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Front Row Seat: One of us! One of us! Exploring Duluth's new brand

Duluth's new tourism campaign is inviting visitors to "love it like we do." What does that mean?

Visit Duluth tourism logo
The logo for Visit Duluth's "Love It Like We Do" tourism marketing campaign.
Contributed / Visit Duluth
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DULUTH — "Love it like we do."

The new slogan for Visit Duluth is kind of intimate, if you think about it. It's not saying "come look at our lake" or "drink beer by big boats" or "you have an Instagram account, we have exposed brick!" No, Duluth is now inviting vacationers to form an emotional relationship with our city.

The slogan is the product of a revamped approach to self-marketing by the city of Duluth and its business community. Last year, the city decided to take $1.8 million of marketing money from the longstanding membership organization Visit Duluth and hand it to Edina-based public relations agency Bellmont Partners, along with South Dakota ad agency Lawrence & Schiller. The former Visit Duluth organization has been incorporated into a newly formed Duluth Tourism Collaborative, which is driving the new branding campaign being rolled out this year.

In a News Tribune op-ed, Tricia Hobbs, an economic developer who coordinates the new marketing contracts on the city's behalf, wrote: "We’re celebrating the things so many visitors know and love about Duluth — our breathtaking lake, nature, the city’s world-class attractions and events, and outdoor recreation — while, at the same time, we’re seeking to showcase Duluth’s many neighborhoods, thriving arts and cultural experiences, dynamic food and beverage scene, rich history and historical sites, and family-friendly activities."

City leaders have described Bellmont as offering a much more robust marketing package that will help Duluth raise its profile and form relationships to increase the volume of people and dollars coming into the city. The rebranding is only the most visible component of the (unsalted) sea change, but it's an important one.

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Along with the new slogan, Duluth has a new tourist-facing logo, with tall thin letters packed into a tight rectangle that conveys a sense of density, with the letters jostling for real estate like East Hillside houses. A stylized North Star caps the left stem of the letter "U," with the cross stroke of the "T" blocking the tantalizing possibility of a full umlaut.

The logo conveys a sense of personality without being ostentatiously goofy, which is the sweet spot the entire branding campaign is going for. According to a branding guide prepared for industry representatives, we want the world to see Duluth's people as "quirky," but also "diverse, industrious, adventurous, friendly, fun." In other words, we may be a little peculiar, but we're also practical, and we're not going to scare you off.

The "love it like we do" imprecation may sound like a lot, but it's consistent with a recognition among successful marketers that today's consumers don't just want to buy something — they want to buy into it, ideally embracing a brand as a lifestyle. Duluth breweries that have launched in the past decade understand this well.

The new visitor center opened shortly after Duluth's newest tourism marketing campaign, "Love It Like We Do," debuted from the city's new tourism advertising firm, Bellmont Partners.

The mission statement of Bent Paddle Brewing Co., for example, "is to brew craft beer with a concentration on sustainability for our business, employees, the environment and the greater community — all while 'Bending the Traditions' that we encounter, for a more unique and interesting craft beer experience."

Essentially, the brewery is saying that if you choose Bent Paddle, you're not just picking up a six-pack — you're uplifting the community and sustaining the environment. Similarly, Duluth's new brand emphasizes that this is a place where when you "do you," you're also "doing us."

"When you come to Duluth," reads the brand story, "you become a part of what makes this place so special. While you're here with us, you're one of us. And even when you leave Duluth, it never leaves you." Is that a promise or a threat?

I kid, but I also understand what the story is alluding to. Even though I only spent five years of my childhood in Duluth, I've claimed the connection so often that a lot of my acquaintances are surprised to learn most of my youth was actually spent in St. Paul.

(Now there's a city that could use a brand refresh. At the Minnesota State Fair's Kickoff to Summer event last month, I saw a guy wearing a shirt that said: "Keep St. Paul boring.")

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I was living in Minneapolis when I took this job at the News Tribune, and when I told people I was moving to Duluth, they enthusiastically responded with their own Duluth stories: Maybe they also lived here once, or their parents are from here, or their cousin used to be stationed at the 148th, or they've just visited Duluth a lot.

