Pounded by the pandemic and recent riots, the city of Minneapolis has launched a first-ever ad campaign designed to encourage its own citizens to support area restaurants and small businesses.

This summer, Meet Minneapolis — the city's tourism and convention-planning arm more accustomed to luring tourism from beyond state lines — partnered with ad giant Carmichael Lynch to launch the "We Need Us" advertising blitz, which officials liken to a rally cry.

Through August and September, the $50,000 campaign is relying on 300 radio spots, plus ads on highway billboards, store posters and on Facebook and Instagram that urge support for local businesses so they survive the economic upheaval.

" 'We Need Us' is a rallying cry for us to support our community," said Meet Minneapolis CEO Melvin Tennant.

About 12 Carmichael Lynch advertising gurus worked with the city to interview, photograph and video business owners and employees used in the media blitz that launched this month.

"While our agency has created campaigns in the past that supported small businesses, none of us have worked in a situation like this before," said Carmichael Lynch vice president Annie Dubsky, noting the virus and civil unrest. "Our employees care about the community where we work and live."

Sergio Manancero, co-owner of north Minneapolis-based La Doña Cervecería taproom and restaurant, said the ad campaign is needed.

He was forced to lay off 17 of his 20 employees after Gov. Tim Walz's March shutdown order in the wake of COVID-19. Manancero has since hired back 12 workers but business is still off 75% as customers avoid outings due to the pandemic and riot-induced safety concerns.

"It's been wildly damaging to us," said Manancero, noting that his business isn't quite two years old. After La Doña was allowed to reopen, he opened a kitchen and now serves Elote grilled corn, choripan sausage sandwiches and other Latin-inspired fare to gin up more revenue. He's also started wholesaling his brewed beer to liquor stores.

Even so, revenue lags. "So the [new ad] campaign is vitally important. It shows that businesses have support. The message that needs to go out is that Minneapolis is not an unsafe place to visit bars and restaurants," he said.

Each of the city's new ads play on the words "We Need" and feature either Pizza Luce, The Midtown Global Market, Sammy's Avenue Eatery, La Doña Cervecería, or another small local business — followed by the words "Need Us."

The idea is that "we need" these small business and they "need us," if they are going to weather the economic and social unrest, said Meet Minneapolis branding and strategy Senior Vice President Courtney Ries. "Each of us can do something," to divert each small business away from the edge, she added.

Local photographer Asha Belk and Carmichael Lynch Relate worked with Meet Minneapolis for weeks to create the right images and messaging now displayed across the city, including on billboards sailing over highways on I-94 near Plymouth Avenue and near Chicago Avenue; I-35W near Stinson Boulevard, and on Hwy. 55 near 24th Street as well as at bustling Central Avenue and East Broadway.

Some vendors gave the city discounts on printing while others put up "We Need Us" posters in their windows as a sign of support.

In response to strong demand, a new batch of business posters is being printed, Ries said. Carmichael Lynch created a downloadable "tool kit" so businesses can create their own graphics using We Need Us messaging. La Doña is just learning how to use it.

Organizers said the effort is badly needed. Just months after the killing of George Floyd by police and ensuing civil unrest damaged hundreds of businesses along Lake Street, West Broadway, University Avenue and just last week in downtown Minneapolis, "now is not time to rest. We must begin to address the restoration and transformation of a community strewn with devastated small businesses," Meet Minneapolis said.

The campaign aimed at its own backyard marks a first for Meet Minneapolis, a shift from luring visitors from other cities to encouraging locals to support neighborhood businesses.

"This is a new way that we can support them [since] our normal marketing efforts are on a hiatus if you will," because of the pandemic greatly diminishing travel, Tennant said.

Early reaction to the ads has been positive.

"It is making people feel proud of their city and reminding them that, 'Yes. This is a hard time. But there are things we can do,' " Ries said. "Everybody knows this won't solve all the problems. But if this gives us one step forward in the direction of recovery and a consensus of feeling secure again, then I think it will help. The backdrop to all this is so much more emotional and hard. It's not just COVID anymore."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725