Cleveland: Tough As Nuts

Courtesy of The Cleveland Kid

There is a new video out marketing Cleveland and a new slogan: “Downtown Cleveland: It’s here”. Now, I struggle with critiquing it. One the one hand, I get its energy and optimism: the energy in Downtown is palpable, real—there is a bit of a youth movement to the core—and hence the compilation of images, sounds, and narratives that are trying to capitalize and communicate what is going down.

On the other hand, I see it as another missed opportunity. The message reads blasé. Tastes like a spoon of new car smell. In fact it could be about anywhere—Nashville, Cincinnati, Tampa, etc.; that is, instead of exposing what Cleveland really is and what’s unique about it, it’s distinctiveness as an attraction is buried in amenity-driven microphone-ing that screams we have sports teams and a casino and restaurants and the yet-spoiled exuberance of the young. But when you think about Cleveland—I mean honestly think about Cleveland: about its guts and soul and heart and people—is this the kind of stuff that comes to mind?

Of course not. So why do it?

Firstly, it speaks to a larger method of city revitalization that has been running America for some time. Here, the creative classification method entails imposing a rather homogenous, universal cool over a given city topography. Glitz, glamor, glass condos, and sports heroes. Bike paths and food trucks. Millennium Park Jr.’s. Etc. But with this whitewashing comes the chipping away at Cleveland’s Rust Belt soul. And it is this soul, mind you, that is a real attraction. After all, what is so hot about going everywhere when you can go somewhere?

And yes: Cleveland is a somewhere and has a something. It is part cultural, part aesthetic, part historical, and part a consequence of having to go on in the face of adversity. It is part wit, part ironic, part self-deprecating, but also part stand your ground in the defense of where you came from. And it’s all real, not ephemeral: our distinctiveness arising less from donning another city’s success than stripping naked and showing our nuts and bolts. Our warts. Our knuckles and heart.

Secondly, and this speaks to the marketing machine in general, but outfits that produce messaging at this level just cannot get beyond the culture of the boardroom from which the message emerges. Corporatism repels risk. And this not only relates to branding professionals but also to the customers seeking the brand. It’s like everyone knows their audience and their audience is everyone. It’s all about that one type we want, they say, and we want thousands of them. It is a safe strategy, riskless. But Cleveland doesn’t need safe. Playing it conservative has just kept us secure in our knowledge that we are always revitalizing. Instead, step outside, show your face to the world, as branding is and always has been about differentiation. But to do that you need to be aware and secure in knowing what makes you different.

It is alright. People will like you. And if they don’t, so be it. The coolest will. Said Anthony Bourdain in his “No Reservations: Cleveland” trip:

I think that troubled cities often tragically misinterpret what’s coolest about themselves. They scramble for cure-alls, something that will “attract business”, always one convention center, one pedestrian mall or restaurant district away from revival. They miss their biggest, best and probably most marketable asset: their unique and slightly off-center character. Few people go to New Orleans because it’s a “normal” city — or a “perfect” or “safe” one. They go because it’s crazy, borderline dysfunctional, permissive, shabby, alcoholic and bat shit crazy — and because it looks like nowhere else. Cleveland is one of my favorite cities. I don’t arrive there with a smile on my face every time because of the Cleveland Philharmonic.

Richey Piiparinen

Update: A friend commented to me that authenticity and grit can’t be marketed. Well, check this new video out from Memphis. They got it. I get a feel for who they are. And it makes me want to check the city out.