Blog: Jim Townsend

Jim Townsend is our guest blogger this week. He is the executive director of the Tourism Economic Development Council, serves on the Board of Directors of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, which he founded in 2002, and lives with his family in Royal Oak. 

Check back here every weekday to read Jim's thoughts about branding our region. 

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Post No. 5

From Tourism Brand to One D

First, to be clear about one thing: Our tourism brand was developed expressly to promote tourism, pure and simple, beginning with a certain type of visitor for whom we think our 'product' is especially relevant and appealing. Over time, this means that (1) we should see an increase in hotel rooms filled and dollars spent and (2) we should find that visitor perceptions of metro Detroit align more and more closely with the story we're telling. In other words, our story should become our visitors' story.

That said, we secured the goodwill of many individuals along the way by making a commitment to arrive at insights that could help the region as a whole tell a compelling story for other purposes, too, such as economic development, employee recruitment, and a more positive media portrayal.

Little by little, the linkages that will enable this to happen are coming together. It's an exciting effort, though not necessarily a simple one: For one, different organizations are focused on appealing to different audiences. Our target leisure visitor, a 21-34 year-old early adopter, has different priorities and interests than, say, a corporate leader looking to relocate.

For another, different organizations are at different points in their own branding and marketing efforts. Some are simply better positioned to adopt new materials, or to launch a coordinated effort. So, even as we're preparing our first tourism campaigns, we're working with the leaders of other organizations to find areas of common ground --areas where our audiences or messages form a natural fit, areas where our staffing and initiatives are already in alignment-- as well as to assess exactly what's in place to date.

Put another way, moving towards a "One D" brand story, using the tourism brand story as a starting point (or any other starting point, for that matter) is likely to involve changes in behavior on the part of the organizations that adopt it. In the private sector, products that make a similar demand are known as "disruptive products". Typically, they're not adopted across-the-board in a single surge. The uptake cycle begins with "early adopters", who may be more opportunistic or risk-tolerant than the average customer, followed by "mainstream adopters", who first need to see how the product works out for the early adopter. We suspect that building a unified regional brand works in much the same way. Patience and pragmatism are our watchwords as we focus first on identifying the best "early adopter" opportunities.

03.27.07 - UPDATED
Post No. 4

Meditation on Maps

From the very beginning of this effort, I've been stuck on the "point of origin" and the Detroit's radial plan: What a wonderful thing from a wayfinding standpoint, to have a compass, basically, imprinted onto the city and its surrounding region!  With a point of origin, no less!

Who else has this?

When all of the many constituencies we spoke to reiterated "the need to bring the region together" for the thousandth time, the message hit home: We ought to try to bring the region together LITERALLY, not just with words and goodwill. Hence, the system of highly schematic maps we developed. Using the radial plan, and orienting our five Tourism Destination Districts — Dearborn/Wayne, North Oakland, South Oakland, Macomb and Downtown — to it, we found the means to begin to address not only the practical issues of access and orientation but also to compress distance and show interrelationships.

For the tourist, the maps define a spatial reality that needed definition. For those of us who live here, they might just help to reshape the mental maps, with too many boundaries and too much baggage, we've been carrying around for too long. Some of the tourism brand assets we developed take effort to share with other organizations. The maps are there for the taking, and we hope everyone who needs to get someone somewhere takes us up on the offer to use them. I hope the maps become an enduring icon of the region — as enduring and recognizable, in time, as the Olde English D.

What Makes a Tourism Destination District

The purpose of these areas is to provide visitors with a clear sense of where the region's tourism nodes are located.  In surveys and focus groups, tourists told us that they struggled to find the "good stuff" in metro Detroit, i.e. the tourist-relevant features in the area that make it worth the trip. In deciding which communities to include in the TDDs, we insisted that areas so designated must have all four of the features that leisure travelers expect to find conveniently when they visit an urban destination:  lodging, dining, entertainment and shopping.  Areas that made the cut not only have concentrations of these assets but offer them in formats and settings that stand out from the national chains that tourists don't need to leave home to experience (think Slow's Barbeque vs. TGIF).

It's vital to understand that identifying tourism hot spots within the region does not constitute a zero sum game among communities.  Cities located close to a TDD will benefit from the growing numbers of visitors who "get" metro Detroit, stay in our hotels and frequent our attractions.

03.26.07 - UPDATED 2:30pm
Post No. 3

Myth and Reality

It's sobering to read what other cities have to say about themselves, from a brand standpoint. You wonder if their tourism and economic development people seriously read each others' material.  Our review, which sampled several cities, but was by no means comprehensive, kept turning up the same stock ideas and phrases — the same stock stories.

A good brand is one that tells a different story.  Early on, we knew he had to avoid the pitfalls of falling for one of the prevailing "tourism myths".  Myths that confuse tourism and boosterism. Myths that are the perhaps-inevitable fruits of consensus.  Seductive myths.  Myths that make their believers feel good — in part, because they tap into real, heartfelt civic pride. Myths that even feel like the right thing to do. But myths, ultimately, that accomplish nothing. Here are some:

The Myth of the Comeback
"We were down but now we're up. See all our new developments. See all our new buildings. This is a place on the move. There is energy here. A buzz. A vibe. You can feel it. You can be a part of it."

