I haven’t lived here long enough -- nor am I smart enough -- to figure out Toledo’s compelling brand. But I’m not sure that the people running Toledo’s branding initiative have a clue, either.
They are on to something, though. Anyone who doubts the power of branding need only consider the success of a company called Shinola. Since 2011, the upscale watch company has made its products in Detroit, once the nation’s industrial center and now a paragon of grit and resilience that, coupled with its stirring history, has informed the imaginative yearnings of millions.
With Detroit’s name on their faces, Shinola watches sell for $500 to $1,000. Despite a production capacity of 50,000 watches a year, Shinola’s factory north of downtown struggles to keep up with demand. Yeah, Shinola makes quality products -- it also makes bikes and leather goods -- but the Detroit brand is undoubtedly part of its success story.
Recently, the vice president of the Toledo chamber said a similar company could duplicate Shinola’s success in Toledo. I don’t think so.
No doubt, Toledo has the transportation system, workforce, and infrastruture to nurture and sustain a company like Shinola. But it doesn’t have the Detroit brand, which Shinola smartly exploits to the max. So does Chrysler. So does rising star rapper and Detroit native Danny Brown.
When I first moved here from Detroit last year, people asked me what were my impressions of Toledo before I came. Truth be told, I had none -- good or bad. I’ve since learned that Toledo has a lot to offer that many people would find attractive: affordable housing, low crime rates, good city services. All that helps make Toledo a livable city, but it doesn’t give it an alluring brand.
Maybe culture could. Toledo has not only a world-class art museum but also a vibrant art community, including musicians, public and mural artists -- even graffiti artists. Why not get these young -- and not so young -- creative people together and see what they come up with? Launch an innovative social media campaign. Encourage everyday people, as one city councilman suggested, to create their own videos of Toledo and post them on the web. Get public high school students working on the project. Create a promotional video of Toledo, scored with music from a rap and rock group, as well as the Toledo symphony. Toledo: the city where people come together to create.
Most important, involve a diversity of people, not just the shotcallers and usual suspects. The chamber does a lot of things well, but coming up with an authentic, relevant, and resonate brand for a community might not be one of them.
One speaker last year suggested that Toledo has an identity crisis. In coming together to work on a brand, the city might even find what -- and who -- it is.