Rebranding the American Rust Belt


What place marketing can do for a struggling town.

The American cities of Detroit, Cleveland and Akron are important cities in the history of the United States. Detroit is to cars what Wall Street is to finance and Hollywood is to films. It’s also a prominent town in American popular culture as the birthplace of Motown, a record label which gave rise to influential musical acts in the 1960s such as The Four Tops and The Supremes.

Cleveland is an important American music city, housing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — a civic definer that has led some people to nickname Cleveland ‘The Rock and Roll Capital of The World’. And to the south of Cleveland lies the city’s younger cousin Akron.

Akron became the Rubber Capital of the World between the start of and the late 20th century as home to four major tyre companies: Goodrich, Goodyear, Firestone and General Tire. It became a boomtown, as its burgeoning industrial economy made it America’s fastest growing city in the decade between 1910 and 1920.

Today, the paintings of these American towns are a little different. They’re dismissed by the majority of Americans as caricatures of urban decay. They’re no longer known for the achievements of their past but rather for their reputations of crime, desolation, abandonment and poverty: the wounds of a changing economy that decided to make do without their manufacturing and industrial acumen.

Globalisation, high labour costs and increased automation in factory work led to layoffs, unemployment and population loss.

Of the four large tyre companies, only Goodyear remains in Akron.

The abandoned Packard Motors plant in Detroit.

In Detroit, the former factories for car manufacturers Fisher Body and Packard Motors are now abandoned — the Packard Factory being the largest abandoned industrial complex in the world.

And it’s not just Detroit, Cleveland and Akron that have been reduced to this unfortunate fate, but an entire line of once great manufacturing cities scattered from the Northeastern to Midwestern United States; cities like Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee and Gary. For brevity’s sake, we call these towns the Rust Belt, a dilapidated version of what was once the Manufacturing Belt, or the Steel Belt.

Facing brain drain and years of population decline, these cities need a revival. What’s important is that these cities are more than just abandoned buildings and empty parking lots, and the challenge for town officials is to find a way to rebrand and market these cities to show people that. When marketing the Rust Belt, the key is to look no further than what makes them exactly what they are: gritty, tough, but with a relentlessly hard working and honest charm.

The Punishing Game of Place Marketing

City branding is a pretty new idea. Of course cities have always had images deeply associated with them — for Paris it’s the Eiffel Tower, for Sydney it’s the Opera House and for Rio de Janeiro it’s Christ the Redeemer.

But according to a piece in The Guardian written by Shanon Zukin — a professor of sociology in New York — the idea of city branding as a municipal commitment was only born in New York in the 1970s to attract more trade, more talent and more tourists as the city faced an internal financial crisis. Unsurprisingly it was here that arguably the world’s most iconic example of city branding — I Heart New York — was born, and it has since led the city to become a global powerhouse.

It’s a tough balancing act though. The task of tying a city’s brand with the interests of hundreds of thousands or even millions of stakeholders is almost impossible.

As we would expect, there are many failures in city branding, and the overwhelming majority of place marketing failures exhibit a common trait — a digression from a city’s unique heritage and culture. Every city wants to be the hive of fashion, culture and business — but if every city was world class than none would be. There’s only room in the mindshare of global citizens for one New York, Shanghai or London. The rest of us have to settle for embracing the niches that make us uniquely us.

In this largely post-industrial world, where the manufacturing identity of the Rust Belt cities has greatly diminished, these cities are looking hard to find that thing that makes them special.

But they shouldn’t be searching. For the most part, that thing is simple: a unique attitude and culture that can only be derived from the heritage ingrained in the grinding spirit of the Rust Belt.

Will Doig describes it as ‘the warmth of the faded, and the edge in old iron and steel’.

The soul of the Rust Belt is honest — more doing than showing — and far removed from the glitz of the LA’s and NY’s. It’s a romantic notion, particularly in this new world defined by the growth of service industries where it appears that success comes from just knowing important people, having the right conversations and looking the most beautiful — instead of actually doing real, hard work.

Rust Belt Marketing Failures

Unfortunately though, many cities in the Rust Belt have fallen for that same trap of trying to market themselves as cultural hives and stages of stardom. But the end result is more often than not an inauthentic sunny-side-up attitude that is shallow at best.

Take Chicago as an example. Despite avoiding being buckled to the extent that Cleveland and Detroit did, the city is replete with many issues of its own: fiscal debt, a shrinking employment base and population flight. As one of the great manufacturing cities, it’s hard to escape the Rust Belt’s enveloping cloud.

But none of this is helped by the city’s relentless attempts to brand itself amongst the global elites. Aaron Renn, a leading urban analyst is critical of the generic nature of so many global cities that vastly consist of the same basic ingredients.

“These travel guides, ostensibly a guide for the modern, sophisticated urban traveller to the best of each globally elite locale, often seem identical except for the name on the spine. One modern boutique hotel, one swank restaurant or bar, one fashion outlet, one bike share program, one piece of starchitecture is much the same as another in any city you visit around the world. The frosting might be different, but the cake is the same. And once you’re commoditized, you’re done.”

The fact is, Chicago is a cake baked very differently, and if we appreciate Tommy Hilfiger’s most important marketing decree to ‘keep the heritage of the brand intact’ then Chicago has entirely dropped the ball.

