Detroit’s Renaissance: Rebranding a Reputation

Detroit, Michigan, USA downtown skyline from above at dusk.

How did Detroit—a city known for 8 Mile, urban decay and the title “Murder Capital, U.S.A.,” come to host Super Bowl XL, have Afar name it one of the 25 most exciting places around the world, and Conde Nast list it as one of the Best Places to Go in 2024, as well as host the 2024 NFL Draft?

Well, behind every rehabbed reputation lies really hard work, dedicated individuals and, of course, some strategic PR.

Headlines about Detroit have gone from riots, bankruptcy and corruption to glittering travel spreads, announcements about the city’s lowest murder rate in 60 years and the technological renaissance of the auto industry.

“It’s about digging deep and finding those [interesting] stories rather than just saying 'Detroit’s a great place—come visit,' says Tina Kozak, Detroit native and Detroit-based Franco’s Chief Executive Officer. “Everyone wants to see themselves somewhere. Connect to the audience and try to inspire them through stories they can relate to versus a marketing message.”

Cracking Negative Perception Through Media Relations

Sometimes you need to bring in outsiders to tell your story.

In 2008, a group consisting of Detroit business and civic leaders and local journalists launched the Detroit Regional News Hub. The Hub brought in groups of journalists from well-known and respected news organizations, such as The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and others, to explore the city and talk to local residents and entrepreneurs about the direction it was heading.

Low and behold, journalists from outside the city told a much more positive story than local media, just by getting a different perspective.

“People come and experience [the city] and say ‘this is not what I thought Detroit was,’” Kozak says. She notes the importance of really opening up the doors as a strategy to enhance perception.

“Now, you still need to convince people, show them good and bad, and don’t sweep areas under the rug that need work,” she says. “We have a lot of opportunity with infrastructure, public transit, education…it paints a whole picture.”

Changing and Combatting False Narratives

Chris Moyer, Senior Director of Communications at Visit Detroit, says this is the best job he’s ever had. After all, he gets to “share an incredible secret with people.”

“Travel is a connector for people in a world that can seem… pulled apart by politics or culture,” Moyer says.

He believes in letting Detroiters tell the story of their city.

“Don’t listen to me, I’m a comms guy!” he laughs. “Talk to the immigrant restauranteur, a Black Detroiter painting murals, an entrepreneur that created a business…we are sharing their stories as much as possible."

And Moyer notes that while it’s great to share stories about the new and shiny and inspiring happenings going on in a place, it’s also important to not sugar coat problems—which is one of the ways the organization has been most successful.

“There is nothing wrong with admitting your faults,” he says. “Start at a place of humility. A product/idea/place—nothing is perfect. When we are wrapped up in a protection of reputation we fail to acknowledge that even if we are at our best, we shouldn’t be satisfied—we can always get better.

One major perception Detroit needed to crack is safety. Visit Detroit counters this by delivering facts and information to flip that perception.

“When someone says Detroit is not safe, we hit back,” he says. “The facts are on our side. It’s safe because our police work with the community. There are great stories about the police athletic league running programs and serving and [getting to know] the community—so kids feel comfortable running towards a cop rather than away. It’s always about using real people and [providing] real stories.”

Moyer also says it’s important to give the audience more credit.

“We can tell a complex story,” he says. “We don’t need to dumb it down and distract someone with a shiny object. If you try to sell bs, they can see through it.”

Showcasing Detroit Eye Candy

USA Today recently named Campus Martius Park, a city center of Detroit, the number one public square in America. It’s a downtown core, developed by the Downtown Detroit Partnership, that creates a vibrancy and connectivity for the community. It brings people to downtown and keeps them there.

David Cowan, Chief Pubic Spaces Officer at Downtown Detroit Partnership (DDP), oversees the Detroit 300 Conservancy—a program managing, beautifying and servicing 18 public spaces around the city for the public to enjoy. DDP manages the big events in town including an upcoming Final Four and the NFL Draft, as well as Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and other concerts spread out over four stadiums. It also serves as a catalyst for social investment to attract employers and provide amenities to downtown residents.

“Because we have this great stretch of downtown space… [you can] especially see it on TV… the skyline, the river, the international vantage points,” he says. “Some cities put things [like stadiums] outside of downtown on the periphery—with a parking lot, or in a grassy field… For some cities that's all the space they have. Detroit has lots of space to create these opportunities.”

That space will allow the city to host the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on the streets of Downtown Detroit, which will welcome visitors from around the world for the race weekend. Showcasing what you’ve got is another way to engage others from outside the area.

“It’s so hugely important [to have] earned media professionals in partnership with us,” he says. “We could be working hard, but if we aren’t telling that story, we can’t be competitive to attract opportunities like large events and funding needed to sustain and grow.”

The Detroit-Style Difference

And if that still doesn’t convince you, all you have to do is search for a Detroit-style pizza parlor in your town.

Everyone from The New York Times to Pizza Hut has their own spin on the comforting pizza style. And yes, it did originate in Detroit. The pans used in the beginning were borrowed from auto manufacturing factories in Detroit.

Franco helped to boost this narrative when client Buddy’s Pizza—an original home of Detroit-style Pizza—wanted the agency to make them “cool.”

“They said, we have a great product, so unique,” Kozak says. “We have a loyal following but feel like there’s an opportunity to ride the Detroit love. Basically, they said, ‘we need you to make us cool, but we don’t know how.’”

Franco worked with the group, organizing celebrity partnerships (one in the early 2000s with Kid Rock—another Detroit name—who used his craft beer in its dough) and community partnerships with the Detroit Institute of Art (a portion of pizza sales goes back to that organization) and the Detroit Zoo (morning “pizza feedings” were on the agenda for the inhabitants). And the brand started to get national recognition in media outlets like GQ magazine and the Food Network.

“Detroit-style pizza places started popping up everywhere,” says Kozak. “And instead of getting bent out of shape, Buddy’s embraced it. For its 75th anniversary, Buddy’s partnered with pizzerias across the country to donate a portion of sales to combat hunger in their respective communities. It cemented imitation as the best form of flattery.”

Nicole Schuman is managing editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal