The Twin Cities brand: There's work to do

  • Article by: STEVE BERG
  • Updated: July 27, 2013 - 6:09 PM

A competitive metro area must build its brand. We're just getting started.

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Not until the 1990s was it clear that “place mattered.” Until then, a city’s success or failure drifted on the winds of fate. Would the natural resources hold out? Would the big companies stay? Those were the pivotal questions in the industrial era.

But as the century turned and the information age took hold, cities came face to face with a new reality: People had replaced companies as the pivotal variables. And people — especially the young and talented — could live and work wherever they wanted. They weren’t looking for companies. They were looking for attractive, energetic cities with an authentic “sense of place.”

Cities had become consumer products. Any metropolitan region hoping to compete suddenly needed a distinctive brand. Austin, Seattle, Denver, Boston, Portland and San Diego were among the places able to forge images that combined “technology” and “brainpower” with enticing lifestyles, often enriched by involving regional music, food, culture, historic neighborhoods, mountains, beaches and waterfronts. It worked because those cities, while promoting themselves, were also working to improve their competitive résumés.

So, what’s our brand? What’s our story? What’s on our competitive résumé? The short answer is that we’re still working on it.

More than a decade has passed since Mark Yudof, then president of the University of Minnesota, warned that the Twin Cities had lost its competitive cool. He and other critics acknowledged that we hadn’t exactly fallen apart. Rather, we had coasted on the glowing reviews of the 1970s while competitors had passed us by. We hadn’t fully detected the changing metropolitan competition or the rising importance of what’s now called place-making.

“This was something that people under 30 generally understood as a game-changer, while people over 30 did not,” explains Katherine Loflin, a national consultant on the dynamics of place.

The Twin Cities spent the next decade trying to catch up. Outdated arts and sports venues were impressively rebuilt. An infant rail transit system was launched. Various efforts to benchmark the business climate were begun. The Itasca Project was formed to call out the region’s biggest challenges. The mayors of Minneapolis, St. Paul and 48 suburbs began to meet regularly over common concerns.

Most notably, business and local governments joined hands in 2011 to create Greater MSP as the region’s economic development and marketing force. For the first time, the metro would work together on economic development and reach out as a unified market to tell the world about itself. But tell it what?

That obvious void led Greater MSP’s director Michael Langley and Caren Dewar, director of the Urban Land Institute-Minnesota, to convene a series of extraordinary gatherings to find an answer. On a snowy morning in mid-April, I joined 260 invitees from diverse slices of Twin Cities life for an all-day workshop, followed up by another session in late May.

In one sense, the gatherings were nothing new. For a decade, there had been much hand-wringing over “who we are” and “how we should compete.” A dozen times delegations of business and civic leaders had visited competing cities and marveled at their confidence and unified voice. Now, with Greater MSP in place, this metro region finally had such a voice. But whether it could carry a tune or agree on the lyrics was still up in the air.

Langley and Dewar hoped that the upbeat workshops — spiked with an extra dose of younger, more diverse, more energetic participants — would provide a clear answer and an actual to-do list.

A series of sobering numbers added a note of urgency. Despite progress, the Twin Cities metro was still failing to attract young talent, ranking a dismal 39th in one national study. Indeed, the Met Council continued to project a net out-migration to other U.S. cities over the next 25 years.

As a starting point in our discussions, Langley had suggested that participants measure the Twin Cities metro against six attributes of our strongest competitors: 1) A strong brand and image; 2) a culture of excellence in education, health and quality of life; 3) a lively spirit of innovation and risk-taking; 4) a strong connective infrastructure; 5) a commitment to preserving and regenerating regional assets, and 6) a striving for openness and social equity.

It’s a good list. My own take is that we measure up pretty well on most items, and that the pursuit of cool is a little like trying too hard to be funny; the harder you try, the more ridiculous you look. Still, there’s something to be said for laying the platform upon which magical things can happen — or may be already happening, as in some artsy districts of Minneapolis.

It’s clear that we must work harder than our rivals because we have two extra hurdles to leap over: an exaggerated reputation for bad weather and an unfortunate cultural trait that Scandinavians call janteloven — a smug inability to toot our own horn. Somehow, we must break free to celebrate more enthusiastically our strengths while focusing more sharply on fixing (not just talking about fixing) our weaknesses. Using Langley’s list, here’s my take on how we stack up against Denver, Seattle and our other top rivals:

 

1. Brand and image: Our grade: D

We need a sophisticated marketing campaign that heats up our cold image and recaptures our lost identity. To be blunt, most people don’t know much about us, and what they do know isn’t all that favorable.

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