Commentary

Shinola's Love Letter To Detroit Is All Heart

The first school trip I remember taking was to the Ford plant in Northern Jersey - which, unbeknownst to the educators tasked with introducing a gaggle of hyperkinetic six-year-olds to the concept of “industry,” would soon be immortalized in song for all the wrong reasons. While one might debate the wisdom of bypassing the area’s 62 petting zoos in favor of a journey into the soul of lunch-pail America, I was fascinated by the experience. Big buildings! Shiny cars! Gunk! It cemented in my mind a very specific image of the American auto industry, one that persisted long after Ford left town.

Those industry-wide brand traits transferred to the city of Detroit by default. For me, Detroit was cars (and Bob Seger and Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell) and cars were Detroit. When my Dad bought a non-American vehicle, it felt borderline treasonous. Eventually I started driving a Subaru and became part of the problem. It had seat warmers.

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I digress. The point is: Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell have a stronger Cooperstown case than Bruce Sutter or Jim Rice or Catfish Hunter, and “The Fire Inside” might be the most underrated song in the Seger canon. Also, I’ve spent maybe 11 nights in Detroit and it’s more alive to me than areas in which I’ve lived for months, thanks to the impermeability of that initial association. This makes no sense, especially given the southern migration of the country’s auto assembly plants, but we’re only a few years removed from Chrysler’s “Imported From Detroit” campaign. Persistent brand associations die hard.

Which brings us to Shinola, a brand about which I know exactly nothing (insert explosively clever shit-from-Shinola phraseology here). A quick glimpse at the website and product roster - watches, journals, high-end leather goods and… bicycles? yes, bicycles - suggests that the company didn’t do no fancy book-learnin’ when it came to devising a coherent business model. I’d imagine that attempting to find a unifying thread across those product lines would prove challenging, so Shinola has instead decided the celebrate the virtues of its Detroit lineage.

It ain’t much of a lineage: Shinola has been around for five years and took some heat over the choice of Detroit as its base (for what some saw as a manipulative appeal to industrial nostalgia). Given that I learned about this criticism right about the time I wrote that last sentence, I can’t speak to the company’s motives. But opening a luxury-goods manufacturing business in Detroit in 2011 - that sounds less like an opportunistic marketing play than it does an act of supreme confidence in the region.

You can guess, then, where I land on Shinola’s “I Belong Here,” which debuted this week during the CNN broadcast of the Presidential debate. Over the course of two minutes, photographer Bruce Weber alternates between a reading by poet Natasha Miller (of a poem celebrating Detroit’s spirit and diversity) and black-and-white images of Detroiters (Detroitians? Detromancers?) who embody that spirit and diversity.

It’s not the most subtle approach - the debate-time media buy sends a signal in itself - but it works, probably owing as much to our residual feelings (and guilt?) about Detroit’s brutal decline as to the virtuosity of the presentation. You can consume “I Belong Here” with your eyes closed and indulge in the cadence of the wordplay. You can consume it with the audio muted and be swayed by the elegance of the images.

But however you choose to experience “I Belong Here,” it conveys a genuine sense of place. That’s not something that brands attempt to do anymore, because it’s a fine line to walk. Go too rah-rah on the geographic love and you undercut the depth of feeling; go too light on it and you create a generic Chamber of Commerce-ish travelogue.

Shinola balances the tenor of its appeal adeptly; its Detroit is real and vital. I’m not sure the video makes me want to run out and buy one of the company’s leather-accented wallet watch bicycles, but it suggests that the company’s heart is very much in the right place. Cliché or no, we could use more of that nowadays.
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