Shinola shows us the difference

Even as the leadership of Pine Bluff stays the course in its ill-conceived bid to throw $175,000 at an image campaign, other cities provide examples of actual image improvement. Perhaps the most surprising of these is Detroit.

Detroit has the ignominious distinction of being the only city in the United States with a murder rate higher than Pine Bluff’s.

Despite the specter of bankruptcy and a political climate only slightly less poisoned than Tammany Hall, Detroit has begun to command its own destiny. They are doing so by playing on the strength of the Detroit “brand.”

According to a recent report by the BBC News, the move may seem counterintuitive, but several companies have been trying to turn the brand of Detroit to their advantage, in a trend that marketing experts expect to gather pace.

BBC correspondent Aidan Lewis writes: “The most striking example is Shinola, a resurrected shoe polish brand now being used to sell watches, bicycles, leather goods and journals, which plays heavily on its Detroit base.”

Shinola CEO Steve Block told the BBC that things are going “extremely well.” Block reports that the company has made some 50,000 watches, which are priced at $475-$850, and says it is struggling to keep up with demand.

Steven Katz, owner of the Tiny Jewel Box, a Washington, D.C., vendor for Shinola products, says that sales have been brisk. “Having ‘Detroit’ on the dial was a source of fascination and pride for many customers. People would be less likely to balk at the price because it’s made in America.”

One of the great selling points for renewed interest in Detroit is the low cost of real estate and availability of post-industrial spaces. The local government has also made such innovation more attractive through various business incubation and assistance mechanisms.

Obviously Detroit has a number of advantages that Pine Bluff doesn’t. It is a large urban center. It has a brand legacy —due largely to the automobile industry. ‘Made in Detroit” used to mean something. New Detroit business pioneers are playing on those embedded strengths.

We don’t have such a brand legacy, but we do have cheap real estate, a good intermodal location and a history of industrial operations.

As remarkable as these startups are in Detroit, there’s a fundamental point that local leaders would do well to remember: the growth is native. They didn’t hang their hopes on some external savior. They built on resources at hand. They know that small, innovative companies attract the outside world. The big players will eventually come to town, but they will do so because there’s a town to which to come.

The persistent local fantasy that outsiders can be enticed to come save us is just naïve. It will not happen, no matter how big and pretty the bow we tie on our alleged image.

There’s a television commercial in high rotation these days that shows the places where some of the world’s biggest tech companies got their start. None of them started as the result of a publicity campaign, They started because some bright, ambitious people sat around a lunchroom table, a dorm room, a garage… and forged good ideas into strong products. That’s where Detroit’s renaissance now emanates; and it’s where ours can, too.

Unfortunately, such rebirths don’t seem to be valued here, at least not as the centerpiece of development. Unless the local leadership changes course we’ll soon run out of places “we’re better than” like Detroit of yore.