Let’s Ideate Our Way to a Vibrant Downtown

Let’s Ideate Our Way to a Vibrant Downtown

Techniques to spark creativity on any topic, even one as nuanced as revitalizing Minneapolis' core.

What is the hardest marketing job on the planet right now?

Perhaps we could consider a head of marketing role at a restaurant group, one of the large hotel chains, or in the performing arts. All good answers, as this pandemic has disproportionately depressed those industries, putting marketing leadership in a tough spot.

But consider for a moment downtown Minneapolis, where hotels are at 20 to 30 percent occupancy. Many restaurants have closed. Even some longtime urbanites don’t want to go downtown.

Hence, the hardest job in marketing award goes to … Leah Wong, vice president of external relations for the Minneapolis Downtown Council.

There’s no section in your marketing textbook on how to market a city after a pandemic, business closures, protests, and shootings. There’s no manual that Wong’s predecessor left her that says “If this happens, break the seal and do these 10 things.” There’s no ideal example of a city that has turned things around and offers “best practices” to follow.

We do know this: We’re going to need creativity. Any marketer worth their Himalayan salt knows generating a volume of ideas is a great start. From sifting through those ideas, we get the gems we can place back in the crown atop this beautiful city.

Ideation—the process of generating ideas—is the fuel we need to return the city to vibrancy. Ideation methods apply to your organization as well, because marketing a city is not much different from marketing bubble gum, tractors, or legal services. (There, I said it. I’ll deal with the “marketing consultant” hate mail later.)

If you look at everything through a wide enough lens, it can all be distilled to three major sources of creativity:

  1. Human beings. We are more similar than different, a finding we see in all of our research on human behavior.
  2. Artifacts. Buildings, cars, and all of the objects we’ve invented around us to live here. Artifacts communicate emotional and intellectual messages through what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell (long live Marshall McLuhan). The artifacts of downtown Minneapolis are tainted by fear, a motivating emotion to be countered.
  3. Culture. The collective knowledge that is passed around among people, artifacts, and organizations. Culture is broken into small packets of meaning (memes in the first, pre-internet meaning of the term) and spreads like a virus (funny/not funny) through people and artifacts. Your iPhone means something beyond its function, thanks to culture.

Innovation can be approached from any one of these areas, but you need to consider them all.

Next, we need a sweeping motivational statement. Goal: Bring people back to downtown Minneapolis.

Now we ideate.

Let’s start with door No. 2 (artifacts): How might we create something to attract people to downtown?

Build a new building? Too expensive. A Super Bowl party? Did that, nearly froze to death. A rock concert? Sure—is Bob Dylan still alive? Take down all the skyways? Oh yeah, cute idea; nope. How about a pet parade from downtown Minneapolis to St. Paul? Now we’re talking. I like parades.

Let’s go to door No. 3 (culture): How do we bring a more vibrant culture downtown?

Shut down the streets to cars and start a rickshaw transport system? This sounds like the skyway removal idea; have you lived here in the winter? How about a State Fair “takeover” of downtown and we put everything on a stick for seven days? The fair itself probably has this covered; plus, we should be thinking about evolving downtown’s culture to make it the vibrant, diverse, safe space we all want it to be.

“There’s no section in your marketing textbook on how to market a city after a pandemic, business closures, protests, and shootings.”

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You might notice I’m critiquing my own ideas. Yes, throw out the first objection yourself, then move on. The best session has a ton of bad ideas—ideas so bad they’re hard to read without weeping from laughter. Sure, your “professional” facilitator will say keep it positive, but at some point reality must be considered. If your idea can’t survive a critique from the intern, maybe it wasn’t supposed to make it. It’s part of the essential process of filtering.

From ideation to filtering to ideation again, keep going back and forth. Questions are great filters, but think carefully when you frame them: “How can we afford it?” versus “Can we afford it?” One of those questions is a yes/no; the other one invites more ideation.

Now go forth and ideate with your team—any team, as everyone is creative. Let’s call this our citywide ideation session, and when you’re done, send the ideas to Leah Wong at the Minneapolis Downtown Council (info@mplsdowntown.com).

She’ll appreciate it. We all need a vibrant downtown Minneapolis and more creativity.

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