Counteracts: Image of city as burned out has been with economic woes.
The Myth of the Big, Happy Family
"See, we're people just like you. Families. Old people. Young people. Hip people. Regular people. We've got all kinds of people. All kinds of smiles. All kinds of happy people living together, having a great time together. We're welcoming. We're harmless. We're waiting to give you a warm embrace. This friendly wave is just the beginning."

Counteracts: Image of city as dangerous, threatening, etc.  
The Myth of Something for Everyone
"We've got it all. Whatever you're looking for, you'll find it right here. World-class shopping, dining, leisure, pleasure. There's simply no end of things to do, and when you've had you're fill, take a table for two at a restaurant with the city as your backdrop and toast your recreational romance."

Counteracts: Image of the city as marginal, lacking, a backwater.

All of these myths deny the place its true birthright, its point of difference, its edge.  I'll be back later today to discuss ideas that come from listening to what locals and visitors said was distinctive about metro Detroit.

Guidelines for a brand based on Metro Detroit's reality

In place of myths, we suggest a series of insights that guided our decision to target young adults with a positioning that focuses on the inventiveness, grittiness and flare of metro Detroit and its people:

Keep it young.
Translation: Develop a tourism brand with young visitors (21-34) as the primary focus.       
Keep it forward-looking.
Translation: Make "contemporary" activities, not heritage activities, the primary focus.  History, when presented, should have a current relevance.         
Keep it real.
Translation: Build a brand that embraces metro Detroit's authentic, vibrant and urban aspects — the things that truly set metro Detroit apart.

Deal with race.
Translation: Go beyond showing diversity. To  begin, embrace the unique strengths of metro Detroit's African American heritage and make them an important part of the tourism brand.
Deal with the insider factor.
Translation: Provide practical recommendations for making metro Detroit more accessible to the leisure traveler.
Know the demographic you're after.
Translation: Gain further insight into the younger demographic: segmentation, media preferences, etc.  

Look for the hook.
Translation: Don't settle for a brand story that anybody could tell just because it wins easy consensus. Push us to do something bold and memorable — we've got nothing to lose.

We will keep these ideas in front of us as we seek to convey the meaning of The D and work to help organizations across our region find ways use these insights for their own branding and communications efforts. 

Post No. 2

What differentiates Metro Detroit and Who should we Target

Before talking about the region’s assets, I need to clarify that we approached branding metro Detroit from the perspective of a visitor coming here to have fun. There are countless other perspectives that might yield a great Detroit story. But in addition to the fact that the Convention & Visitors Bureau pays my salary, I really believe that adopting the mindset of a visitor made lots of sense. 

For starters, it addresses one of the greatest barriers to progress we face in metro Detroit: Our internal geographic divisions.  

Our toughest challenges, from the quality of our transportation system to the economic and fiscal condition of our communities, stem largely from our obsession with local boundaries. Tourists don’t know or care about these boundaries. Countless focus groups revealed that visitors value attractions and amenities all over the region and they don’t recognize whether they’re in the City of Detroit or a surrounding suburb. They identify all of it as Detroit. A metro Detroit brand then must provide a simple unified look at our area.  (I’ll have more to say about how we map the area for visitors in the coming days.) 

Another reason to adopt a tourist perspective is that the students, entrepreneurs, executives we want to invest in our region come here initially as tourists.

So what differentiates metro Detroit in the minds of a visitor?

Detroit is Real. Across a landscape paved with more of the same, Detroit and many of its suburbs stand out because they don’t look like other places. Detroit and Detroiters are known for not trying to be something they’re not. Travelers are increasingly looking for authentic places and experiences:  We’ve got a surplus here.

Detroit is a powerful brand already. It’s up to us to tap its positive elements and bring them to the fore. For all of its triumphs and recent struggles, Detroit remains a cradle of invention. Technology, style and so much music that it’s almost embarrassing when we face off against other cities in a sports playoff and see them have to import national anthem singers.

Here, the car claims center stage. The music runs deep. Sports are pursued with a passion. The culture is cooking. And the gaming is good. Trace cool to its source and sooner or later you find your way to Detroit. 

Who’s Ready to Visit Detroit?

The young. Our surveys of Midwestern travelers found that only Detroit had a strong positioning as a “grown-up” destination, known for casinos and nightlife and music. Young people want what metro Detroit has – whether it’s downtown’s numerous neighborhoods or the burgeoning scenes in Dearborn, Ferndale, Royal Oak, Birmingham, Mt. Clemens, Rochester or Pontiac. People under 35 don’t typically know about Detroit’s troubled past but they recognize that the path to the future of pop culture often winds through the D. It’s the place to come to get caught up on the latest and leave feeling like your in the know.

