What Do You See in a Swamp?

  Was lucky enough to speak to the Steubenville Revitalization Group.

Was lucky enough to speak to the Steubenville Revitalization Group.

Last Monday night, I was lucky enough to speak to a fine group of people (the Steubenville Revitalization Group) from the small city of Steubenville, Ohio on the importance of creativity, marketing, and how to turn a dying city into a thriving city. 

You see, years ago, Steubenville was known as an all-American town.  It was the birthplace of legendary entertainer Dean Martin, and it was a booming steel town.  However, like most American industrial businesses over the last several years, the steel boom stopped, steel mills battled bankruptcy, unemployment rates skyrocketed, and cities all over, like Steubenville, had the preverbal wind knocked out of them.  As they scrambled helplessly to find a means of recovery, their once busy downtown had become overrun with gangs and gang violence.  In fact. this got so bad in the late 1990s and early 2000s that seemingly almost every day there was a shooting being reported as happening in Steubenville’s downtown area.  Even the people in Steubenville and especially the people who lived around Steubenville became afraid to venture to the downtown area.  More businesses shut doors, and a generation grew up learning to fear Steubenville’s downtown.

Years passed, and city officials and community members worked hard to change the public’s perception of something they remembered as being a great place to raise a family.  The gangs and gang violence dissipated but still hadn’t fully disappeared when Steubenville itself received another black eye.  A haymaker that hit them so hard that it sent the whole community to the floor.  Steubenville schools had somehow managed to retain more than a shred of dignity throughout all of the city’s socioeconomic hardships.  Like most struggling communities, it had become the beacon of light fueling pride in a city that had very little to be proud of.  Then the worst of the worst happened, a beyond horrible incidence of unspeakable propositions, a violent rape of a teenage girl involving several members of the school’s football team sent the town and the national media abuzz.  Steubenville went from bad to worse, and once again, the public’s perception of the small city had become jaded and all the old fears ignited again.

The community looked and felt as if the referee had counted to nine and three quarters before they were able to scrape themselves off the mat, and, now, dizzied and confused, the city is in for the fight of its life as it looks to champion itself a comeback beyond epic proportions. 

So, how does Steubenville, Ohio and small cities and towns like it take back their city? 

A) TO GET RID OF THE PROBLEM, BE HONEST ABOUT THE PROBLEM

They say that the first step for any addict to overcoming an addiction is admitting that they have a problem.  Even the Bible touches on this method when it talks about confessing your sins to one another so that you will be less likely to do it in the future.  Still, people in general hate to admit when they have a problem.  So, it should be no surprise that a whole city would have a tough time admitting that they have a problem.

There is no doubt in my mind that many great things are coming out of every town, but too often that is overshadowed by the bad.  By being honest with our selves about the public’s perception of our town, be it true or not- it’s true to the people perceiving it, you can go forward to correct the problem.  Cities falter for years, because they are too busy fooling their self into believing that no problem exists.  They are simply pretending there is no elephant in the room when it would be much easier and more memorable to admit that obviously there is an elephant in the room and we need to get rid of it before we can sit down to our nice, formal dinners. 

To find what is ailing Steubenville and many other small towns, the first step you have to do to defeat the problem, is that you have to be honest with the problem.  If you are honest about the crime, the gangs, the gang violence, etc. then you can focus on what is being done to fix this. 

I call this the Domino’s Pizza strategy.  Though Domino’s pizza sales were okay in recent years, they knew that they could do better than being just another chain pizza restaurant.  So, they came out with an aggressive campaign highlighting and admitting all the things that they were either not very good at in the past or things that they tried and failed at in the past.  This was an interesting strategy and campaign, because once everyone saw this, it was much easier for us as a costumer to literally buy into the rebranding of an established pizza company.  Like all of us, they had failed on certain levels, and we could all relate to that.  By admitting their mistakes, they became more human to us.  People actually began to sympathize with a pizza company, and they were motivated to buy a pizza from a company that some had long ago written off.  Pizza had won people over with honesty.  If pizza can do it, why do we believe that it wouldn’t happen with a city looking to rebuild its image, its brand?    

