RapidBlog: The Grand Rapids Brand, by Kevin Budelmann

Kevin Budelmann is the President of People Design, President of AIGA West Michigan, VP of the Association of Professional Design Firms and the author of Brand Identity Essentials.

Over the last few years I've been thinking more about our region and how it's perceived by others -- which is to say, its brand.  
Many people believe, as I do, in the value of actively creating a place where it's worth living. The connection between creating great places to live, learn, work and grow and creating economic value has been explored by books like The Creative Class and endorsed by efforts like the Cool Cities initiative. My role as an employer has brought these issues into sharp focus, both in terms of the challenges and needs. Everyone who lives here should be concerned with our exposure to brain drain and flight from Michigan.

There have been several efforts in recent years to help develop Grand Rapids and West Michigan in general. There have been efforts to promote tourism, like the Pure Michigan campaign and the Convention & Visitor's Bureau, regional strategic alliances like WMSTI, Economic Club of Grand Rapids, and Lakeshore Advantage, grassroots public events organized by Rob Bliss, the world's largest ArtPrize and many others. I've been involved in a few efforts to augment the local design economy through regional organizations like AIGA West Michigan and Design West Michigan.

These undertakings are laudable individual efforts, but the question we should be asking ourselves is: What does it add up to? In Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World, author Jeb Brugmann argues that as more and more of our little planet transitions into standardized world urban systems, local is the only strategic advantage. What does West Michigan represent as a whole? Will people choose to live and work here because of natural beauty? How "cool" we are? What is our receptivity to business, our openness to the art world? Our local design talent? How does West Michigan substantively differ from other regions in the country -- or the world? 

This is a question about our value proposition to the world and whether people understand it. It's a question of the West Michigan brand. It's not a small brand question, like 'do we need a new logo or new t-shirts?' We may, and in many ways little things add up to the big picture. The question is whether our value proposition is clear.

In a recent article, regional economist George Erickcek argues against an investment in branding, concluding, "I would spend that last economic development dollar on customized training programs, a business retention call or a business leadership or innovation program, long before I would consider spending it on a branding campaign targeted at a specific industry."

I like George and agree with his statement, except what he describes is advertising, not branding. Branding is more like a journey than a campaign. Developing a core value proposition that people will understand and can experience. Branding is all about business retention, leadership and innovation.

A vigorous effort to consider what West Michigan offers is not going to reverse overnight 100 years of the rise and stumble of the American automobile industry. To say that Michigan has experienced a severe blow would be an understatement. Still, we must consider our path forward in a post-industrial economy. Michigan needs a re-frame.

We must be brave in our new world, think hard about where we excel (or where we could excel), and work collectively toward a common and mutually beneficial goal. We should be mindful of how we are perceived and how we want to be perceived. What people think of us is important. After all, thinking generally precedes doing.

Many businesses like to consider their "BHAG" -- their "Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal" for the future. It may seem silly, but a lot can be gained by finding a new North Star. We can set ourselves on a course, such as: "We're going to be a leading global example of how extreme localism works," or, "We're going to be the leading region in green technology and design in the world," or, "We're going to be a leading global example of urban development and transportation." It's doubtful we can specialize in all areas at once, and likely that we're one of 100 mid-sized city regions vying for attention in popular innovation fronts. As Wayne Gretzky said, "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been." The important thing is to choose something -- not something made up, but something doable and real. Something we can describe and envision. Something with teeth.  

We should think about the future and think big. Think about how we are the sum of our parts, how our place in the world is unique. Think more about how we'll compete for talent and ideas, and less about how we'll compete with each other. Let's think of the West Michigan BHAG, and create a value proposition for the future. 

That's something we can build a brand on.
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