Post No. 1

An Accidental Brand Guy

At the outset of my career if someone had told me that I would be spending a lot of time developing and managing brands, I would not have known what to say. I left college infected with the political bug and got started in North Carolina as a field organizer in the 1988 presidential election. Since then I’ve worked on Capitol Hill, marketed Ford’s minivan, and founded a coalition of economically endangered inner ring suburbs. This past year, on behalf of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, I led an effort to develop a new regional tourism brand for metropolitan Detroit. Not long ago it dawned on me that I’d been working on brands in one way or another for nearly 20 years. 

How could this be so? Because a brand is not just a logo or slogan but a story told in a marketplace; its purpose is to persuade and inspire action. It can be a story told to people in the market for cars or shoes or aimed at the marketplace of ideas by candidates seeking the 2008 presidential nomination or activists trying build support of a plan to make healthcare affordable for all.

I’ve also come to know that smart branding has the power to inspire smart behavior. Companies that have a clear idea about their strengths can align themselves to take full advantage of their capabilities. Apple, Google and, yes, Toyota have a clear idea of their strengths and they invest in them relentlessly. This in turn makes their brand story that much more convincing. 

Branding Regional Detroit

Can a city or region reap the same benefits from discovering and acting upon its brand? I believe the answer is yes, but not because branding can solve all of the challenges facing metro Detroit or any other community. The benefit comes from learning what the region’s strengths are and who values those strengths and developing the foresight and courage to focus on those audiences.

This is what we’ve attempted to do in creating a new brand for metro Detroit, which we unveiled locally earlier this year: The D – Cars, Culture, Gaming, Music, Sports.

In the next couple of days, I’ll try to describe what our research told me and my collaborators about metro Detroit’s key strengths as a tourist destination in the minds of thousands of visitors and locals we learned from. For now, I’ll summarize the key ideas that resulted from researching metro Detroit’s brand essence and expand on these in the entries that follow:

COOL – Speaking boldly to Detroit’s unique strengths: cars, culture, gaming, music, sports

YOUTH – Targeting young people who aren’t hung up on Detroit’s history, who represent the future of tourism and Detroit and who typically do the heavy lifting when it comes to entrepreneurism and growth

UNITY – Placing all metro Detroit under a single powerful brand identity – The D

SIMPLICITY – Highlighting the focal points of interest in the region by grouping them together in branded districts that are easy to locate and remember

While I happen to be the blogger in this case, this brand effort would not have been possible without the passion and genius of Patricia Mooradian, president of The Henry Ford; Eric La Brecque, the TEDC’s extraordinary brand consultant; Chris Baum, the Bureau’s head of marketing and sales; and a team of dedicated professionals at the Detroit Metro CVB.

Photograph © Dave Krieger

Jim Townsend - Most Recent Posts:

Why a Car Monoculture Needs to Clear the Road for Mass Transit

The State Legislature has begun debate on a bill that would establish a regional transit authority in southeast Michigan. I had the honor of introducing that bill in the Michigan House of Representatives earlier this year. By some estimates, this is the twenty-fourth time that metro Detroit has attempted to create a regional entity that would plan and operate a rapid transit system in the nation's largest metropolitan area that lacks anything resembling adequate public transportation. With such a record of futility, it's fair to ask why. Why has southeast Michigan, a region that before the mid-1950s boasted one of the most extensive transit networks in the nation, struggled so to rebuild its mass transit legacy? While race conflict and our auto-centric identity certainly have played a role, these factors don't provide the full explanation.

Southeast Michigan doesn't have transit because we've spent decades building communities mainly in the suburbs oriented toward a single mode of transportation: the car. Subdivisions with cul-de-sacs and no sidewalks. City plans and codes that require uses to be separate from each other – residential in one part of town, civic buildings in another and shopping strip centers in still a third area and all of them accessible only by car. This is what we built in the last half of the 20th century. This is what many of us feel comfortable with and know best. But this model of development and the assumptions about transportation that underlie it no longer work for our residents or communities.

Making and marketing cars continues to be essential to our economy. But this does not mean that a car monoculture still works for people. Young people want to live in communities and regions where a car is not required for basic living, and they're moving out of Southeast Michigan to places that support that lifestyle. Seniors who have limited transportation options require a reliable method for attending to their daily needs. Our cities are strapped for cash and must find a way to use the land we have more efficiently, create more jobs and more revenue per square mile and get more value out of the infrastructure we've already built. We cannot do this if we rely on 1950s-era ideas about moving people around the region where the lack of transit options forces us to continue devoting acres of precious buildable land to parking and widening freeways that we already struggle to maintain.

There is a better way and many of the metro areas around the country that we compete with for jobs and talent are already pursuing it. It begins with a regional authority that coordinates the existing bus service in Detroit and the surrounding suburbs and establishes a plan for building and funding a regional rapid transit system. Suburban residents will benefit from enhanced regional transit services because our lives and livelihoods are regional. Over 80 percent of workers in suburban communities commute to other cities and counties to earn a living. Offering our workers new cost-effective options for getting around will not only improve our quality of life but will enable our communities to grow revenue as we restore jobs and density to our central city and suburbs. A regional transit authority will be good for both Detroit and its suburbs because it recognizes a fundamental reality: we are all in this together, we have one economy, one labor pool. It's time to move toward a regional approach to providing mass transit that will enable all of our communities to thrive.

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