Environmentally-conscious and education-minded non-profit AShirtBag has embarked on its next major fund-raising effort. This time, founder Jeff Newsom adds Michigan born and bred celebrities into the mix.
“We’ve asked comedians, musicians, actors and artists – who have a connection to Michigan – to donate their used tank tops or A-shirts to our cause,” said Newsom. “Each celebrity a-shirt will be crafted into a reusable tote bag. A custom AShirtBag tag will come autographed by the celebrity donor then attached to the bag.” Newsom has secured participation from such stars as Kid Rock, Sandra Bernhard, Mayer Hawthorne, Paradime, The Dirty Americans, Dita Von Teese and many more.

The donated shirts have been sewn into AShirtBag’s, and will be showcased at Pluto in Birmingham (400 Hamilton Row) on Earth Day, Thursday, April 22nd.  The public is encouraged to stop by and preview the bags from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.  Each celebrity-donated bag will be available for bidding at http://myworld.ebay.com/ashirtbag on April 23rd.

100% of the proceeds raised from the sale of the celebrity bags will support AShirtBag’s mission, to promote science and ecology programs in Detroit Public Schools, a district with some of the lowest standardized science test scores in the country.

The non-profit provides a free project-based learning program, titled “7 Things You Can Do in 7 Days to Save Our Environment,” to third, fourth and fifth grade students in Detroit elementary schools. Children receive a tri-fold handout; an eco-friendly pencil; a Tree in a Box kit and each classroom receives a set of four recycling bags. These tools are intended to motivate the younger generations to practice earth-friendly lifestyles as well as develop an interest in science. AShirtBag also provides yearly recycling services for select schools in The Detroit Public Schools and its surrounding communities.

100 Gift bags for attendees of the event will be filled with goodies from Randy’s Granola; FIGO Salon; products from TIGI’s Love, Peace & the Planet Eco-friendly hair care line; discount cards from Royal Oak’s Scout boutique, cookies by Pure Food 2U and a free yoga lesson and raw food consultation by Dawn Whitehorn of Dawn In the Raw.

For more information contact AShirtBag, at (800) 915-9384 or visit www.ashirtbag.org. A-ShirtBag is located at 1331 Holden Street in Detroit. View AShirtBag’s blog at www.ashirtbag.blogspot.com.

Building a Brand on a Budget

To elevate their digital profiles and carve out entrepreneurial niches, more businesses are turning to social media and other free digital marketing alternatives.

Jason Ankeny
Entrepreneur Magazine - May 2010

Chances are that anyone seeking a place to live in and around the trendy Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, Mich., eventually will come across property investment and management company Urbane Apartments. In fact, type "apartments Royal Oak" into the Google search toolbar, and the first result that pops up is the Urbane website--a destination highlighted by photos of the firm's modern, inviting rental units and the young urban professionals who occupy them.

With 16 apartment communities spanning across Royal Oak, Urbane has emerged as one of the region's fastest-growing property management companies. But the virtual prominence of its brand has little to do with its real-world scope. Credit instead founder Eric Brown's decision to extend the firm's message into the social media realm --a move that not only slashed spending on paid property listings, but also afforded Urbane the tools to more accurately communicate the contemporary lifestyle experience so integral to its business.

"When I first announced to our staff that we were going to have a MySpace account, they looked at me like I was crazy," Brown recalls. "They said, ‘We can't do that. Whenever we drop the ball, our tenants are going to write bad things about us.' I said, ‘They may, and we will work to make those things right.' By reaching out and addressing those complaints, those residents became Urbane evangelists and started writing positive things about us. There's no way we could have the reach we have without hooking into the customer base we have."

Urbane Apartments now boasts a resident-penned blog touting favorite Royal Oak destinations, a social networking site exclusive to tenants (dubbed the Urbane Lobby) and active YouTube, Facebook and Twitter profiles. With each new post, photo, video and tweet, the company builds and nurtures its brand at no cost while fostering the hip, forward-thinking image its target demographic finds irresistible. According to Brown, in October 2008 about 100 people were visiting the Urbane blog each month. By the following spring, traffic grew to 4,500 visitors per month, and the number now tops 16,000 per month. Those metrics are even more impressive given that Urbane offers only about 300 rental units in all.

Urbane Apartments is the quintessential example of a small business that has maximized the possibilities of social media to champion its brand online, eschewing conventional advertising and search engine optimization solutions in favor of word-of-mouth buzz. Thanks to social networking, do-it-yourself website creation software and related tools, it's never been easier or cheaper to establish a beachhead online. Of course, the same alternatives are available to your competitors, meaning it's also tougher than ever to earn virtual visibility. That's where small businesses must get creative.

