It's hard to pinpoint the moment that the Twin Cities disappeared from the national and local consciousness.

That's because the fade and ultimate death of Minneapolis-St. Paul and its metro area was such a gradual thing that almost no one noticed.

Only recently has it become clear that our home city is known, both to ourselves and to outsiders, as simply "Minnesota."

This is a bizarre turn. We live in an era of cities. Metropolitan areas have emerged as the basic units of a dynamic global economy.

Metro Seattle competes with metro Denver, Dallas, Munich and Mumbai for creative talent, good jobs and the next slice of prosperity. With a population of 3.3 million, our own metro city is the 16th largest in the nation.

Together with the other 99 largest metros, we produce three-quarters of the nation's gross domestic product and nearly all of its new ideas. To put it bluntly, cities are in the driver's seat; states are along for the ride.

Never has it been more important, then, for a city to have a strong identity and a competitive brand. For Chicago to become Illinois or Atlanta to become Georgia would be almost suicidal.

And yet that's what has happened here.

For years I had been vaguely aware of our slipping identity, but it hit me with a jolt this summer when I overheard each of our grown children, now living on the East Coast, tell friends that they would be going back to Minnesota for a family wedding when I knew perfectly well that the wedding would not be in Fergus Falls or Bemidji but in Minneapolis, with some festivities in St. Paul.

And I recalled distinctly that in the mid-1970s when my wife and I first moved here, we told our friends we were moving to Minneapolis, or to the Twin Cities, because that's the way it was described on our main point of reference -- the "Mary Tyler Moore Show."

It was a way of saying that we were moving to an up-and-coming urban place.

Apparently, we no longer live in such a place, but rather in Minnesota, which is a different concept altogether.

Don't get me wrong. I love our state -- every lake, every pine tree, every dairy cow.

But Minnesota isn't a city. And its image has been vividly framed by talented satirists and storytellers, mainly Garrison Keillor and the Coen brothers.

To most of the world we are eccentric small-town people who sit in the Chatterbox Cafe while snow piles up outside. Or, we are overly earnest "Minnesoootans" with Fargo accents and simpleminded ideas.

Our self-deprecating humor is a fine trait, and I laugh louder than almost anyone.

But seeing ourselves as an amusing backwater carries a price in the serious game of attracting the young, creative talent that will produce the next wave of prosperity. It's a wave that we can't afford to miss.

To brand our energetic, artistic and quite excellent city as Minnesota is a bit like Coca-Cola telling the world it's a pretty good beverage in the cola family.

The question quickly becomes: Can our city compete if it doesn't have a name?

I admit that my "invisible city" complaint has become something of an obsession. When I bring it up at parties, people shuffle their feet and suddenly need to refill their wine glasses.

Still, I press on, hoping that the ever-mounting evidence will convince people that our city has all but disappeared, to wit:

• The New York Times obituary for Keillor's sidekick Tom Keith said he was featured on "a broadcast on public radio in front of a theater audience in Minnesota, or in other cities on tour." (Reminds me of the NFL player who said that Minnesota was his favorite city to play in.)

• Describing the major media markets Eleanor Mondale had worked in, the Star Tribune's obituary about her said: "Her broadcasting career took her from Minnesota to Chicago to Los Angeles and back to Minnesota."

• Several Star Tribune stories described Delta Airlines corporate jobs shifting from Minnesota to Atlanta. Another Strib story talked about job cutbacks among "Medtronic's 8,000 Minnesota employees." Just this month KARE-TV mentioned that 200 Minnesota jobs were being lost at Andersen Windows. (All of these jobs were in a place formerly known as the Twin Cities.)

• The New Yorker magazine mentioned sharing a phone call with Walter Mondale "from his home state of Minnesota." (Mondale's home and office are in Minneapolis.)

• My favorite came last June when MSNBC's Rachel Maddow recalled that Sen. Larry Craig had been arrested "in a Minnesota airport."

All of that reminds me of the man who stopped me at a baggage carousel at the Tampa airport to ask: "Is this the flight from Minnesota?"

Or of a friend's New York mother who arrived here for her first visit and gasped: "You have a city here!"

• • •

Even this small sample prompts a few questions: How did we drop off the map? Does it matter? If it does, what should be done about it?

