This piece originally appeared on Rust Wire.
It’s branding season again in Cleveland, so says the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In its 2012 editorial agenda, a main goal for the upcoming year is “[rebranding Cleveland] to change not only the look and feel of our region’s ‘capital city,’… but also the way the world and Clevelanders themselves look at it.”
But the branding of a Rust Belt city is tricky business, as you’re dealing with the prospect of putting lipstick on a poorhouse. Or at least that’s how it can be perceived. For example, the Atlantic Cities recently did a study examining perceptions of the country’s big cities, and the Rust Belt claimed six of the top 10 spots in highest percentage of negative reactions, with Detroit and Cleveland claiming first and third place, respectively.
In other words, Rust Belt branders have their work cut out for them. One need only to examine the history of Cleveland’s branding campaigns to know this is the case. All in all, it has been a bit of a mess, with the coalescing of a Cleveland brand as about as defined as the centering of Cleveland’s own top booster Drew Carey, who himself has gone from Warsaw Tavern dude to one shimmy away from Dancing with the Stars. To that end, the success of any city brand campaign is dependent on how you go about it. That is: Are you trying to be a thing or are you being it? The distinction is important, as nobody likes a fake, especially when the “brand” of the Rust Belt is about being as real as possible. Says Jim Russell in the Cleveland Review:
All the connoisseurs of Rust Belt Chic are seeking the same thing, authenticity. A strong sense of place is highly valued. At every turn, you know that you can only be in Pittsburg. And you love all of it, the grit and the faded grandeur.
Still, branding has a genetic tendency to shy away from genuineness, if not reality, i.e. the Pollyannish booster debate. But branding doesn’t have to be that way. There exists a continuum: Trying versus being. Perhaps the ultimate trying brand in Cleveland was the corporate-driven motto “Best location in the nation.” Coined by Cleveland Electric Illumination Co. in 1944, the slogan was adopted by city leaders. While less egregious back then, the brand was simplistic—overcompensating even—and left little wiggle room if—I don’t know—folks starting leaving en masse not a decade later. It had a limited shelf-life as such, and that’s too bad, because it came with a pretty smooth song.
Another trying brand was the Plain Dealer-driven Cleveland’s a Plum campaign that began in 1981. Starting as a bumper sticker insert that read “New York’s the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a Plum,” the motto began popping up on buttons and t-shirts, with Mayor George Voinovich soon shamelessly throwing out the “first plum” at a Indians/Yankees game (rumor has it the plum splattered in the catcher’s mitt). The problem with the campaign—while laudable—was that you don’t differentiate your city identity through omission, i.e., “we are not New York.” Instead, you do it by declaring what you are. And no Cleveland, you are not a plum. Sorry.
To get to a few being examples, the characteristics of the approach are several: More guerilla-based than corporate-funded boosterish types, but even more than that, an ability to foster an appeal to place by working perceived weaknesses into strengths.
Take the Cleveland “You’ve Got to Be Tough!” saying. It was birthed on a t-shirt in the 70’s by Daffy Dan, Cleveland’s iconic haberdasher. And what it did was great, carving a silver-lined essence out of the reality of the city’s physical condition that we are resilient in these parts. And everyone loves resiliency. So the city should show it off.
As for traction, talk about shelf-life, as some thirty years later the New York Times began “36 Hours in Cleveland“ this way:
“YOU Gotta Be Tough” was a popular T-shirt slogan worn by Clevelanders during the 1970s, a grim period marked by industrial decline, large- scale population flight and an urban environment so toxic the Cuyahoga River actually caught on fire. These days it still helps to be a little tough; a fiercely blue-collar ethos endures.
And about that river on fire—for many it is simply a point of embarrassment that should be buried like bones in the closet. But the fact of the matter remains that for many non-locals, Cleveland brings to mind a burning river. Again, the key is turning the perceived weakness into strength, or more exactly: We caught our lifeblood on fire making your country, and then we cleaned to remake ourselves.
Again, branding through being, and there are several grassroots movements that have embraced the moment to make a mystical, if not hardcore, water-on-fire brand. There is Great Lakes’ Burning River Pale Ale, as well as the brewery-sponsored Burning River Fest that celebrates the river’s re-birth. There is the Burning River Roller Girls league that is growing exponentially in popularity. And then my favorite, a branding logo created by Clevelander Katie O’Keefe that reads, “Visit Cleveland. We’ll keep the river on for you.”
The iconic smoky image, a Motel 6 reference, that Cleveland-style Midwest welcome…nicely done. Now, is there actually a chance that Cleveland’s corporate-backed, tax payer-funded branding efforts would embrace more of the underground being approach? Not likely, as the marketing field in general–and city branding discipline in particular–is engrained with a sunny-side-of-life lingo and technique to the point that they’re inseparable. But the fact remains: That trying method, it’s been tried—over and over and over. And it has never succeeded in changing how people look at us, let alone how Cleveland looks at itself. If it did, there’d be no need for the Plain Dealer’s latest branding challenge. We’d be plums. Or, by now, prunes.