An award-winning tourism campaign stirs hearts and growth.
My first encounter with the Pure Michigan campaign occurred at the height of another Texas summer drought. At that moment, watching kayakers enjoy a trip down a cool river in a lush, green forest, I yearned for home.
It’s a common reaction for Michigan’s diaspora, George Zimmermann confirms, as we speak about the unbelievably successful campaign. The program was conceived and executed during his 12 years as a vice president at Travel Michigan, the state’s tourism agency.
He recalls webmasters telling him about a special kind of email they received through the website www.puremichigan.org. They weren’t requests for information or complaints about broken links. They were “love letters” from current or former residents who had seen the ads and wanted to visit, move back to their home state, or just say “thank you” to someone who finally captured the essence of Michigan.
Love letters to a state tourism agency? The team knew they had struck gold, long before Forbes magazine ranked it as one of the top 10 tourism campaigns worldwide. Its existence was never, however, guaranteed.
Zimmermann joined Travel Michigan in 2001, as tourism tanked in the wake of 9/11. “No one wanted to go anywhere,” he remembers. That was certainly true of Michigan. The state’s travel industry was in especially dismal shape, showing dead last in hotel occupancy for several years, and running campaigns lacking a compelling message.
Michigan was mired in a recession that began almost a decade before the rest of the country fell in 2008. Jobs were vanishing in all sectors. Tourism fell even further as discretionary incomes dried up in the worst economic contraction since the Clutch Plague. Some days it seemed Michigan’s only growth industry was moving residents out of state.
Zimmermann and team knew they couldn’t turn around the state’s entire economy, or wean it off dependence on a couple of industries, in just a few years. They believed, though, that tourism could leverage existing resources and infrastructure to create new jobs and confidence in Michigan, and that the effect would go far beyond one sector.
Yet with state tourism budgets falling each year, lawmakers needed convincing. Zimmermann and colleagues realized that no one had the evidence to show that a boost in tourism funding could lift the state’s economy—and image—as a whole.
Travel Michigan turned to Longwoods International, a marketing research firm with particular expertise in the tourism industry in the United States. In 2004, the firm analyzed the state’s tourism investments. The results were clear: Even with the low budgets at the time, spending did yield a positive return on investment.
While increasing the state’s tourism budget might have seemed impossible in 2006, that’s exactly what Travel Michigan requested. It helped that Zimmermann and others could also say something relatively unique about tourism-related jobs as unemployment rose: They couldn’t, by nature, be shipped away.
The study also showed that a robust tourism sector is a powerful economic development tool, capable of luring all types of business to the state. Of course, tourism spending created a multiplier effect, boosting retail sales, construction spending, and more. But a comprehensive plan could bring even less obvious benefits such as college students, second homebuyers, retirees, and investors looking for new markets.
Despite the competition for scarce funds, the legislature and then Gov. Granholm’s administration were convinced. Travel Michigan’s budget was doubled. The agency teamed up with advertising firm McCann-Erickson and began reinventing Michigan tourism.
The team knew that much of the state’s tourism had always originated from within or from adjacent states and Ontario, Canada. These would remain key markets.
The Pure Michigan team knew, though, that many potential visitors had left the state, often unwillingly and in search of work. A campaign that captured and built on their positive memories—often from childhood—could lure this group back to a Michigan that offered a mixture of nostalgia and peace, along with newer attractions and more diverse amenities. And for those who couldn’t find Michigan on a map, the advertising had to dazzle with an unexpected beauty that put curiosity into gear.
Many trips would take place in a natural splendor that a surprising number of residents had simply never seen themselves. Others would rely on cultural jewels long forgotten or taken for granted. It was clear that the state offered pleasure and relaxation in stunning variety and abundance, but it seemed that it, like many a modest soul, had never developed a compelling way to become better known.
Ultimately, the campaign coalesced around the unique experiences and institutions Michigan provides for those who love it. Going “Up North” for the weekend and enjoying the dramatic beauty of the four seasons resonated with the creative team and test audiences alike. Spectacular coastlines along freshwater seas were natural focal points, along with miles of scenic drives that string together two peninsulas and an endless selection of unique cities and picture-perfect towns. And the state’s relative affordability was a critical selling point in lean times.
Pure Michigan had finally created a compelling narrative around a quiet pride in the state’s exceptional riches, never mind recession. Tough times could be forgotten for the moment, as the campaign’s stunning visuals, soothing piano, and gentle reminders to seize the day in Pure Michigan were delivered by native son and narrator Tim Allen. The ads were a welcome tonic. The first aired in late 2006. By 2007, the campaign was well underway to much acclaim. And it wasn’t just Michigan tuning in anymore.
Travel Michigan secured the funds to take the campaign to national cable audiences in 2009, spending $30 million to make Michigan one of only a handful of states with national tourism campaigns. With the Internet and YouTube, almost anyone could be a potential visitor. Local and regional destinations had a wake to ride and several decided to invest.
The Pure Michigan team excelled at producing short, beautiful “vignettes” that captured unique locales and experiences to give a general impression of the state’s many options. The campaign was also scalable for more local promotions.
Through partnerships with Pure Michigan, particular areas of the state could enter the living rooms of potential visitors across the nation, through cable, at a price they couldn’t negotiate alone. The Great Lakes Bay Region was one of four such partners, contributing an additional $500,000 to team up with the statewide campaign.
Fortunately, the region had already organized itself years earlier to promote economic development through collaboration. It pooled resources and built alliances to enhance its ability to attract growth in high-tech manufacturing and alternative energy, for example. Local leaders believed that the same approach could work for tourism.
Annette Rummel, CEO of the Great Lakes Bay Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, explains that Saginaw County had long possessed much more funding to promote tourism because of a higher occupancy tax on hotel rooms than neighboring Bay and Midland counties. A key step was to work collaboratively to equalize the tax across the region, making more funds available from each county. This supported more effective, yet costly investments with greater reach and impact, such as Pure Michigan.
Regional collaboration lowered overhead by 60 percent, freeing up significant sums for increased marketing. As the increased occupancy tax rates took hold, more dollars rolled in to promote the region. Numbers began to rise in critical categories like overnight expenditures. That translates into the kitchen table equivalent of more jobs and higher sales for local businesses.
Rummel’s organization dedicated staff to social media and critical investments in its website and a 24/7 phone line, now reachable and promoted via the national cable campaign. The Great Lakes Bay Region occupied a world stage created by Pure Michigan’s statewide campaign.
While all this effort is directed toward visitors, the real benefits continue to accrue to residents, just as the Longwoods International study foretold. Rummel explains, “We work on quality of life for the community.” Creating a destination that is ripe for tourism should, with thoughtful planning, enhance life for everyday residents through jobs, amenities, and a higher quality of life.
At the heart of it, Pure Michigan works because it tells a compelling, genuine story with beauty and distinctive style. It draws its inspiration from one of the most genuine of ingredients: pride of place. It makes visitors feel like they are coming home. And during our darkest times and struggles to reinvent, Pure Michigan does much more than drive tourism. It holds a mirror up to the face of Michigan and reminds us why we are worth the trip. •