explaining the decision behind Detroit's record-setting $18.5 billion Chapter 9 filing, Kevyn Orr, the city’s state-appointed emergency manager, was surrounded by posters and banners of the Detroit skyline. Each one was stamped with the words, “Reinventing Detroit.”

As the fight over the constitutionality of the filing has headed to the U.S. federal court, it’s a good time to consider what Detroit’s brand is, exactly — and how it’s being reinvented.

At first glance, it’s easy to romanticize Detroit as a cautionary tale of the American dream gone awry. The history is everywhere, with Detroit cast as the Motor City that Ford built, or as the cradle of Motown, or as Detroit Rock City. It’s the same Detroit known for mass population exodus, for a struggling auto industry, for the country’s poorest performing education system and highest unemployment rate. Both sides of the coin are true and, when viewed from 30,000 feet, can be easy to dismiss with a shrug and some commentary about times being tough everywhere. But on the ground, something interesting is happening at the very foundation of the Detroit brand.

We’re from America

During the 2011 Super Bowl, Chrysler (which is partly owned by Fiat) aired the “Imported from Detroit” ad featuring Eminem. Ostensibly about the Chrysler 200, the commercial was really a two-minute history of Detroit from Detroit—a downtown still resplendent with buildings and architectural detail from a time when the city was the richest in America stood in stark opposition to the narrator’s reference that the city had "been to hell and back."

The Detroit depicted by Chrysler as one that blends luxury and quality with blue-collar, dirt-under-the-fingernails pride starts to get at the heart of what makes the city’s brand so complex. “Imported from the Detroit” was a pitch-perfect articulation of what lays at the heart of the Detroit brand—the full spectrum of America, from coast to coast, contained in one place.

New frontiers

Since 2011, start-ups lured by the story of Detroit have sprouted up throughout the city. That “hell and back” story the city keeps living casts Detroit as a Wild West kind of place, with land and opportunity for the taking if you’ve got grit and passion. Taking advantage of available labor and real estate capacity, entrepreneurs are also drawn by the credibility it gains simply from being in and of Detroit.

Inspired by Detroit’s rich history of American craftsmanship and manufacturing, spanking-new brands like Shinola, a lifestyle brand whose tagline is “Where American is made,” can claim heritage and relevance from day one. Founded by Tom Kartsotis (who also founded the Fossil watch brand), Shinola hired former autoworkers accustomed to the dexterity and attention required to work on a supply line, and trained them to become master watchmakers.

Since launching earlier this year, every line of Shinola watches has sold out within days of going on sale. The brand is growing its roots in Detroit soil, laying claim to the history of the place while seamlessly (and credibly) proclaiming itself a part of the city’s next chapter.

Much of that next chapter involves becoming a model city others can admire instead of shunning. Take 4444 Second Avenue, which used to be a showroom for Model Ts and is now home to the Green Garage, a living laboratory and co-working space. The brainchild of Tom and Peggy Brennan, the building is an incubator for triple-bottom-line businesses (healthy for the environment, economics, community) and attracts more than 200 volunteers ready to make an impact on Detroit’s community. Using Detroit’s storied legacy of entrepreneurship, Green Garage attracts visionaries of sustainability to the land that cars built—a story come full-circle; the back from “hell and back.”

Detroit 2.0

Dan Gilbert, the Quicken Loans chairman and majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is also betting on his hometown, snapping up properties along downtown Detroit. In a plan he refers to as Detroit 2.0, he’s been creating a cluster of entrepreneurial companies created to lure other start-ups away from Chicago, New York and Silicon Valley.

Explaining his vision for Detroit earlier this year, Gilbert told a group of reporters that "it's about more than investments or changing what is; it's making sure that what could and will be stays here in Detroit.”

Nostalgia and history will take the Detroit 2.0 brand only so far. To be truly successful, the next chapter of the city will need to break away from the “hell and back” narrative that’s become too familiar in too many places across the country. To be relevant, Detroit 2.0 will have to start telling a new tale: a fresh story about sustainable cities, the workforce of the future, and investing in real ideas that build real things.

Paula Pou is a Senior Consultant, Verbal Identity, Interbrand New York.

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