Shinola: Making Detroit Great Again, or Just an Experiment in Brand Porn?
by Will Novosedlik
April 5, 2017
How one company capitalized on Detroit's downturn
I grew up across the river from perhaps the greatest urban symbol of industrial power in America’s history: the once great City of Detroit.
Even before it became the global capital of auto manufacturing, the city was a hotbed of industrial activity and a magnet for European immigrants who brought with them the skilled trades and craftsmanship required by Detroit’s burgeoning industrial scene.
The city’s location on a busy waterway in the Great Lakes gave it access to markets and allowed it to do for manufacturing in the 20th century what Silicon Valley has done for computing in the 21st. By WWII, Detroit was firing on all cylinders and attracting people from all over the country to toil in its factories and workshops. Its workforce continued to diversify and the city grew.
This brought with it the beginnings of a racial divide that eventually pulled Detroit apart. During the ’50s a “white flight” to the suburbs began, leaving the urban core to the poor working classes and eventually eviscerating what was once a vibrant downtown. The flight was accelerated by the race riots of 1967. The population of the city went from 1.8 million souls in 1950 to where it is today, around 700,000. This, combined with the forces of de-industrialization and a lack of political vision has turned Detroit into the ne plus ultra of rust belt degradation.
So it’s the last place you’d expect something like a fashion brand to set up shop. But that is exactly what the “affordable luxury” brand Shinola did five years ago. Launched in 2013 by the former CEO of Fossil Tom Kartsotis, Shinola has become something of a “brand celebrity” due in no small measure to its location in downtown Detroit. It has attracted high-profile celebs from Neil Young to Bill Clinton to tour its facilities in what was once a General Motors research lab (a space where the automatic transmission was invented). It has been called the “coolest brand in America” by Adweek. And its products are found in fashionable boutiques from London to Tokyo.
In a feat of marketing brilliance, Kartsotis has spun a brand story on the back of Detroit’s epic misfortune. By locating there, he was able to take full advantage of the city’s dire straits to build his brand around bringing jobs back. And they’re good jobs. He went as far as having Swiss watchmaker Ronda AG come in and train the workforce in a skill that has not existed in America for decades. But there are only 200 of them in a city whose factories once employed hundreds of thousands.
Having emerged from the biggest bankruptcy in American history a few years ago, Detroit continues to struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds. Whole neighbourhoods have gone up in smoke under the constant threat of arson. The city’s tax base has been profoundly eroded by the residential and industrial exodus. Without a viable tax base, there is little hope of a true recovery any time soon.
Shinola is to be lauded for its commitment to the local community. Bringing any jobs to Detroit is to be lauded. Especially jobs like these, which have reintroduced the kind of craft and trade skills that helped Detroit become an industrial colossus in the first place. But can it scale to the point where other similar businesses will be convinced to re-invest in what was once the Motor City?
Until then, Shinola has a readymade mythology to leverage in service of its brand: Detroit’s “Made in America” comeback story. As long as Detroit continues to be seen as a post-industrial poster child, Kartsotis’s brand story will thrive. As one expert recently said, starting a unique brand in New York or San Francisco is difficult because there are so many competing for your attention. Starting one in Detroit is like parking a Rolls Royce next to a used car lot. It can’t not look good.
Will Novosedlik likes playing in traffic at the intersections of business, brand, design and innovation. He's worked both as a consultant and client on brands such as Telus, TD Bank, Bata International, Williams-Sonoma, Vodafone and Deutsche Telecom in Canada, the US, North Africa and Europe.