Chicago’s Problems Will Not Be Solved by Rebranding

February 29, 2024

Chicago requires more than a marketing strategy

Chicago is facing a wide assortment of problems. Some of those complications, such as its pension crisis, are intractable.

Nevertheless, if you are John Pletz, senior writer with Crain's Chicago Business, the solution for Chicago is simple: A rebranding. According to his latest article, “What does Chicago need next?,” Pletz argues Chicago is only in need of a better marketing strategy. It is as if Chicago was a mere commodity, no different than soap or soda pop.

In sharp contrast to Pletz’s logic, here is what Chicago really needs: A mayor who takes fighting crime seriously and a Cook County State's Attorney who does not view the prosecution of crime as a form of social work. Similarly, Chicago urgently needs a repeal of the no-cash bail provision of the SAFE-T Act.

Should Chicago’s outlandish crime rates go down, then the rebranding marketers can scream to the world about the good news.

Chicago is a city in sharp decline, albeit not necessarily an irreversible one. Still, when looking at contemporary Chicago, it would be wise for lawmakers in the Windy City to consider the fate of Detroit to fully understand how incompetent lawmakers in the Motor City mishandled the situation and led that city into receivership.

To avoid steering Chicago toward the pathetic fate of Detroit, officials in Chicago are best served to recall how Detroit, or more specifically the Metropolitan Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau, attempted the rebranding approach in 1983. The campaign was called “Greater Detroit, SuperCity U.S.A.”

The Bureau even produced an excruciatingly embarrassing video that included an eminently silly theme song, “SuperCity U.S.A.”

   Well, well, welcome home! 
   Welcome home! 
   Welcome to SuperCity U.S.A. 
   Greater Detroit is a super city SuperCity U.S.A.! 

The melody of “SuperCity U.S.A.” matches the lyrics perfectly; the music is reminiscent of a cloying megachurch tune.

At the time of the SuperCity U.S.A. promotion, approximately one million people lived in Detroit. Down from a peak population of 1.8 million in 1950, today Detroit has slightly more than 600,000 residents. That is not so super.

Crain's Chicago Business claims it is a business magazine. This is debatable, but Crain's deserves the benefit of the doubt — largely because the publication has “business” in its name.

Marketing is a vital function of business. To market a product involves a combination of communication, advertising, delivering, and selling a product. Clearly Pletz and Crain's does not understand this, nor does the Chicago Tribune. Late last year, the Tribune editorial board, published an op-ed with several suggestions to counter Illinois' outmigration. In its critique, the board suggested city political leaders “invest in more and better marketing.”

“The nation’s third-largest city is still a city that works,” Pletz writes in his Crain's piece, “but it also has a growing list of very real challenges, topped by crime, that must be addressed.”

It is an interesting observation, only Pletz does not address solving the crime menace. Moreover, plenty of people do not believe that Chicago “works.” Aside from crime and the pension burden, Chicago is plagued by crumbling streets and sidewalks, a growing graffiti scourge, declining population, toxic lead pipes, a dysfunctional public transit system, an abysmal school system, and rampant public corruption.

As for lawlessness, if people do not feel safe in Chicago, naturally they are less likely to drive into downtown for a night out, to relocate, attend college here, or open a business within city limits. It is that simple. The SuperCity U.S.A. campaign did not work for Detroit for the same reason that such a blinders-on “rah-rah” campaign will not work for Chicago.

Pletz interviews a slew of marketing experts for his article, all of whom exclaim that Chicago is indeed wonderful, but some just danced around the nagging issue of crime. Of course, it is not wonderful enough to prevent high retail vacancy rates at Water Tower Place, Century City, the Shops at North Bridge, or in shopping districts in residential neighborhoods.

One of Pletz' experts, Don Welsh, the former president of Choose Chicago, made a laughable suggestion. Welsh commented that Mayor Brandon Johnson should be at the forefront of promoting Chicago. "He’s a great spokesperson for Chicago," Welsh said.

This is the sort of so-called thinking that led to Detroit's SuperCity U.S.A campaign.

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