Thursday, September 9th, 2010

The Power of Brand Detroit

Detroit is one of America’s most powerful brands. I realize this is not what most people think. Many would say it is one of America’s most tarnished brands. That might be true, but that doesn’t diminish its power. There are lots of cities that are struggling right now, but how many of them have a stream of international reporters, film makers, artists, etc. coming to see it in person for themselves? How many of them have attracted random bloggers from all over the country to analyze the place and propose remedies? Why is this place thought to hold lessons for America while so many others do not?

Yes, Detroit is a brand with power. Yet too often its own residents feel the need to downplay it, euphemistically referring to the region as “Southeast Michigan” or to the city as “the D”, as if the brand has to be changed in order to attract people or investment. That might be true to some extent, but this is not what is going to attract the pioneers and early stage investors who are going to reverse the cycle of decline. Changing the brand will be the consequence, not the creator, of civic renewal. To attract those first people and businesses, you need to lure them in a different way – you need to inspire. So I say embrace Detroit, stand up and be proud of the city and what it is and what it could be. It is the only way to generate the inspirational motivation that can bring renewal.

Think about it. Did Jesus try to attract followers with gourmet meals, gallery openings, and rebranding Himself to be more approachable as “the J”? No, He did not. But with nothing but the promise of a Kingdom of Heaven that we’ll never see here on this earth, He kicked off a religious movement that echoes to this day. Indeed, few religious leaders had much tangible to offer in the here and now, but many of them managed to amass huge numbers of followers nevertheless.

You can convince people to get behind the rock and push if you give them a reason to. You can get people to enlist in your army in anticipation of a tough battle if you inspire them with your purpose.

Detroit can be an inspiration like this in a way “the D” never will. Perhaps as much as bean counters, economic developers, hipsters, etc., what Detroit really needs is a good dose of a tent revival preacher, calling the people forth to repentance and onward to greater glory tomorrow. That doesn’t come by being almost apologetic and embarrassed about who you are. Rather it comes from standing up tall, and being a true believer in your city and your cause.

Detroit is a great city in many ways. And “Detroit” is a great name for a city. Wear it with pride.

Topics: Civic Branding
Cities: Detroit

23 Responses to “The Power of Brand Detroit”

  1. Quimbob says:

    As soon as I heard of a band called The Detroit Cobras, I knew I’d like them just because they put their hometown in their name.

  2. EJ says:

    If we consider the ramifications of peak oil production, and what it is likely to mean to the infrastructure of our cities, the path Detroit takes could very well lead it to become the post-industrial era prototype for a greener, powered down and scaled-down city. Of course, every city is different in land area and density, so what ultimately becomes of Detroit’s extensive 143 square miles won’t necessarily be the answer for Cleveland’s more densely packed 82 square miles or Youngstown’s 34 square miles.

    Still, I will make an educated guess that we are now just past the end of the Rust Belt era and are looking at the rise of the “Green Belt” era in the Midwest. By the end of this decade, Flint, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Akron-Canton, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Rochester will all certainly be smaller population-wise than they were during their peak Industrial Era years, but each will also have reached a new equilibrium and could in fact be a thriving, sustainable and desirable place to live in its own right, with a quality of life different and oddly better than people have known previously in the US.

    I will also make the guess that within ten years, the Sun Belt boomtowns of the 1990s and 00s, including Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Orlando, Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Phoenix and Las Vegas will be facing their own existential crises related to their present sprawling sizes–population and land area–and the lack of available resources that are necessary for them to maintain themselves in current form. At that point, Atlanta and Houston could very well be looking to Detroit and Cleveland for answers.

  3. Andy H says:

    This has instantly become my favourite Urbanophile post 😉

  4. Chris Barnett says:

    Chris one-note to the debate:

    Detroit has fresh water. Plenty of it. (And they have plenty of treatment capacity, both water and sewer). They also have wind fields suitable for power generation nearby.

    Those are two distinct structural resource-sustainability advantages over the Sun Belt. When (not if) the market prices of water and power rise in water-short regions, the “green belt” will be on the rise. Add to them a location in a very fertile agricultural region and at an ocean-rail-highway nexus and it’s an urban “sustainability” home run.

    But those are also “megatrends” things that will happen over a lifetime, not tomorrow. Other “tectonic” climate and economic shifts could render them moot.

    And to a mid-life geezer like me, Brand Detroit conjures up Big 3, muscle cars and SUVs, and suburban auto-sprawl development patterns. Those are not necessarily good brand promises in today’s world, and they are mostly irrelevant to the rising GenY that will have to save the Big D.

