Does the U.P. need to rebrand to compete for business and tourism?

Yoopers know what makes the U.P. special, but the region's story isn't always told with a cohesive voice. Some think that calls for a U.P.-wide rebranding effort and a more ambitious drive to attract businesses and tourists from across the country and world.
To outsiders, the Upper Peninsula hasn't always been a garden spot. In the 1830s, the infamous Toledo War ended when Michigan's leaders accepted a compromise that gave the port of Toledo and an adjacent strip to the state of Ohio--in exchange for most of what's now known as the U.P.

The Michiganders felt like they'd been robbed. What would they do with a cold, rugged wilderness disconnected from the populated parts of the state and unsuited to most agriculture?

The subsequent discovery of rich copper and iron reserves in the U.P. more than made up for the loss of Toledo. But even after sharing its bounty with the rest of the state and country, the U.P. continued to chart its own low-profile course. For the most part, its cities and counties have focused on developing the human and economic resources that already exist in their own backyards, in some cases mounting limited tourism and economic development campaigns to attract visitors, talent and capital from elsewhere in the Upper Midwest. A U.P.-wide branding campaign, in the vein of Pure Michigan for instance, has been elusive.

Toward a Regional "U.P." Brand?

That may be changing. Earlier this winter, Travel Michigan Vice President David West met with local tourism and economic development groups across the Upper Peninsula as part of a statewide "listening tour" that could eventually reorder how Travel Michigan--and Michigan's marketing and branding campaign--operates.

One of the highlights of West's visit was an ambitious proposal, supported by the Lake Superior Community Partnership and other local organizations, to launch a national (and possibly international) tourism marketing initiative focusing specifically on the U.P. Though the details still need to be worked out, the Soo Evening News reports Travel Michigan would cover up to $150,000 of the initiative's production costs and up to $500,000 for national media buys.

"We'd love to see the entire Upper Peninsula come together and rebrand as a cohesive whole to the nation and world," says West.

The initiative's centerpiece would be a high-quality video ad highlighting the U.P.'s most recognizable attractions: the Mackinac Bridge, Tahquamenon Falls, Pictured Rocks, the Porcupine Mountains and possibly others. West also floated the idea of timing an ad or ads touting Isle Royale and Pictured Rocks to coincide with the National Park Service's 100th anniversary next year.

Regardless of how the final product looks, a U.P.-wide marketing and branding campaign would be a break from tradition. Currently, local tourism and visitor bureaus are responsible for their own external marketing content--West cites a well-received downstate radio spot produced by the St. Ignace Visitors Bureau and the Marquette CVB's Minnesota-focused online and radio campaign as examples. The creative aspects of production are typically handled by Travel Michigan's ad agency, but Travel Michigan doesn't hold local bureaus to specific brand standards or exert a heavy hand during the ideation process.

Regional Identity and Immediate Associations

West and his U.P.-based tourism and development partners believe a regional brand could be greater than the sum of its component parts. "It's about positioning the U.P. as a 'bucket list' destination, like Alaska or Hawaii," says West. "And compared to those places, the Upper Peninsula is much more accessible--you can actually drive here."

The U.P. may lack towering peaks and active volcanoes, adds West, but it's a "world-class wilderness" that outsiders can be convinced to visit.

The key, in addition to highlighting iconic attractions like Pictured Rocks, is to create immediate associations in prospective visitors' minds. Fall foliage is a prime example: Northern New England, especially Vermont, has long had a virtual monopoly on "leaf-peeping," and outsiders closely associate that region with fall color. But the U.P.'s fall colors are just as brilliant, "perhaps even better," says West, and the area as a whole is more pristine and unspoiled than tourist-choked Vermont and New Hampshire. There's no reason the U.P. can't become a Midwestern foliage destination to rival New England, West argues.

The U.P. can find inspiration closer to home, too. The "Great Beer State" initiative, orchestrated by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation's Pure Michigan campaign, has been a smashing success. Thanks to "Great Beer State," even people who've never set foot in Michigan associate the state--both peninsulas--with beer. West likens Michigan's association with beer to California's association with wine: Plenty of other states produce good wine, but California is the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of "American wine."

Such associations--foliage, unspoiled wilderness, world-class freshwater coastlines, a slower pace of life--confer a cohesive, region-wide identity that compels outsiders. "It's much easier to explain the Upper Peninsula as a vast, pristine wilderness than as a collection of smaller towns, cities or counties with distinct local identities," says West. "A potential tourist from Dallas or Germany is more likely to say, 'Wow, I have to see the U.P.,' than 'Wow, I have to see Marquette'--even if they do visit Marquette while they're here."

Does U.P. Business Need a Rebrand, Too?

While West makes a strong case for a U.P.-wide tourism brand, our economic development agencies seem to be doing a decent job of attracting and retaining businesses and talent without the benefit of an overt regional rebrand. According to Caralee Swanberg of the Lake Superior Community Partnership, a more grassroots level rebrand is already happening, thanks to improving economic conditions and old-fashioned word of mouth.

Much of LSCP's work focuses on growing and retaining businesses already operating in the central U.P., helping local entrepreneurs found new businesses, and developing an area-wide network that benefits everyone in the community. But as the U.P.'s national profile rises, the organization is devoting more resources to drawing business and talent from elsewhere, whether that means convincing a tech or health entrepreneur to found a startup in Marquette County or persuading an established company to open a branch or plant in the area.

"Historically, business leaders from other places have looked at the U.P.'s economy mostly or exclusively in terms of natural resources," says Swanberg. "It was a challenge to convince them that there are other reasons to be here."

No longer. Over the past decade or so, says Swanberg, outside perceptions have caught up with what she terms a "rapidly diversifying economy."

U.P. natives who moved away for school or work are coming back in greater numbers each year; many returnees are starting businesses once settled. That, coupled with targeted outreach by LSCP, Accelerate UP, Michigan Works and other local and statewide organizations, is convincing outsiders the U.P. is a legitimate place to do business.

"The biggest change is that the U.P. is now on the national radar," says Swanberg. "We don't have to spend as much time on geography or history lessons because people can do their due diligence on us from thousands of miles away."

In many cases, non-native and returning entrepreneurs are attracted by the same attributes and associations that underpin the U.P.'s tourist-facing rebrand: lifestyle, unspoiled wilderness, natural beauty.

Swanberg cites the growing number of "opportunity-based", as opposed to "needs-based," startups approaching LSCP in recent years. People start opportunity-based businesses because they see an economic opportunity or disruptive potential in a particular niche, like technology or healthcare, not just because they need a job. Opportunity-based businesses can typically be run from anywhere; technology facilitates easy access to far-flung markets. The U.P., with its pleasant lifestyle and pristine beauty, naturally attracts ambitious entrepreneurs who don't want (or need) to move to Silicon Valley, New York or even Ann Arbor to make their mark.

All told, it's an exciting time to be telling the U.P.'s story--whether you're a tourism guru launching the first truly U.P.-wide branding campaign or a lifestyle entrepreneur who's writing the next chapter of the region's economic history.

Brian Martucci writes about business, finance, food, drink and anything else that catches his fancy. You can find him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci
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