What’s in a name? Quite a lot, as it turns out. We live in a world of brand names and brand identities. “Harvard” means far more than the obvious, as does “Wal-Mart” and “Fox News” and “Northwest Airlines.” (Or is it Delta?)
Yet we who occupy this cosmic coordinate — 44.97 north, 93.27 west, or thereabouts — don’t quite know what to call our hometown. We lack a strong brand. If we’re from Hopkins and we’re traveling and someone asks where we’re from, there’s an awkward pause. Do we say Hopkins, Minnesota, and then launch into an explanation? Do we say Minneapolis? The Twin Cities? The Seven-County Mosquito Control District? Or do we get vague and just say Minnesota? Our answers tend to vary. But if we aren’t quite sure what to call this place, then how can others be sure? And that raises the ultimate existential marketing question: Are we really here?
Apparently we are. Two mayors and three influential public relations executives held a press conference Tuesday to affirm our existence and to announce that there’s “more to life in Minneapolis Saint Paul.”
Removing the hyphen suggests a singular place and a stronger brand. “More to life” is meant to promote our greatest asset: you can do more quality things here with less hassle than anywhere else. As Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said, “You can live a sophisticated life in New York and enjoy a great outdoors experience in Bend, Ore., but you can do both in Minneapolis Saint Paul.”
It’s easy to lampoon a boosterish marketing campaign, but this one is deadly serious. The global economy is busy sorting metropolitan economies into winners and losers. Our area has pretty much drained the surrounding states of young talent over the years and now, in order to keep up with more aggressive competitors, we must stretch our recruiting arms far wider. That’s why name and image matter.
For years it has been apparent that this market has two problems: an identity crisis and a negative national image. A survey launched three years ago by the Minneapolis convention bureau found us absent from most peoples’ geographic consciousness. People knew about Seattle and Denver and Austin. But we got lost in the crease of the map. Those who do know our name — whatever it is — have a bad opinion of us: cold, primitive and boring. Some of that is true, but most of it isn’t. People have no notion that we’re relatively upscale, that we have a strong corporate base and that we offer an enviable cultural landscape.
The survey results came as a shock to many civic leaders still breathing the vapors of the 1970s, a time when the region was routinely venerated. But a younger generation knows only the DVD “Fargo” and the folksy tales they overhear from Garrison Keillor, often taken as an accurate depiction of life today. Outsiders take literally our habit of making fun of ourselves, said Kathy Tunheim, CEO of the public relations firm Tunheim Partners. But our self-deprecation tends to backfire, she said.
Clarifying our identity is harder than it sounds. Rybak had no trouble Tuesday describing this market in a singular way. “It’s time to bury the term ‘Twin Cities,” he said, explaining that there are a lot of those, like Buda and Pest, and Omaha and Council Bluffs. “There’s only one Minneapolis Saint Paul.”
Those words came harder from St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who admitted “a little trepidation on the St. Paul side” because his city wants so badly to cling to its special identity. Still, he made the point that the two cities, indeed the whole metro area, must think of itself — and market itself — as one.
The foggy notion of who we are came up again last summer with the bridge disaster. Some reports had the bridge falling in Minneapolis. Others had it falling between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Those who weren’t sure retreated to saying that it fell in Minnesota. Indeed, “Minnesota” seems increasingly the default preference for naming our metro area. An NFL player said on TV recently that “Minnesota is one of my favorite cities.” I can’t recall the player, but I don’t think he was talking about Duluth or Pipestone.
There’s similar confusion over the Republican Convention. Formal sessions will be in St. Paul, although some events will be in Minneapolis and a lot of delegates will stay in Bloomington. Already you’re hearing about the Republicans gathering in Minnesota. But the Democrats aren’t gathering in Colorado; they’re in Denver, the mile-high city.
That’s the strong brand we lack. Everyone knows that San Francisco is the city by the bay and the place you left your heart. People know Chicago is that tottlin’ town, and that New York is the city that never sleeps — although you can also go sleepless in Seattle. People associate Austin (Texas), Nashville and New Orleans with music, and Memphis, Kansas City and St. Louis with barbecued ribs. There’s brotherly love in Philadelphia, charm in Baltimore, roses in Portland, rock ‘n’ roll in Cleveland and a hub in Boston, directing you perhaps to the baked beans.
Suburbanites in most of those places identify with their central city, not their state. Ask someone from Smyrna, Ga., or Bellevue, Wash., where they’re from, and you’ll likely hear Atlanta or Seattle, not Georgia or Washington state. One object of the marketing campaign here is to condition those of us from Orono to Woodbury, from Lakeville to Coon Rapids to answer that we’re from Minneapolis Saint Paul.
That’s a lot to ask, and the notion will be roundly ridiculed. But it’s not an unimportant matter for a market trying to scratch out an identity and build a high-wage economy. On a recent trip, the gate agent announced that my flight to “Minnianapolis” was in the final boarding process. Duly corrected, she replied, “Whatever.”
What do you think about the “More to life” brand? Make a comment below.