Nathan Marshall making a passionate plea with the SRG for change. 

B) YOUR CITY IS A BRAND, TREAT IT LIKE ONE

The more and more I get into the world of marketing, the more I realize just how much of the world is separated into those who are selling their product and those who aren’t.  Cities are like the ultimate brand, and they should start treating their selves like one.  Not only are they competing for quality residents, business opportunities, and tourism, but they are also looking to make their city, their brand the best it can possibly be.  If that is the end goal of all cities, then why do cities like Steubenville not have the foresight to hire professional marketing agencies to lead the branding or rebranding the city itself?

Hiring an agency, like Leviathan Creative, to lead the charge on something like this, helps put the creative and professional side of brand building into the hands of true, experienced professionals.  It also helps the city speak to its consumer, the community at large, in a more cohesive fashion.  When a city, a brand has one voice, it gives the consumer the peace of mind needed to be happy with their decision to buy into a city like Steubenville, and when the consumer is happy, the city is happy, and that is when you will grow. 

Too often cities reach their residents, tourists, businesses in multiple, multiple voices.  No matter how good the intention is, not having a cohesive voice leads to confusion.  So much confusion that even people who have lived there their whole lives can’t tell you much about what their city stands for or what direction it is headed for in the next several years.  We are alienating the consumer, the community, by not speaking to them as one entity, one brand.  We drive our residents to uneasiness about their decision to live in a town such as Steubenville, and when that happens, growth and revitalization is virtually impossible.   

Cities, like Steubenville, are overdue for a rebranding.  Taking a fresh look and approach to a city can not only inspire growth, but can inspire the people of the community, the consumer, to by reinstill pride in their town and inspiring them to help the town grow. 

So, what do towns like Steubenville need to do to rebrand their self?  To make a comeback?

1) CHANGE PERSPECTIVE

Yes, it’s true what they say; it’s all about your perspective, and there is no finer example of this than a story I call “What Do You See in a Swamp?”     

  Evidently, I am making a very passionate plea with the SRG for change here.

Evidently, I am making a very passionate plea with the SRG for change here.

The supposedly true account goes that there was a great deal of useless swampland in the great state of Florida.  This swampland sat there for years upon years, everyone said nothing could be done with it, it was useless, and that no one ever would want to do anything with this “worthless” land.  That was until one day, a man had come into town, brokered several different land purchasing companies to work out a deal so that he could purchase all this “worthless” swampland at the exact same time on the exact same day.  The reasoning for this plan?  Well, his name carried a little bit of weight, and he was afraid that if someone got wind of him purchasing one piece of this terribly “worthless” swampland that the others would drive up their price significantly.  You see, he saw this supposed worthlessness and by using his highly defined perspective, he imagined creating the most magical of places sprouting right up from what everyone saw as the most desolate of land situations.  The man who bought this “worthless” swampland?  Well, people know him as Walt Disney, and the “worthless” swampland that he would build on?  That became Walt Disney World, one of the great destinations in the entire world.  As I told my friends at the Steubenville Revitalization Group that day, it is all in perspective.  The people who had owned the swampland saw the land as uninhabitable and worthless, but Walt Disney, himself, he saw that swamp as the perfect place to build his crowning achievement.

Steubenville, Ohio is better than a desolate swamp.  In fact, I would even go as far as to say that all small towns and cities are better than a desolate swamp.  So, if Steubenville is better than a swamp.  Why are the people of that city not seeing the results we want?  Perspective.  As they say, they do not see the forest, because they are blinded by the trees.    

There is no finer example of what Steubenville is dealing with then an instance that happened to me when I used to work as a broadcast journalist for a news station in my small community.  It was a second place news station out of two news stations in this very small market.  In other words, it was last place, and sometimes, it seemed as if the people who worked there thought that our news station was actually last place in all of the world, which to my knowledge it wasn’t remotely close to.  To add insult to injury, our news station had not made the jump to high definition yet, but our competitor had.  So, this made the situation even more desperate and gloomy.  From time to time, I joked with my friends at the news station that we had become the manic-depressive news station.  Almost every day seemed like the news station itself was suicidal.  At times, it was a very dark place. 