  5. I think this is great advice and that it could be applied to many cities, my own Allentown, PA, for example. Cities need to embrace who they are…

  6. Bethany says:

    AMEN!Thank you for this. You have no idea how much I cringe when people refer to Detroit as “the D.” It just sounds lame. The thing I struggle with in terms of city branding is that it seems to suggest layering a superficial story over the already existing stories of a city. In fact, there are many versions of “Detroit.” What that word and the city means to me could mean something very different to anyone else. And it’s all true. Our perceptions create our realities. I don’t think we need to sell people the idea of Detroit but we need to inform people about Detroit. Share our stories, and give our reasons why people should come and check it out for themselves. Let the “brand” emerge organically through the activity that reverberates here.

  7. iheartthed says:

    I agree that Detroit (and more importantly, Michigan) needs to embrace “Detroit”, as opposed to more generic labels like “Metro Detroit”, “southeast Michigan” or the absolutely cringe-worthy blanket label “Michigan”. But “the D” is not about denying “Detroit” anymore than is saying “Motown” or “the Motor City”. It’s a euphemism that is meant to apply to Detroit City.

    It’s like a Chicagoan saying “the Chi” or a New Yorker saying NYC. Granted, “the D” probably shouldn’t be too prominent in promotional material, but as a native Detroit (the city, not “Metro Detroit”) I don’t have a problem with “the D”.

  8. Ed says:

    These “green” Midwestern cities mentioned by the second commentator were extensively rebuilt around the automobile after World War II. They are not streetcar cities anymore. Detroit, for example, is every bit as sprawling as Atlanta (just look at a map), just one is growing in population and one is shrinking. But the Midwestern cities are contracting in population, not in sprawl.

    This is a great site, but there is alot of wishful thinking here.

  9. iheartthed says:

    ^Ed, that’s not true. The only two structural modifications to Detroit in the past 80 years were the construction of freeways and the dismantling of the public transit system. Other than that the layout of Detroit is the exact same as it has always been.

    And Atlanta is and has always been more sprawled than Detroit, whether you are counting the city limits or the metropolitan as a whole. Atlanta City is now at its historial peak population and is still only 2/3rds the density of a “half empty” Detroit City.

  10. “The D” is a term of affection, not evasion.

  11. Thanks for the comments – much appreciated.

    I should note that “the D” isn’t even very distinctive. People in Dallas also use it for their city.

    See for example: Car Free in the Big D

  12. Cliff says:

    There is a slight difference with Dallas. Knowing people who live there, they use “the Big D” as opposed to “the D” They like to think that everything is bigger there, you know?

  13. Wm Johnson says:

    I don’t know when I’ve read such a complete misunderstanding of a city, it’s people, or the cirumstances it faces.

    I am amazed anyone would sing your praises. You do not know of which you speak. Blindly clueless. Mindlessly misinformed. Spectacularly specious in your arguments, your facts are woefully wrong, your premise tired and using Jesus as an example of branding is not just strange, it is silly.

    Sir, if this is an example of your work, I pity the poor souls who pay you for your advice.

    And that is from someone in The D.

  14. Liz says:

    I like the comment that Detroit has layers. The city is 300 years old, and remembering/given that the original Detroit was really quite tiny compared to what we currently call Detroit. The Detroit as we know it geographically grew in boom times in the 1920s when many parts of what was then so-called “metro Detroit” were annexed by the city, which goes to show how random civic boundaries are, including to some extent the boundaries between the US and Canada if you think of space in terms of pure geography (a.k.a. a lake/river/and the perspective of your average midwestern fish who’s rarely asked for its perspective). Detroit was no different than other cities in its annexation process aside from the fact that it “could” grow, just as the many US highway side suburbs/outburbs “could” grow in the 1990s when gas was cheap. It can be terrifying that Detroit has arrived at the 21st century first, but then again Detroit, via its car industry, got to the 20th century relatively first. For many people who care about the city, and who are not entirely penalized as citizens and homeowners by the sad state of its material decline in terms of lacking basic services such as police protection, this phenomenon of being so far behind we’re first is more interesting than terrifying. Finally, I like the term the D. It connotes for me being “in” a place, and in it together, which we *all* need to be no matter the random/calculated/false borders that have been set up to separate us as Detroiters writ large from one another.

  15. Anon says:

    For the D to remain a participant in the economy and society, someone has to explain how you deal with the civilization issue. Of the 800k residents, some large portion (200k? 600k?) hold values that are the opposite of what’s needed to have a civil society, much less a competitive, modern economy.

    We are talking about people who claim to value disorganized violence – whoever is most likely to be brutal is feared and honored. They don’t recognize the state’s (police, military) monopoly on the use of force.

    Property in their neighborhoods is limited to what a person can defend at any given moment. Anything that can be defaced or stolen, sooner or later, is.

    The children in Detroit appear to get little nurturing from their parents. The women don’t demand a commitment from the men before bearing their children (marriage or otherwise). The men don’t provide children even costless inputs such as companionship, discipline, or their simple presence. The children learn to actively resist education and view society’s punishments (prison) as a rite of passage.

