Cheri Reese and her husband, Michael Swanson, left St. Paul five years ago to move back to their tiny northwestern Minnesota hometown of Hallock.
Their goal was to keep the Swanson farm in the family. They ended up saving the farm — and its rye fields — by starting a distillery, Far North Spirits.
Now they’re part of a group that’s trying to “save” Hallock by getting more people like them, who left for college and never looked back, to return to this shrinking city of 981 near the Canadian border.
They’ve enlisted neighbors, city officials, even secured a grant to hire Twin Cities branding firm Bodega Ltd. to help make their case.
Branding an edge-of-the-map, decidedly non-touristy place such as Hallock may seem a little unorthodox. But the concept of “place branding” is spreading around the country, as a growing number of smaller cities and towns — from Oshkosh, Wis., “Wisconsin’s Event City,” to Fairfield, Iowa, “Tune Into Our Vibe!” — are trying to at least get people to visit.
“My vision would be for some people who come back this summer to say, ‘We should have a vacation home in Hallock,’ ” said Reese, who worked in marketing before moving back to Hallock. “For us, the pull was this wide open space with a slower pace.”
Bodega’s branding efforts have included giving Hallock a tagline, “Things are clearer up here,” as well as a typeface and logo that could be used on the city’s water tower and welcome sign. (The logo, which has a retro look, was inspired in part by the lettering on one of the town’s churches.) The company is wrapping up its work in time for Hallock to unveil its new brand at the all-school reunion and 135th anniversary party on June 14-17, complete with Hallock pins, shirts and beach towels.
It’s difficult to quantify the impact of a municipal branding campaign. And a cool logo or catchy tagline alone won’t entice anyone to move anywhere. It can inspire a second look, though.
In Ely, Minn. (“The Last Great Pure Experience”), publicity pranks such as April Fools’ Day news releases (in 2017, it announced it was starting a ride-sharing app in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness called Canoeber) have helped garner attention and build its reputation as a fun and outdoorsy place. And Rochester has been relying on the Mayo Clinic brand to sell itself. (To avoid any confusion with Rochester, N.Y., the southern Minnesota city changed its tagline from “Rah Rah Rochester” to “Minnesota’s Rochester: America’s City of Care and Innovation.”)
Bill Baker, whose Oregon-based Total Destination Marketing firm works with small cities, said a brand can play a major part in helping a place of any size compete for visitors, as well as new residents and businesses. “It helps the community bring to the forefront: What are its competitive advantages? It really helps them focus and unify around those things that are most important. If everybody’s playing off a different song sheet, it just doesn’t work.”
Popping from the prairie
Branding wasn’t on Paul Blomquist’s mind when the Ford dealer became a founding member and co-chairman of the Hallock Main Street committee in 2015. All he wanted to do was spruce up downtown by dealing with a few dilapidated buildings. But during conversations with Reese and other community members, he realized that his hometown was in critical condition.
“We are struggling with population,” he said. “Our schools are being impacted; our economic community is being impacted.”
He thinks branding could help resuscitate Hallock, especially now, when the successes of Far North Spirits and Revelation Ale brewery, plus another new business founded by brothers who’ve returned to the area, have brought fresh energy to the town.
Blomquist’s wife, Kristin Eggerling, is on board, too. She joined the Main Street committee, and applied for grants to help finance economic development, including about $8,500 to develop a brand. That’s when Hallock Main Street hired Minneapolis-based Bodega, run by partners Josef Harris and Liz Gardner, for the project. The firm had worked with Reese’s Far North Spirits, and had spent time in Hallock.
Driving to the town for the first time, Harris was struck by how it appears out of the flat prairie from so far off.
Locals joke that “it’s the only place in the world where you can watch your dog run away for three days,” Harris said. But he found a stark beauty in the area.
“There’s this amazing serenity to it,” he said. “You get balance between the open landscape and this little town that pops up in the middle of this great, great emptiness. But at the same time, that town is vibrant.”
Gardner, who grew up in Mora, Minn., and Harris drove to Hallock several times to have dinner with locals, hang out and “simply listen,” Harris said. “Bodega didn’t want to be the kids from the city coming up here to tell this town what to do, or what’s best for them.”
Making ‘nowhere’ cool
For Hallock, which is named for the 19th-century outdoorsman and Forest and Stream magazine publisher Charles Hallock and has the first indoor hockey rink as its claim to fame, Bodega decided against a folksy brand. Instead, the company came up with something cool and spare.
Harris and Gardner took inspiration from the artsy desert town of Marfa, Texas (“Tough to get to. Tougher to explain. But once you get here, you get it.”), and scenes from Wim Wenders’ 1984 movie “Paris, Texas,” which was filmed across West Texas. The town and the movie take the idea of “nowhere” and manage to make it cool.
They also drew on Hallock’s slow and easy pace of life and neighborly yet quirky feel. Take the guy who uses his riding lawn mower to get around, the Superman mural that suddenly appeared on the old telephone building in town or the artificial Christmas tree that’s permanently propped up in back of a pickup truck in one yard. (It’s there year-round, but lit only during the holidays.)
So far, the response to the branding campaign has been positive, Harris said, adding that even the regulars playing dice at the Caribou Grill each morning told him they were behind the firm’s efforts.
In April, Bodega gave a big presentation at Hallock’s Bean and Brush coffee shop to show residents a draft of the branding plan. That’s where the “Things are clearer up here” tagline emerged as the clear favorite, beating out “Edge of the world.”
It wasn’t everyone’s top pick. Still, it resonated with Teal Plaine, a financial planner who left Hallock for Fargo a decade ago and recently moved back with his wife and three kids.
While Plaine isn’t so sure his hometown’s new brand will draw people from the Twin Cities, he hopes it’ll help persuade people like him to move back.
“I think it will hit home with people who are in my shoes, with people that already know how it is up here,” he said.
Erica Pearson is a freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.