In 2009, the headline of a Time magazine cover story read “The Tragedy of Detroit” with a shadowy photo of a blighted factory in the background. The national press was brutal.
So the media took little notice when Sergio Marchionne, CEO of the Fiat Group, bought a 20 percent stake in Chrysler after it had emerged from bankruptcy protection that same year.
Believing that the Chrysler brand was valuable, Marchionne focused on a single commercial during the 2011 Super Bowl. Critics called the move careless. How could a company with serious financial problems justify the $10 million dollar advertising placement?
And then it happened. For two minutes, the country saw Detroit for what it was: down but not out. Just like an America recovering from the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression.
This was an honest moment of self-reflection as iconic rapper Eminem drove a Chrysler through the highs and lows of the Motor City. The tagline was unforgettable: "Imported from Detroit." Sales skyrocketed. Chrysler had saved itself, and somewhere along the way gave Detroit back its identity simply by getting its story straight: A city of makers getting back to work.
Fiat continued to revitalize Chrysler by buying a majority share of the company and investing heavily in new vehicle design and marketing. These days the “Imported from Detroit” tagline has been modified or phased out. Chrysler still has a ways to go to be considered one of the big three automakers again, but the story lives on.
We tell ourselves stories to make sense of our nonsensical world. They are not just tall tales told to impress others but to help us create a shared identity that spans the boundaries that keep us apart. This is how we become the inclusive “us”-- who we are and why we are that way.
Maybe it’s time to give some serious consideration to our story – the story of Michigan as it is now.
This requires more than the conventional Eastside-Westside and above- and below-the-bridge schisms; the urban and industrial hip versus pastoral and nautical bliss. We need a bigger and better narrative -- one that encompasses the amazing diversity of our state and helps us all understand and appreciate how we are interconnected and, more importantly, where we are going together.
So what’s the Next Idea?
A brand is a business term that basically means owning a story in your customer’s mind. For example, Google has come to mean “search engine” and its story something like “quickly finding what you’re looking for on the web.”
Strong brands are invaluable because they create a real sense of connectedness, not only between an organization and its customers but also within the organization itself. Marketers refer to this bond as identification and valuation. At their best, brands integrate our social identity in a way we perceive as valuable. When taken too far, they function like something akin to a cult.
So how do we go about getting our story straight and create a better brand for Michigan? There are a few places we can start:
Build On What We Have Now: By most objective standards, the Pure Michigan campaign has been successful in attracting visitors and tourist dollars to our state. It’s been almost a decade since the program began. Maybe it’s time to debrief the Pure Michigan team as to what we have learned thus far regarding what works, what doesn’t, and why. What messages resonate with which people? How might these messages fit together to create an integrated brand? Have we discovered an “Imported from Detroit” game changer? Let’s learn from the people who have been out there selling our state and follow-up on their suggestions.
Appoint a Poet Laureate: In the early 1950s, Michigan appointed Edgar Guest as its Poet Laureate with a special resolution. We haven’t had one since. Recently, there has been a grassroots movement to institute an Upper Peninsula Poet Laureate. They have the right idea. Let’s start with words and move forward to images, music, architecture, and beyond. These appointments would be limited to three years, ensuring that many of our state’s beautiful and brilliant voices would be heard. We could build on their talents like Apple did with its “Think Different” ad campaign. Over time, an authentic brand will emerge from our most creative and communicative citizens.
Double Down on Arts Education: In Michigan, we have learned the hard way that standardized and rote work is inevitably replaced by technology or moved off-shore. The only viable way to remain a high-wage economy is to continuously develop and redevelop the ability to make products and services better and new, as well as forms of design and expression.
According to the 2010 IBM CEO Study, creativity is the most crucial factor for the future success of leaders. Suddenly, all those music, arts and writing programs cut from our curricula as a result of budget concerns seem to be far more important than previously imagined. Redouble our support for the arts in our schools and see what stories our youngsters tell us about who we are now and who we may be.
Collect our Stories: In the early 19th century, the Brothers Grimm started collecting German folk tales while they were still university students. The result was Grimms' Fairy Tales, which helped create a shared vision for a German confederation when the region was mostly comprised of independent and warring states. Similarly, in our own country, the poet Carl Sandburg collected folksongs and published them as The American Songbag which gave voice to our national character during the Great Depression, as did the later work of Pete Seeger during the Civil Rights Movement. So why not commission a similar undertaking? Hold a contest for the best collection of stories, songs, images and other forms of interpretation that weave a shared narrative for our state.
Michigan is more than just a state. It is a shared state of mind. At a time when political differences are pulling us apart, maybe it’s up to us to pull ourselves together. We can start by getting our story straight.
Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.