Companies are using Detroit as a brand to sell their products — here's how to do it right 

The Detroit brand report card

To people the world over, the word "Detroit" elicits all kinds of ideas — of grit, authenticity, street cred, the Arsenal of Democracy, the manufacturing capital of Old America. In recent years, companies have latched onto Detroit as a brand to help sell their products. In 2014, there may very well be no better phrase to move units than "handcrafted in Detroit."

Media darlings since they started manufacturing their luxury watches in Detroit last year, Shinola has been forthcoming with the focus-group testing that led to their business model. Asked if they would rather buy a $5 pen from China or a $15 pen from Detroit, most people chose the Chinese pen, but enough were willing to shell out on something made in Detroit. Shinola isn't just selling watches — they're selling the story of bringing manufacturing back to Detroit, and people want to buy it.

But all things created in Detroit are not created equal. To help clear the matter, we came up with the Detroit brand report card, taking a look at several Detroit companies and measuring them against several criteria to see who was actually the most Detroit. Actually being located in Detroit proper certainly helps. (OK, we lose points on this one: the Detroit Metro Times has been headquartered in Ferndale since breaking from our former publisher in 2013.) Manufacturing or at least assembling products in Detroit is another good move.

There are other factors that should be considered as well. Does the company hire Detroiters? Can Detroiters actually afford their products? (Metro Times is free, so we feel like we get some points here.) How much time has the company been in the city? Do they contribute to the community in any way? The biggest red flag to look out for, though, may be the "Detroitsploitation" factor — if a company is spending too much time talking about how Detroit it is, it might be overcompensating for something.

Made In Detroit

Actually based in Detroit …… Needs Improvement

Actually manufactures its products in Detroit …… Unsatisfactory

Hires Detroiters …… Satisfactory

Affordability …… Outstanding

Time spent in Detroit …… Outstanding

Community involvement …… Outstanding

“Detroitsploitation” factor …… Satisfactory

Notes: Although Made In Detroit’s fabrics are not actually made in Detroit, their T-shirts are reasonably priced, and the Clarkston-based company has given to local charities, including a Wayne State scholarship fund. While their website does have a section called “Sh*t You Can’t Afford,” featuring objects like a $25,000 Big Boy statue emblazoned with the MID logo, Made In Detroit gets a satisfactory “Detroitsploitation” factor for longevity; it was founded in 1991 and bought by Kid Rock in 2005, before Detroit was in vogue.

Chrysler

Actually based in Detroit …… Satisfactory

Actually manufactures its products in Detroit …… Outstanding

Hires Detroiters …… Outstanding

Affordability …… Satisfactory

Time spent in Detroit …… Outstanding

Community involvement …… Outstanding

“Detroitsploitation” factor …… Outstanding

Notes: “What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life?” So asked the viral Eminem-starring 2011 Super Bowl commercial for the Chrysler 200, effectively kicking off the current trend of using post-economic collapse Detroit as a brand to sell luxury goods. The Chrysler 200 is the car manufacturer’s lowest-priced model, with a 2011 MSRP between $20k and $30k. While the company is headquartered in Auburn Hills, it has moved office workers downtown in recent years, and its Jeep plant is the only remaining auto factory left in Detroit proper.

Shinola

Actually based in Detroit …… Satisfactory

Actually manufactures its products in Detroit …… Needs Improvement

Hires Detroiters …… Outstanding

Affordability …… Unsatisfactory

Time spent in Detroit …… Needs Improvement

Community involvement …… Satisfactory

“Detroitsploitation” factor …… Unsatisfactory

Notes: In 2011, a Texas-based venture-capital firm acquired the name “Shinola,” a defunct brand of shoe polish. They now assemble (not manufacture) their luxury watches (starting at $475) and bicycles (which start at $2,000) in Detroit, though the parts are made elsewhere. In 2014, the company erected four street clocks around Detroit as “a gift to the city,” and also built a dog park near their flagship store. Being based in Detroit is essential to Shinola’s image, and the company spends too much time branding themselves as Detroit, which gives them an unsatisfactory “Detroitsploitation” factor. In addition, the average Detroiter probably won’t be able to walk out of their Midtown storefront, or sister store Willys, with anything.

Our/Detroit Vodka

Actually based in Detroit …… Unsatisfactory

Actually manufactures its products in Detroit …… Satisfactory

Hires Detroiters …… Satisfactory

Affordability …… Needs Improvement

Time spent in Detroit …… Needs Improvement

Community involvement …… Satisfactory

“Detroitsploitation” factor …… Needs Improvement

Notes: According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, vodka is defined as a neutral spirit “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” So what makes one vodka better than another? Part of the answer is marketing. While it sounds like a local brand, Our/Detroit is actually funded by French corporation Pernod Ricard Group, which has already set up an Our/Berlin distillery in Germany. The company will let local artists paint murals on its walls. The fact that we’ve heard so much about how Detroit Our/Detroit is and they haven’t even opened yet hurts their “Detroitsploitation” factor, as does the price — their vodka will retail at $16.99 for a pint.

Green Industries

Actually based in Detroit …… Outstanding

Actually manufactures its products in Detroit …… Outstanding

Hires Detroiters …… Outstanding

Affordability …… Satisfactory

Time spent in Detroit …… Outstanding

Community involvement …… Outstanding

“Detroitsploitation” factor …… Satisfactory

Notes: Green Industries is a job training and permanent employment program through the 12-year old Cass Community Social Services. A non-profit organization, Green Industries sells mud mats and “Detroit Treads” flip-flops (emblazoned with an Old English D), both made out of illegally dumped tires collected from the streets of Detroit. The Detroit News reports that Green Industries employs 80 workers, many who are homeless or developmentally disabled. Products range from $25 to $45, taxes included.

Detroit Bicycle Company

Actually based in Detroit …… Outstanding

Actually manufactures its products in Detroit …… Outstanding

Hires Detroiters …… Outstanding

Affordability …… Needs Improvement

Time spent in Detroit …… Outstanding Community involvement …… Outstanding

“Detroitsploitation” factor …… Satisfactory

Notes: Detroit Bikes gets kudos for actually manufacturing its bikes in the city of Detroit in its west side factory, and for hiring Detroiters to do it. At $699, its bikes are more expensive than what most Detroiters are probably willing to spend, but not unreasonable. The company has also given its bicycles away for local charity auctions. As far as a “Detroitsploitation” factor, obviously it’s right there in the name, but aside from a line on their website saying “Yes, there is a bicycle manufactured in the Motor City,” they don’t seem to get too heavy-handed with the branding.

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