It makes sense for a tourism campaign to steer into that sense of identification, and to sell it as an attraction. It's also a reminder to Duluthians to put our best feet forward. We want tourists to feel welcome, but we're also in a national competition for workforce members: If a Duluth visit becomes a rent-to-own transition, all the better.

When I was a kid, my siblings and I had sky-blue shirts reading "We're Duluth ... and proud of it!" That Fedo-era slogan's defensive tone reflected an era of historically hard times for the city. Selling our Duluth house in the 1980s was a yearlong ordeal for our family, with weekends spent making things spotless for yet another wave of people we hoped and prayed would make an offer.

The "we're Duluth" logo was accented with a gull, indicating the attempt to solidify Canal Park as a robust tourist draw. Duluth is different today, and the North Star shines over a lot more than just the Lift Bridge. (In fairness to the earlier design, gulls also poop well beyond the piers.)

As underlined by a video illustrating the "love it like we do" philosophy, the new tourism campaign focuses less on what you can see in Duluth than on what you can do here, who you can meet here — and who you can be here.

The brand story may describe some ideals we're still trying to live up to. For example, how consistent are we with regard to "celebrating our differences" when that doesn't just mean a person's chosen color of Duluth Pack? Still, if you do a Google Image search for "Duluth MN," you'll see a range of images reflecting a city "brand" that we're ready to grow beyond.

Do we love it?

Short cuts

A watercolor painting of a yellow dragon with a green head flying out from underneath a mountain, fire emerging from its mouth. A caption in stylized ancient text reads, "Glórund sets forth to seek Túrin."
J. R. R. Tolkien (English, 1892–1973), "Glórund sets forth to seek Túrin" (detail), September 1927. Watercolor and ink on paper, 10 15/16 x 8 9/16 in. (278 x 217 mm). The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Tolkien Drawings 87, fol. 34.
Contributed / ©The Tolkien Trust (1977, 1995) www.tolkienestate.com

While we're talking about regional — excuse me, national! — travel destinations, a word about Milwaukee. I've never been, but that might need to change this year, since Marquette University's Haggerty Museum of Art is hosting an exhibit called "J.R.R. Tolkien: The Art of the Manuscript." Marquette is drawing from its own "extensive collection of Tolkien manuscripts," as well as items borrowed from the University of Oxford, promising "the original manuscripts created by J.R.R. Tolkien for his literary classics 'The Hobbit,' 'The Lord of the Rings,' and other works." If that doesn't inspire you to reach for your lembas bread and your traveling cloak, I don't know what will. See marquette.edu/haggerty-museum for more information on the exhibit, which runs from Aug. 19 through Dec. 12.

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A view of store shelves displaying dozens of pitchers shaped like fish with their heads bent back to met their tails, with liquid to emerge from their mouths.
Variously colored GurglePots were on display in the Duluth Kitchen Co. window on June 6, 2022.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

From the department of retail finds: I was astonished to walk into the Duluth Kitchen Co., in the Fitger's mall, and find a vast selection of GurglePots. What's a GurglePot? I'd never seen one in my life until a few years ago, when I received one as a Christmas gift from my mother-in-law. Also known as "glug glug jugs," GurglePots were inspired by a pitcher that Washington state entrepreneur Matt Ellison encountered in France; Ellison's now sold over a million in the United States, and from the looks of it a lot of them have gone through Duluth. When you fill the pot and pour, it makes a "glug-glug" sound as air bubbles pass around the bend of the fish's hollow tail. My bright-orange model has proved to be a low-tech crowdpleaser.

Aviation buffs, take note: Superior's Richard I. Bong Airport is having its second annual open house, this Saturday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Several local organizations are participating in the event, which will have a World War II theme in keeping with the airport's Superior-born namesake, America's top flying ace in that conflict. There will be big-band music, a classic car show, "Rosie the Riveter," and of course airplanes — the latter overseen by the Commemorative Air Force, the Civil Air Patrol, and the Experimental Aviation Association. For more information on this "huge day," a free event (with charitable donations accepted), see lakesuperiorsquadron.org.

This story was updated at 11:10 a.m. June 10 to correct the name of the Duluth Tourism Collaborative. It was originally posted at 7:15 a.m. June 9. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Related Topics: TOURISMDULUTHBUSINESS
Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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