Imported from St. Louis: What Does the Gateway City Do and Can We Sell It?

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I got a question for you. What does this city know about discovery, hmm? What does a town that's been to hell and back know about the unknown? Well, I'll tell you. More than most. This is the Gateway City and this is what we do.

The Chrysler Super Bowl add "Imported from Detroit" sold the Chrysler 200 by selling city. Could St. Louis be used in the same way? (If you haven't seen the ad, watch it below). For decades Anheuser-Busch featured St. Louis. Of course it's no longer a St. Louis company, but then again, Chrysler is on its way to being 51% owned by Italian car maker Fiat (Fiat's apparently considered moving their headquarters from Turin to Detroit, for what it's worth). Budweiser had some real American cache; seems doubtful that shoes, dog food, batteries or genetically modified corn seed could do the same.

There's something about making cars that captures the American spirit very clearly. Detroit is the cradle of the American auto industry. Yet it isn't and will not again become what it once was. Auto workers in this country are just a likely be assembling a Subaru in Indiana, a Honda in Tennessee or a BMW in California (another Super Bowl ad by the way), than a Chrysler (or GM or Ford) in Detroit. 

The ad works because it appeals to a real, proud, shared, authentic history. You can't fake it, but you can polish it. As a storyline, the commercial is rather weak. "It's the hottest fires that make the hardest steel," is a bad throw away line. If Detroit has in fact "been to hell," it's not back. And Eminem's walk through the FOX and onto the stage is a non sequitur.

But no one seems to be interested in the finer points. People seem genuinely surprised that Detroit could be the medium for selling anything. It's just shocking that Detroit would have the audacity to say it's a strong city that still builds things. What about all the problems? What about the ruin porn?

Detroit is the face of the decades-long manufacturing collapse in America. Detroit is the poster city for decay, abandonment and failed policies. And Chrysler is the the underdog of an underdog industry in an underdog city. I don't think the ad would play the same for Ford or GM. Detroit not only has a chip on its shoulder, much of the nation has a chip on its should for Detroit. That's why the ad works. I doubt the same is true for St. Louis. Not to mention that the "Imported from Detroit" tagline is brilliant.

Tim Logan wrote on the Building Blocks blog, "The tie between the brand of a company and the brand of a city can be very strong indeed. Making that connection in a way that feels authentic, and proves effective, is a bit more tricky. For the moment, Chrysler and Detroit seem to have pulled it off. Do you see a way for St. Louis to do the same?"

The ad is really tied to an industry much more than a company. In my opinion, Chrysler is the least of the Big Three (and certainly the smallest) identified with the Motor City. My first reaction to the ad was that a dozen American cities could be presented that way, but the reality is that few, if any American cities are so clearly tied the the history of something so quintessentially American as the automobile.

But the excitement created about the ad isn't for the Chrysler 200. It's for Detroit. The ad's most effective as a promotion for the city, as a challenge to the public perception, as boosterism. And here's where there's bound to be criticism. Boostism seems to have become a dirty word in some circles. I tend to have a somewhat opposing view. As long as the public perception of St. Louis is so radically more negative than my own personal experience, I will continue to promote what I know and love about the city. In this respect, on this topic, I'm not trying to challenge national systematic problems that have led to some of our ills. I'm trying to show people that St. Louis isn't what they think it is. For the same reason, the Detroit ad works.

St. Louis may not be home to the most American of industries, but it is failing to claim its earned place in American history and in the American future. I wrote in December about some of our unmade claims. This city is not just a place where history happened. It's a place where history was discovered, created and changed. If St. Louis has a hook, it's discovery. From Cahokia to Lewis and Clark, the Eads bridge and railroads, river commerce, to cotton candy/ice cream cones/hot dogs, the skyscraper, Lindbergh and the aeronautical industry, munitions, rock 'n' roll, classical and modern architecture, seas of red brick, and the modern work of discovery at Monsanto and elsewhere, St. Louis is America, its ambitions and ideals, personified in a city.

To Tim's question, can that image be sold? Budweiser is as close as this city is going to get, in the past, present or future. Though in the vein of the underdog Chrysler, the equivalent here may be a spot for Schlafly Beer laying claim to the St. Louis brewing history. If the St. Louis Brewery is ever as large as the Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams), maybe it's something we'll see. We can hope.

Lewis, Clark and Seaman photo with Eads Bridge courtesy of Ben Evans

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