The authentic Chicago is a town much like any other Rust Belt city: steely and rugged, but nonetheless a city of dreamers and aspirations; the city that gave the world its first skyscraper.

The portrayed Chicago as Renn writes has become ‘just another way-station among the global city parade’, rife with ‘starchitecture, microbrews and microroasts, culinary delights, high culture, boutique hotels, great shopping, bike infrastructure, digital startups…’, or in other words: all the ingredients that every other global city is trying to tell the world they have.

Chicago’s culture and urban-scape

And this generic inauthenticity is hurting the city. Despite praise from magazines like Newsweek calling the town “…an exciting, excited city in which all these glittery worlds shine”, in reality, the city hasn’t reaped the rewards of actually being a global city.

Chicago lacks the singular definer that makes important cities important — for Silicon Valley it’s technology, and in New York it’s finance. As Renn explains, these cities as epicentres of particular niches lets them ‘harvest outsize tax revenues that can be fed back into sustaining the region’. For Chicago that’s not really anything, except for various pockets of what other cities do so well.

If Chicago’s greatest achievement is being an almost New York, then why would anybody ever want to stay?

The Success Stories and Why They Worked

Examples of well received city branding examples share one very big thing in common: they’re almost always created by residents and not city officials. Richey Piiparinen, a Cleveland native identifies two great examples of successful place branding in Cleveland, and they’re both pure grass-roots efforts, developed by residents for residents.

The first example is a phrase that reads ‘Cleveland You’ve Got to Be Tough’, the second example references a humiliating civic event in which the highly polluted Cuyahoga River actually caught fire, and it reads ‘Visit Cleveland. We’ll Keep the River on For You’.

Neither of these branding efforts paint the picture of a town that is explicitly friendly or pleasant, and it’s unsurprising that the city has never officially backed something that resembles the efforts of its residents. However it certainly begs the question of whether they should.

It’s an enormous gamble: branding a city with a rough and tumble personality may be appealing to some but equally frightening to another. But for the most part, the acknowledgement of the Rust Belt’s unassuming personality seems to be gaining traction and appeal.

Detroit for example, arguably the pre-eminent symbol of the Rust Belt has grown a powerful culture that embraces its steely but often unsettling public image.

The slogan ‘Detroit Hustles Harder’ created by Detroit-based clothing company Aptemal has become a raging success in the city, with sales of the slogan on clothing tripling after Eminem wore it in 2009 at the BET Awards.

Furthermore, the concept of ‘ruin porn’ — the photography of abandoned buildings — has become a popular sensation with many examples of ruin porn having been captured in Detroit and the Rust Belt.

There is an interesting romantic appeal to the Rust Belt — part nostalgia, part sympathy perhaps. But most of it is very much founded on the tactless entrepreneurial nature that builds these towns.

Ruin Porn in Detroit.

For this reason, many people jaded by the costs and gaudiness of established 21st century mega-towns are starting to move back into the Rust Belt.

In St. Louis, Missouri, ‘talent’ initiatives have been launched in order to curb brain drain in the region and it’s working, with its 25 to 34 age bracket growing.

During the last 10 years, Detroit has experienced a 59% increase in the population of college-educated people under the age of 35, many of which are becoming involved in transformative ventures.

In a piece for Medium titled ‘You Will Summer in Detroit’, Taylor Bruce lists many exciting initiatives in the city. Notable projects include Write a House, where ‘decrepit bungalows’ are being purchased on the cheap, fixed up by the Detroit Youth Build program and then given away to up and coming writers. Another is Green Garage, an ‘incubator and co-working hub’ that ‘focuses on sustainable, triple-bottom-line ideas’.

Rust Belt cities are starting to become growing hubs for young and educated entrepreneurs and artists: the kinds of people that almost every city is lusting after.

To What End?

It’s a new world we live in these days, and economies are preparing for the fact that a few decades down the track the world will be almost entirely post-industrial. Factories will become more and more automated, and manufacturing will require fewer people.

Mostly it’s great: products go from the drawing board onto store shelves faster and cheaper than they ever have before. But as the Rust Belt cities know first-hand, the economic responsibility to always get cheaper, faster and better can also be a highly destructive back-handed slap.

Transition is messy, and as the Rust Belt cities transition away from the industrialised economies that built them, the most important thing is to find ways to attract the talented people they need to recreate themselves as sustainable knowledge economies.

And attracting these people is a tall order, particularly for cities buckled by the Rust Belt that on the surface don’t have very much going for them.

That’s where place marketing and city branding come in with a big question: should these cities simply sell themselves as smaller New Yorks, or should they be proud and show the world what they really are — the good, the bad and the ugly?

There is no definitive answer, both approaches are marred by their compromises. But when in uncharted waters perhaps a very simplistic rule of thumb is the best one to follow: always be truthful. Chicago is an example of how cities trip up when they try to fill in bigger shoes than their ideal fit. As renowned advertising agency McCann tells its clients, great advertising is simply ‘truth well told’. For the Rust Belt cities, this is probably the best prescription they can live by.

Because there is only one story to the Rust Belt, but it gets told in so many different ways. For most, it’s told through the chapters of crime, abandonment and poverty. It gets told through magazine reports on declining populations, or lists of America’s most miserable and dangerous cities. But the truth can also be told as the story of hard-working, honest towns fallen on tough times, but that are now being rebirthed as exciting new lands of opportunity. I think that’s a pretty good sell.

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