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Superior pitch: Small companies harness North Shore’s branding power

MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Ethan Casady, owner of NorShore Clothing Co., in his Two Harbors store.

A few years ago, when Ethan and Amanda Casady visited the State Fair, they marveled at all of the Minnesota-themed merchandise for sale: baseball caps with “Sota” stitched across the front; T-shirts emblazoned with an image of the state; coffee mugs depicting scenes from the fair.

“I saw what a grasp that had on people – to have that Minnesota-themed logo on their shirt or hat,” Ethan Casady said. It made an impression, and he wondered whether people would be interested in shirts and hats that reflected the unique place where he lived and worked – along the North Shore of Lake Superior.

Casady, who runs a landscaping and snowplowing business, began to design some logos in his spare time – mostly sketches inspired by the deep-woods landscape all around him. Just for fun, he had the Duluth printer that makes apparel for his business put the images on some shirts and hats and told his friends about them on Facebook. When some orders started coming in, NorShore Clothing Co. was born.

Last summer, Casady opened a small store in Two Harbors — a tourist town on the shores of Lake Superior, about 25 miles northeast of Duluth — in the hopes of broadening his reach. Among the items in his shop: long-sleeve T-shirts with “NorShore Clothing Co. 61” printed across the front (in honor of the famous highway); coffee mugs that say “NorShore Clothing Co.”; baseball caps marked with the silhouette of Lake Superior. For good measure, he also sells locally made jewelry and jam, along with six packs of designer pop shipped from Spring Grove, near his hometown of Grand Meadow.

To be sure, NorShore is a side gig for Casady, who was plowing snow in the area on the morning we met in Two Harbors. But he believes in the emotional power of this region – in its ability to create strong bonds with people. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have bothered opening his shop here.

A NorShore Clothing Co. coffee mug.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
A NorShore Clothing Co. coffee mug.
Other businesses seem to think so, too. A few blocks away, for instance, the upstart craft brewer Castle Danger Brewery makes an array of beers “with Lake Superior water by hearty souls that embody the North Shore,” as its website puts it.

“Not everyone wants to drink the same beer, and not everyone wants to wear the same shirt,” Casady explained. “People are looking to set themselves apart – people are more mindful of local economies, more personalized.”

Lake Superior’s enduring appeal

In preparation for last February’s Super Bowl, held at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Twin Cities boosters pushed a “Bold North” theme that advertised the state’s hearty embrace of winter. In recent years, the Dayton brothers, Andrew and Eric, sons of the former governor, have stressed the “North” in their products, such as the clothing sold at Askov Finlayson, their men’s boutique whose website declares, “We don’t endure winter. We embrace it. Welcome to the North.”

Duluth, Two Harbors, Minnesota
Duluth, Two Harbors, Minnesota
Here on the North Shore, some small outlets have refined that statewide theme into a regional one that celebrates not only the North, broadly, but the North of the deep woods and, of course, the biggest of the Great Lakes. Among those businesses are a handful of apparel companies, like NorShore Clothing, that have emerged in recent years.

DLH Clothing, for instance, opened in 2014 in Duluth and follows a mission statement that “celebrates the lifestyle and culture of North Shore living.” One T-shirt design includes a street map of Duluth. The company, run by Duluth residents Michael Smisek and Sarah Herrick-Smisek, sells its merchandise online and also at a half-dozen Duluth stores. Also in Duluth, in the city’s Canal Park, Flagship – the retail outlet for the Duluth Screen Printing Co. – employs local artists to create north-inspired designs for screen-printed T-shirts and other merchandise.

North 61, meanwhile, sells adventure gear, saying it is “inspired by Minnesota’s North Shore” and imploring its customers to “breathe the energy of the North,” according to its website. And Sota Clothing Co., started by University of Minnesota-Duluth graduates, notes that it seeks to provide its customers with designs “that humbly boast their hard-earned Minnesota roots.” One of Sota Clothing’s hooded sweatshirt designs includes crossed canoe paddles, the abbreviation “MN” and an image of the state. (North 61 and Sota Clothing have Twin Cities headquarters).

Such micro-branding efforts have roots in what marketers call “place branding” – efforts by regions or states to create a unique sense of place.

The iconic Aerial Lift Bridge that connects Duluth’s Canal Park to the city’s Park Point neighborhood.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
The iconic Aerial Lift Bridge that connects Duluth’s Canal Park to the city’s Park Point neighborhood.
Julia Van Etten, a marketing expert at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, said the Bold North campaign gained traction because it doubled down on what was thought to be a Minnesota deficit: the dark, cold winters. Instead of apologizing for the climate, she said, Minnesotans “owned it.”

Similar branding can be powerful for businesses, too, Van Etten said, as more and more customers “seek to confirm or extend their own identities” in what they buy. To that end, she said, many businesses are trying to offer more authenticity – products or services that set them apart from mainstream stores or chains. When Castle Danger Brewery reminds customers that it gets its water straight out of Lake Superior, for instance, it “lends authenticity to the brand and taps into the heritage of the area,” she said.

Any edge can help as greater Minnesota communities try to diversify their economies – especially their retail offerings. “People feel this pride of place, so in a way they are wearing the brand of these locations,” Van Etten said.