Finally, after hearing the seemingly billionth complaint about, “There are no stories to tell in this small area…”  I responded with, “Are you serious?  I could tell you 500 stories about that empty cardboard box sitting over there.  Who made it, why it was made, where it was made, what materials it is made of, where those materials come from, the journey the box had to make to get here today, why is cardboard brown instead of other colors, what can you do with the box now, what have people created out of boxes, etc.  It’s all in how you look at the box.  It’s all in how you look at the place you live.  Do you see 1,000s of people living meaningless lives, or do you see 1,000s upon 1,000s of interesting, captivating stories that are living and breathing and everyday, they are making and creating 1,000s upon 1,000s more interesting and captivating stories. 

You have an entire news station available to you, and you can use it any way you like.  That is special, that is unique, and that could make a world of difference for 1,000s upon 1,000s of lives.” 

Like Steubenville and other cities and towns similar to it, this news station could not see all the wonderful things they could accomplish, because they did not want to see all that they could accomplish.  When we open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts to the infinite possibilities that are available to us that is when we can look at our towns and stop pining for the past and become anxious for the future. 

2) CREATE POSITIVE MEDIA

The fact of the matter is small cities like Steubenville have a tough time getting the media to cover all the great things that the city wants the media to cover, and a way too easy time of getting the media to cover and over cover all the bad things that the city doesn’t want them to cover.  In layman’s terms, Steubenville has a major PR problem. 

In Steubenville’s case, this is due to having two small, competing news stations in a close vicinity.  The people working for these stations are often very young (most in their first job in broadcast journalism), and they are looking more for stories that they can add to their reel (so that they can move on to a bigger market) than stories that can help the community.  Also, most of these news personalities aren’t from the area.  So, the first impression they get of their new market is too often what Google tells them, and trust me, if you Google Steubenville, it’s not good. 

It’s true that the newsperson is a pessimist at heart, because we, as humans, are pessimistic in nature.  If you don’t believe me, spend twenty minutes scrolling through your Facebook’s newsfeed, and then we can talk.  A gentleman at the meeting asked me about this very point.  “How do we change the perspective of the news stations?” he inquired. 

To which my response was, “Make the good news so unique, so interesting that they have no choice but to do a news story on it.”  After all, to no fault of their own, these young journalists look at working in markets like Steubenville’s as a stepping-stone in their career.  So, they are looking for stories that will get them their “big break.”  Sadly, too often, the stories that give these journalists their “big break”, the national news worthy ones, are the ones that are so horribly bad that the rest of the country has to pay attention.

Still, as a brand, you are always looking for ways to utilize the news as “free, trusted advertising” for your business, so why would cities, especially Steubenville, not use the creative training of an advertising agency to increase positive public relations?

Nathan Marshall touches on the pursuit of greatness.

3) PATTERN YOUR CITY AFTER GREATNESS

When I was a public school teacher, I was always baffled by the fact that our school and district would always look to pattern itself after the slightly bigger, slightly more successful school up the road.  They treated that bigger school as if it was Heaven itself, and it was the be-all, end-all for education. 

So, one day, having had my fill of failed attempts at patterning ourselves after another slightly better than mediocre school.  I printed out a list of the 100 best public education institutions in the country, and I took it to my Head Principal.  I then asked her if she happened to see the school we were patterning ourselves after on the list.  When she looked through the list, and said no, I told her where they ranked, according to this list, in the 7,000s.  I have never understood why we as a society pattern our lives, our jobs, our cities after anything than the best?  Why do we muddle in mediocrity?  Because we strive for mediocrity.

Steubenville itself hit hard times after the steel mills went belly up, so why would they not look up the road forty minutes to the ultimate steel town gone bust and now, is a must to visit, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania?  Pittsburgh has transitioned so well from chaos that it has actually been voted the number one place in America to live for the last several years.  That’s the kind of thinking and emulation that places like Steubenville need.  So, as a great writer and, at one time, the wisest man on the face of the earth, Solomon, wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  In other words, as a not so great writer and a not so wise man, myself, writes, borrow from the best and make it better than the rest. 

