The Sweet Spot

Several weeks back I wrote a series of columns aimed at finding a new brand identity for Cedar Rapids. And one of the most interesting and detailed responses came from Tim Crosby, who suggested “The Sweet Spot,” because of the city’s ties to corn sweetner and athletics.

Here’s the entirety of his submission. The door also is still open to your suggestions as well.

Dear Todd,
 
I’m glad you raised the question of a new identity for Cedar Rapids. I’ve been a part of a few discussions on this subject since arriving in 1993 from Michigan.  I’ve consistently felt there’s a significant reserve of potential that remains untapped due, at least in part, because of a local tendency to run from who we are when the hunt for appealing characteristics begins.
 
As a former Michigander and long-time marketing guy, I’ve had some firsthand experience with “place promotion.” Something that you learn early on is the importance of making the most of who you are. Would an engineered white water rafting experience put Cedar Rapids on the map? Anything is possible, I suppose. But, when you decide to craft an attraction to market, it’s always best to start with the brand equity you have rather than deciding to start from scratch.
 
The “City of Five Seasons” has some charm. Still, it’s not an identity that stands on its own. On first exposure, it always requires explanation. To top it off, it’s almost never an explanation that’s enthusiastically supported. Residents will often add a postscript to the official explanation that either rebuts the premise of “a season to enjoy” or amends the identity to include an acknowledgement of the city’s smells. With its best interpretation, there’s nothing about the identity that accurately represents place.
 
When you craft a new identity for a place, you start with who you are. That’s easy. To the rest of the world, Iowa equals corn. All of Iowa. There is no place in the state that has successfully crafted an identity that transcends that reality.
 
The real question is, then, how do we extract everything that is positive from our strongest, established identity? What does “corn” mean when applied to Cedar Rapids? Actually, that’s pretty easy, too. It means agri-processing. An overwhelming percentage of commercial activity in and around Cedar Rapids involves the manufacturing of food, food components and other agricultural processing.
 
That’s a pretty good starting place, actually. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 15 million people working in food manufacturing alone. Add the number working in related vertical industries and it’s easy to conclude that a significant percentage of the U.S. population is very interested in what we do. Add the fact that extending the concept to embrace agri-tourism (one of the fastest growing sectors in tourism) is a fairly straightforward proposition.
 
At this point, it’s time to add a little creativity to the mix. How do you translate all of the activity, smells and all, into an appealing marketing proposition? It has to be positive. It has to relevant to the place and people. It has to make a great first impression without a lot of explanation – but it has to be conceptually complex enough to embrace a broad range of meaning.
 
A few years back, I had an idea that I still think fits the bill.  I can see considerable potential for designating Cedar Rapids “The Sweet Spot.” In its most literal sense it is, of course, a nod to the considerable volume of corn sweetener produced by ADM, Cargill and Penford. The logic behind the concept isn’t hurt when you allow yourself to think about the delightful array of breakfast treats produced by Quaker Oats and General Mills.
 
This literal aspect allows for a concise, uncontroversial and positive explanation. With minimal promotion, it’s actually something that can be embraced with some pride. The best part of the identity is, however, what the audience can bring to it.
 
Play a bit of “filling in the blanks,” and it’s easy to see how Cedar Rapids can become “The Sweet Spot” for family life and recreation that includes an extraordinarily large participation in softball, easy and affordable access to golf, large and beautiful city parks, wonderful new pools and some pretty impressive biking trails. It’s a nice promotional fit for the arts, too. I can buy the notion of Cedar Rapids as “The Sweet Spot” for community theater, classical music and, in fact, music in general.
 
In its broadest sense, “The Sweet Spot” is the place where conditions converge to make good things happen. The golf ball travels farther. The baseball goes over the fence. The musical note is transcendent. The food is remarkable. It may be a bit of a stretch, but it’s defensible in marketing terms and would give the community a standard it could embrace.
 
That brings up the next question. Where could we go with this? Let’s start by taking a look at the Farmland site. Imagine a truly world class museum. Let’s call it the “Visionarium.” (Hey, it’s a working title.) One wing of the museum would feature everything and everything having to do with food production. Looking for corporate support? This would give you the best chance you could have to get support from the local big boys as well as the plethora of smaller firms that innovate and advance the industry.  I suspect that you’d have some success getting financial support as well as more than a few exhibits. It may even work to inspire additional investment in the community from these businesses.
 
Now for the other wing. That would be dedicated to another area where I feel Iowa and Cedar Rapids) excel. The other wing would be the Hall of Innovation and would be dedicated to the technical, mechanical and scientific innovations that we can claim. Rockwell can be expected to play a major role. The existing inventory of the Linn County Historical group can finally be displayed appropriately. Telecommunication could be featured, as could our claim to general aviation and the early years of the automotive industry. It would also be an ideal way to showcase accomplishments in bioengineering, alternative energy production and agricultural sciences in general.
 
Around here, big ideas usually die when people lack faith that an attraction will succeed or simply don’t want to contend with the influx of outsiders. Can’t do much about the second complaint, but there are steps that could be taken to ensure that the attraction would succeed.
 
First, local governments would have to work with the State and, very importantly, ISU and Ames, to establish the “Food Production Corridor” that would run from Cedar Rapids along U.S. 30 to Ames. Ames already has a leg up on claiming the title “Food Capitol.” The annual World Food Prize is becoming (and will continue to become) a high profile event. The work at ISU provides obvious validation.
 
 Second, the museum needs to have true destination appeal. That means that both size and content must be world class. It also means that work needs to be done to develop secondary attractions that have the ability to both attract and surprise. I would suggest, for example, linking the museum to a relocated Usher’s Ferry village by narrow gauge rail. As an additional attraction, visitors to the museum could take a trip back in time to visit a farming community from the period. Pattern the experience after Greenfield Village or Williamsburg. The village could be located downstream from the museum past the planned lake development. An alternative spot would be across the river, past the new amphitheater at the Mt. Trashmore site. Either location could offer adequate access and still seem sufficiently isolated to support the illusion.
 
These developments would provide a solid, unique two-day experience that would make it a worthwhile, marketable destination. That, in turn, would encourage development of an arts district in the vicinity of CSPS and give Czech Village a shot in the arm. At that point, we’ve got something really good going and the possibilities will begin to expand dramatically.
 
Finally, the community needs to be serious about supporting the new ventures with some serious marketing. This begins with securing the corporate support mentioned earlier. It also includes work with developers to provide convenient and appropriate lodging, transportation and parking, rather than trying to “make do” with existing options. Once built, the new facility would need national advertising. If we can’t plan on an adequate budget from the beginning, we shouldn’t even start.
 
As the attraction becomes established, CVB folks need to expand their mandate to include work with surrounding communities. Small communities like Central City, Walker and Palo (among others) could begin to capitalize on agri-tourism opportunities to extend the area’s destination appeal.
 
OK, it’s not glamorous. It’s not cosmopolitan or what many might consider sophisticated. It is, however, a plan that respects who we are and what we do best. At its root, it actually embraces the corn connection that can sometimes make us cringe. The thing is, that’s precisely its strength. When Cedar Rapids can do that, we have taken the first step toward a very bright future.
 
Sincerely,
 
Tim Crosby
Crosbyworks

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