    How are you going to convince outsiders to visit, invest, live, or bring their families to a geographic area where people who hold these values are the majority? Even if you think it’s a smaller fraction of the population, they control the public spaces, not the “state” (city, police, etc.).

    Are you going to change these people’s attitudes? Are you going to displace them?

    Yes, every metro area has a population with these anti-social attitudes. The difference is that in other metro areas, most of the central city is under the control of civil authority. In Detroit only limited areas of the city are under control, and that control is tenuous.

    When we talk about “restoring” Detroit, we are really talking about building something new in location where something unrelated happened in the past. The descendents of the people who built the auto industry 100 years ago are in the suburbs or other states. The current employees of the legacy companies and institutions live in the suburbs, and most don’t even commute in. The current city residents are an entirely different population that is starting at the bottom of the ladder.

    I grew up near Detroit and have family there. I’d love to see it recover, but for that to happen, we have to address the real issues. It’s not about branding or even de-industrialization. Before Detroit can return to nature in the Al Gore sense, it needs to clearly exit the state of nature in the Thomas Hobbes sense.

  16. Alon Levy says:

    I don’t know why you guys are hoping for the green economy to lift Detroit. The green economy is actually going to be terrible for Detroit. The main substitute for cars is transit, whose costs are local to where it runs: right-of-way grading, rail construction, operations, maintenance. Vehicles are a tiny part of this cost. Transit doesn’t support large centralized factories the way cars do. If cars go, Detroit goes.

  17. JRM says:

    Yeah, I’m a Detroit (as in city) resident. “The D” is not ‘evasion’. It’s just a nickname. You are reading other people’s perceptions of Detroit on to some arbitrary feature of our town, and then assuming we call it that because we think it needs a new name or something.

    Shorter Anon: “My white family left along with all the other whites, and now Detroit is shit.” Go **** yourself. You don’t know jack about the current city residents.

  18. Tom says:

    One of my best friends is from Detroit and he calls it “the D” with the highest affection. It’s cheesy to call it “Motown,” just as you’d chuckle at someone who said he was from “The Windy City” or “The Big Apple.” “The D” has character, is clearly affectionate, and, like others have said, is not the same as Dallas’s “Big D” nickname.

  19. Kaity says:

    The D, Detroit … my city. The point of having nicknames is to distinguish those who really love the city to those who just know the brand/name. The difference between saying, “I like rock music.” and saying, “I am a Dead head.”

    At Anon: Get a grip, the cars left Detroit a lonnnnngggg time ago. We have one factory in the city of Detroit. The world headquarters for Ford are in Dearborn, Chrysler’s is in Auburn Hills, and GM is the only one with its official headquarters in Detroit.

    Greening Detroit would be a way for the city to eliminate it’s carbon footprint and decrease building maintenance and utility bills, but it will not be the money-maker of the future. Transit is a vital part to any city, and prevents many young, urban professionals from moving here, because they prefer lifestyles that do not require a car to commute. Creating a Detroit that uses its open spaces thoughtfully and with economic development in mind will help to revitalize the city.

  20. Daniel says:

    “The D” is the name given to the city by residents. This wasn’t voted on or created, it evolved. Should official efforts stick with the name “Detroit”? Of course! Market the city as Detroit, promote it as Detroit But people who LIVE in the city should call it whatever they want. “The D” is not an attempt to minimize the city’s identity, its a grassroots identity.

    What is a “Big Apple”? “Chi Town?” “Murdaland???”

  21. Alon Levy says:

    The Big Apple is a term used for and by tourists. People who’ve lived in New York for more than five minutes call it New York, NYC, or The City.

  22. dtownie says:

    Hey EJ, while it’s true Cleveland would fit inside Detroit with enough room left for San Francisco, Cleveland was less densely packed people-wise in the last census. The two may not be exactly comparable but may have similar solutions to their problems.

    Anyways, can we all please stop saying “Southeast Michigan” when we mean Detroit (metro).

  23. p says:

    When it comes to attracting people to Detroit, aside from wanting to boast a good economy, good schools, low crime, etc… Detroit can market itself as a city with an international complexity. Detroit has some Canada in it and that needs to work somehow to Detroit’s advantage. I’ll leave that up to the marketing gurus.

    The perception of Detroit is in many cases as bad as Anon describes a few posts above and Canada in some eyes is the antithesis to that perception. When the negetives outweigh the positives regarding Detroit’s perception, offsetting some of these negetives might be something worth looking into and I see a possibilty in identifiying ourselves regionally with Canada.

    In response to the branding conversation I’ve recently heard or recently been paying attention to how people are pronouncing Detroit (across the country) with the emphasis on the D; its said DEtroit. I can dig that.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures