As a Michigan resident I’ve followed the developments in Flint with a mixture of horror, sadness, outrage, and confusion. This post is not about political blame. Having said that, I don’t deny the political element to the problem; it’s a sad tale of bad decisions on top of bad decisions, and some of those made for purely political reasons. Fact seeking people on both sides of the aisle need to take a very close look at what’s happened.
The focus of this post is about the damage that has been done to the state of Michigan’s brand, Pure Michigan. This is not being talked about, but it’s as damaging in the long run as the disaster itself. That damage to the impression and key message of the state will cost the good state of Michigan for years to come. Make no mistake, this problem in Flint means fewer new Michigan jobs and diminished future opportunities. The disaster in Flint, sadly, puts a stain on the Pure Michigan brand it will take years to clean up.
Now and then you see how important — and fragile — a brand can be, and this disaster in Flint is a tragic clear case in point. The ruination of this once proud and authentic brand means that economic development across the entire state will be impacted. It will impact the tourist industry, manufacturing, and even agriculture. Would you buy fruit from a region where the water might be poisoned? It would give you pause for thought. Would you buy a home, or a second home in a state where water management is poorly done? Would you re-shore a plant in the state? Would you locate a high tech start up in Michigan? What was once taken for granted — safe water — is now an impediment to clean growth.
Pure Michigan is (or was) a brilliant brand. It sums up in two simple words what people in Michigan, and our many tourist visitors, find to be lovely about the place –that’s it’s mostly, authentically, beautiful and pure. Outside of Detroit and a few other urban pockets in the state, it is hard to go anywhere that isn’t scenic. And water, we’re surrounded by it, and most of it is about as clean and pure as you’d hope for. Nestle bottles its Ice Mountain brand in Michigan. Ironically, even the Flint River, once quite polluted, is cleaner now than it’s been in 50 years. There are still trout, beavers, and bears in Michigan, and the forests have recovered after the clear cutting of over 100 years ago.
The disaster clean up, the fix, will be expensive. So will the on-going medical treatment of all the people the mass poisoning has made sick. My heart bleeds most for the young children whose very brains have been impacted, and permanently. The City of Flint, a city that was once highly productive, will probably never recover. The recent small gains with manufacturers coming back to town will be halted. Property values there have disappeared and home owners are, overnight, ruined. All this is horrible, but it gets worse.
Michigan itself, the entire state, is now painted with a brush the opposite of pure. It’s now an unhealthy place to live and work or establish a business. Not only unhealthy, but incompetent, unsafe, contaminated. This is the message that is being sent to the global marketplace right now. Maybe only Flint is actually ruined — but the brand Pure Michigan covers the entire state. The state-wide brand has been poisoned as badly as as the Flint water. Now the inherent brand promise feels like a very bad joke.
If I’m a major manufacturer looking to locate a new plant somewhere, would I choose Michigan now? I would not, because people work at plants, and people are not going to want to move to Michigan. It won’t matter that Michigan is a right to work state because nobody will want to live here. But it’s “only Flint” you might say, and I would say, if the state allows this to happen in Flint, it could also happen in Benton Harbor, Traverse City, Lansing, Ann Arbor, Niles, or Detroit. I asked a CEO who is currently looking around for a place to locate a high tech start up. Star Sailor Power is one of those potentially huge companies in the new energy sector. In other words exactly what any state wants, high paying, clean jobs of the future. Here’s what Pamela Menges, Ph.D., a Michigan native, said:
At the core of any brand is the concept of trust. With a trust so broken, recovery is long and slow. The phrase “gives me pause” in Pamela Menges quote above is exactly what any brand, any state, does not want. This is what I mean when I say the brand has been tainted. This is how the brand damage will cost Michigan for years to come. Michigan will be ruled out.
There have been brands that have had their names dragged through the mud in the past. Look at Tylenol. They recovered because they took massively fast action and put safety first. They took a big financial hit, but they recovered trust.
Is that happening in Flint? Is this happening in Michigan? No, all the finger pointing and blaming, all the avoidance of what caused this, all the dodging of responsibility — will only weaken the brand more. That’s a shame because for the most part Michigan is an incredibly beautiful, pure, place. Now with a diminished future.