Homage to Duluth

The snow-covered rocks bordering Lake Superior, the still waters of the lake, the overcast skies: all of this provided a silvery sheen to Canal Park, the transformed warehouse district that has become a popular attraction in Duluth. People strolled from shop to shop in sight of the famed Aerial Lift Bridge, which towers over Grandma’s Saloon & Grill, namesake of the popular marathon.

Flagship opened in an old Canal Park building last summer.

Flagship is located in Duluth’s Canal Park, a converted warehouse district.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Flagship is located in Duluth’s Canal Park, a converted warehouse district.
More than 40 local artists have worked on designs for Flagship’s apparel, said Alex Demianiuk, the store’s chief marketing officer. On the day I visited, the racks were full of long- and short-sleeved shirts, backpacks, windbreakers, hooded sweatshirts (“Be Great not Salty,” said one); and stocking caps, including some in the University of Minnesota’s maroon and gold colors.

The store maintains a warehouse aesthetic, with high ceilings and exposed ducts. Along one wall, in homage to Duluth’s shipping heritage, a big-screen TV provides a live feed of the lift bridge and any ships that might be passing underneath on their way into the harbor. Below the TV screen, workers print designs on shirts and other apparel at a series of screen presses. Sometimes, live bands play on a balcony. Flagship’s theme: Limited, Local, Live.

Carson Catania
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Carson Catania, a store manager at Flagship, standing near the store’s screen-print area. The big-screen TV provides a live shot of the Aerial Lift Bridge and any ships that may be passing beneath it.
“We want to bring a fresh vision of that (shipping heritage) and give people from out of town a taste of Duluth and North Shore culture,” Demianiuk said.

Teigan Buresh, of Chisago City, browsed for a few minutes before buying three T-shirts emblazoned with Lake Superior logos. She said she liked to support locally owned businesses and to get some apparel with a local flavor, to boot. “I have always loved Duluth,” said Buresh, who was planning on moving to the city. “Being here, by the lake, there’s something about it. It just makes me happy.”

‘Lifestyle brands’

Around noon in Two Harbors, which has a population of about 3,500, two patrons were waiting at the door when Castle Danger opened its taproom.

Castle Danger began brewing beer in 2011 a few miles to the northeast, in an unincorporated hamlet that shares the same name, before opening its Two Harbors site in 2014. The company’s mission is “crafting a North Shore experience” for its customers, who can choose from a handful of beers that include North Shore Lager (described as “a classic Vienna-style lager with a brilliant amber color”); George Hunter Stout (named after a northern Minnesota brewer from the days before Prohibition); and 17-7 Pale Ale (after the brewery’s address at 17-7th Street).

Castle Danger Brewery in Two Harbors, with the massive ore docks of Agate Bay in the background.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Castle Danger Brewery in Two Harbors, with the massive ore docks of Agate Bay in the background.
Massive iron ore docks in Agate Bay, where ships are loaded with ore from the Iron Range, rise in the distance, along with a lighthouse, providing an unusual backdrop for the taproom – and, indeed, for the city’s entire downtown.

In the summer, daily trains run from Duluth to Two Harbors, providing the town with a steady stream of tourists that try Castle Danger beers, stop at the local coffee shop and window shop downtown. (Tourism has been good for NorShore Clothing, said Casady, who noted that several Airbnbs are located above his store).

Downtown Two Harbors, population 3,500.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Downtown Two Harbors, population 3,500.
For Casady, who went to school at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, NorShore is more than a business venture; it’s also a change of pace from his labor-intensive job. His dad and his sister were artistic, so he always knew that he had a creative side. His approach to his apparel designs is simple: “I see something that I think looks great and I put it on paper,” he explained.

Casady talks of “lifestyle brands” – a more enduring kind of themed-merchandise than touristy shirts or kitschy key chains. There are no “I love Two Harbors” T-shirts in his shop, only items that provide a feel of the place. “Lake Superior and the North Shore’s beauty – it makes for an appealing product,” he said.

This report was made possible by a grant from the Otto Bremer Trust. MinnPost’s donors, foundation funders, and corporate sponsors support our work in the belief that promoting greater civic engagement and informed discourse is the surest path to a better Minnesota. They play no role in guiding the journalism produced by MinnPost.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 01/28/2019 - 01:54 pm.

    The branding power is there…for now. If copper/nickel mining is allowed, that branding power will disappear. The economic future of this area is “not” in copper/nickel mining.

  2. Submitted by Jim Marshal on 01/28/2019 - 02:23 pm.

    Stamping generic logos on cheap, 3rd world manufactured apparel and coffee mugs and selling them to tourists at a huge markup has been around for a long time.

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/28/2019 - 04:50 pm.

    If you are up that way, definitely make a stop at Castle Danger. Cool place. Great beer.

  4. Submitted by JoAnn Meyer on 01/28/2019 - 05:32 pm.

    Congrats to the people proud of their part of MN and sharing that pride with the visitors. Mining or not, Lake Superior and the North Shore will still be there in all its splendor.

  5. Submitted by N. Coleman on 01/29/2019 - 12:43 pm.

    I’ve never lived in any other area where locally themed merchandise was so prevalent. New Yorkers have their Yankees caps but Minnesotans have full wardrobes consisting of little besides MN themed merch.

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