As it turns out, the nominal demise of Minneapolis and St. Paul stems from their intense rivalry.

In 1961 the newly arrived major league baseball team quickly discovered that it would have to name itself without offending either twin city. Herb Hoeft, the team's publicist, came up with a clever solution.

"Minnesota Twins" was a wordplay that described each city equally. A logo showed cartoon characters -- Minnie and Paul -- shaking hands across the Mississippi River. A "TC" was placed on the team's caps.

Almost immediately, however, the whole state claimed the team's name as its own. The team responded by adding the state's outline to the logo in 1972 and printing "Minnesota" on its road uniforms in 1987.

Clark Griffith, whose father moved the ballclub here from Washington, D.C., in 1961, credits Hoeft's marketing savvy for launching the trend toward a "Minnesota" brand for the metro area. "That was the start of it," he told me.

The metro area's other pro teams fell in line by naming themselves "Minnesota," and, in 1968, the Minneapolis Symphony renamed itself the Minnesota Orchestra. Gradually, businesses, civic groups and the media followed along to the point that the distinction between metro and state all but disappeared.

"Maybe it's a case of Minnesota Nice going overboard," said Kevin DiLorenzo, CEO of Olson, the Minneapolis (or is it Minnesota?) ad agency. "We don't really want to leave anybody out, so we talk about the whole state."

• • •

It's especially ironic that the Twin Cities began losing its identity at roughly the same time it gained a metropolitan government. The Met Council, founded in 1967, should arguably have given the region an advantage in branding itself in the minds of its residents, but the opposite happened.

The rise of poverty and decline of population in the central cities in the '80s and '90s was another factor. Rather than identify themselves with slumping Minneapolis or St. Paul or both, suburbanites chose to link themselves to the state.

A key player was Minnesota Public Radio, which increasingly portrayed the state as the major brand and all of its cities as mere components.

Maple Grove, thus, became just another city in Minnesota (no different from Crookston or Albert Lea) rather than a Twin Cities suburb. This is the geographic idea that now prevails.

Is the Twin Cities' nominal demise trivial or significant? Marketing executives take the matter seriously.

"The upside of 'Minnesota' as a brand is that it's recognizable and generates curiosity," said DiLorenzo.

"People want to know about it. It has a lot of nature attached to it, and that's a big selling point for us. On the downside, 'Minnesota' defines us as not quite the sophisticated place we need to be in order to compete in major markets."

He added: "Minneapolis, especially, needs a stronger brand. It has to define itself as an urban place in the best sense. As a metro area, we need to tell the story that we have big-city amenities -- and that we're close to nature and our rural roots."

Steve Wehrenberg, CEO of Campbell Mithun, conceded that the Twin Cities has chosen to reinforce the Minnesota brand while failing to establish a global, or even a national identity for itself.

"There's low awareness of us as a city," he said. "We could have a brand if we wanted to do something about it, but maybe we'd just rather be one big happy Minnesota family."

• • •

Actually, we're not all that happy -- not all of us. Met Council Chair Sue Haigh, for one, believes firmly that the metro area is an actual place, and that it should have an actual name.

"It'll take time to catch on," she said, "but it's important for telling our story to the outside world. We're so modest here. Our quality of humility has led us not to be strong sales people."

"We've allowed other people to tell our story, or we've told our own story in ways that might not always be in our best interest," said Mike Brown, vice president for marketing and communication at Greater MSP, the metro region's new business recruiter and re-brander.

"We haven't said who we really are; we have to talk about ourselves if we want a better brand."

That better brand, said Brown, must emphasize both nature and urbanity, and it must succeed in getting rid of our default name (Minnesota) while installing a more accurate one: Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Ad campaigns can help push the rock forward. The "metropolitan by nature" campaign launched by Meet Minneapolis (the convention bureau) is nicely conceived; Greater MSP's "prosper" campaign ties our name to future prosperity, and that's a good thing.

But ultimately our name depends on whether we ordinary folks are willing to call ourselves a city.

I'm trying very hard to imagine the sounds of our grown children's voices telling their East Coast friends that they'll be flying home to Minneapolis-St. Paul for the holidays.

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Steve Berg is a writer and urban design consultant in Minneapolis. His clients include the Minneapolis Downtown Council, the Metropolitan Council and the Urban Land Institute-Minnesota.