4) BE AGGRESSIVE IN PURSUIT OF BUSINESSES YOU WANT TO SHAPE YOUR COMMUNITY

One of the things that baffle me about cities that are creating a strategic plan for the future, is that too often that “strategic” plan for the future stays in the future.  We never see that plan come to fruition, because they are always planning for the future.  It’s great to have goals and aspirations for the not so distant future, but as a brand, as a city, if you are not meeting the needs of our consumer, our community, today, there will be no ten years down the road. 

Actively, aggressively selling your city to the businesses you want to shape your city is a great way to not only stimulate the economy but to speed up the revitalization of a city.  For instance, one of Steubenville’s biggest problems is getting anyone to come downtown for anything.  Well, how do you get people to overcome their fear?  You make their desire for something so great that they want to overcome that fear to reach that desire. 

One of the businesses I suggested for the downtown was making a Starbucks Coffee the focal point of a rebuilding project.  Not only does Starbucks not have a store within a forty-mile radius of Steubenville, but it is a proven brand that attracts all ages of consumers.   Especially in an area where it is hard to get the youth to visit, it would be a powerful, proven motivation to not only get the youth off the hill, but to spend time and to spend money downtown.

Another powerful motivator of this plan is that a corporation like Starbucks would make sure that their building was renovated so that it looked as good as their coffee tastes.  Also, having a company like Starbucks Coffee as a centerpiece for a rebuilding effort would attract several other quality establishments who would desire to be located near Starbucks, because they know what a powerful draw it is.  Thus, your economy has been stimulated and your renovation project has been expedited exponentially by being active and aggressive. 

5) USE YOUR HERITAGE AS A BUILDING BLOCK

Finding those unique quirks about the heritage and history of your city can be such a huge building block for success.  Towns that center their entire city center or city around historical landmarks, like forts, have proven time and time again that this method drives success and stability in their economy.

To me, one of the biggest mysteries of Steubenville, is the fact that a legend like Dean Martin not only came from but frequented Steubenville quite often.  Still, the only year round tribute they have to this legend is a nicely painted mural on the side of a Kroger.  Yes, it is a nice painting, but it is on the side of a chain grocery store.  A chain grocery store…  Correct me if I am wrong, but that doesn’t seem like a destination many people put first on their list, even the most avid of Dean Martin fans.  By building a Dean Martin statue or even better, an entire Rat Pack one, in the middle of a small shopping center downtown, you have not only increased the uniqueness of your town, but you have increased tourism and economic opportunities.

This is just one example of some of the great things you can do by utilizing an iconic figure like Dean Martin as your city’s centerpiece.  Once you find this centerpiece, the possibilities are endless.  You could reconstruct the whole downtown to fit the Dean Martin era, an era that most of the buildings and area are still in.  You could reconstruct an old movie house, which will always have a showing of one of Dean Martin’s films plus special events like Dean Martin themed movie festivals. 

Another smart idea would be to move the Dean Martin Museum down to the downtown area, an opportunity to create a highly unique, highly visitable tourist destination.  This also gives you another chance to turn dilapidated buildings into an effective tool in building a better Steubenville.  These are just some of the many things that can be done with such a great building block.

6) TURN YOUR FROWN UPSIDE DOWN

Lastly and maybe most importantly, it is so vastly important to realize and embrace the power of optimism.  Too often we forget about how important each and every moment is in our lives.  Not to sound corny, but it is so very true.  As Thornton Wilder so eloquently penned in his great American play Our Town, "Does anyone ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?"  There are so many millions and billions of instances that have had to happen to lead you to each and every moment you are in, and the things you do in that moment will send a ripple effect throughout time.  Though we might not see all the great things that can come from having an optimistic attitude and mindset, they are happening, and it is up to us to continue build upon that optimism.

It is my hope that some of these rudimentary steps to building a better Steubenville and better cities across our fine nation have helped you gain more clarity as to the benefits of having the creative minds of an advertising agency working with you.  After all, not many people can look at a desolate swamp and figure out a way to make it into something magical.  That’s what I do, and I do it well!