"The average small business doesn't need to worry so much about SEO or spending money on a web consultant. If they're out there and relevant to their audience, that's as much search engine optimization as they need," says Mike Whaling, president of 30 Lines, an online branding consultancy in Columbus, Ohio. "There are plenty of opportunities to build a strong brand on a small budget."

Regardless of how the message is articulated and distributed, the core mission of branding remains the same: communicating to customers who you are, what you do and how you do it. The web is the simplest, most direct channel to convey that information.

"Every company should have an online presence, and the cost of developing a site has come down to relative pennies," says Craig Reiss, founder of retail web developer Reiss Media in Cos Cob, Conn. "Organic search can still drive traffic. People go online looking for [a firm's service or product], and all you have to do is get found. It doesn't matter if you're a single retailer and can't afford the time or have the expertise to drive traffic. Most people are just looking for directions to your store anyway."

Websites serve different purposes for different companies, says Nicholas Chilenko, principal of web design and Internet marketing firm Nicholas Creative in East Lansing, Mich. Sometimes the goal is generating new business, sometimes it's about relaying messages to clients and other times it's defining or even redefining the firm's image. "If someone wants to find out more information about you, they go to your website. It's the convergence of all your marketing messages," Chilenko says. "It's easy to create an identity because it's virtual."

The challenge is getting that identity across in quick, broad strokes, says Mary van de Wiel, CEO of branding and communication design consultancy Zing Your Brand in Brooklyn. N.Y. According to her, businesses have just moments to succinctly communicate their purpose and value to consumers before they click away for good.

"You've got to be bold, you've got to be provocative, and you've got to be daring. Create a language and vocabulary that allows people to get that," Van de Wiel says. "Branding is what sets you apart--it's a natural magnet. If people come to your site, they need to say, ‘Yes--this is who can answer my problem.' If you make a bad impression in the first five seconds, you're toast."

The most essential component of successful online branding is the human element, she says. "People are craving a story. They want to know something about who they're buying from, and they feel like they need to like and trust you," she explains. "You've got to shout what it is that makes you special and makes you different. Our personalities are what drive our brands. Look at Richard Branson--his personality is embedded in all of the Virgin brands. You need to put a face on your business."

Perhaps no tool is more effective at putting a human face on a firm than social media--and no tool is less expensive, either. In addition to utilizing social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, 30 Lines' Whaling recommends that small businesses introduce their own blogs as a means to pass along content that underscores the company's knowledge and expertise, with an emphasis on local information that directly affects customers. For example, an accountant might post about changes to city or state taxes that are likely to affect his clients, positively or negatively.

"Make sure you're regularly adding fresh content," Whaling advises. "Not only are you providing value, you're also adding pages to your website--that's more pages for search engines to index, and more opportunities for customers to find you."

All businesses have information to share, regardless of vertical, he adds. "Not enough companies take advantage of the opportunity to tell a story that's bigger than the company itself. There's always a story you can tell. Maybe your merchandise is made from local products or from sustainable materials. You've got to find that unique angle."

For Urbane Apartments' Brown, the bigger story is the world that surrounds his properties. "At the end of the day, I'm not sure folks really care about apartment features. What they really want to know is what's going on nearby, like where is the best corner bar and the best place for sushi," he says. "Our blog focuses on everything about the local neighborhood--it's all about new bars and restaurants. And our website traffic is off the charts."

Social media outreach also lets businesses keep tabs on their online reputations and interact directly with fans and foes alike. According to Brown, Urbane Apartments closely monitors tenant reviews and feedback across multiple websites and is quick to respond to any criticism.

"A lot of folks want to ignore the ratings and review sites, which is a huge mistake. There's no hiding from that," Brown says. "If you're getting a bad review, you need to fix it and think about how to encourage good reviews. No longer does the general public believe in ads--they believe in what is said on Facebook."

Brown is applying to his own consulting business the lessons he's learned from building Urbane Apartments' online brand. Under the Urbane Way umbrella, he works with small businesses looking to pursue digital marketing opportunities. In late 2009, Brown also joined real estate information content provider Network Communications as a social media strategist. He practices what he preaches: Urbane Apartments dropped all print advertising and premium online promotions years ago, and Brown isn't looking back.

"Internet marketing is what enabled us to compete on a level playing field," Brown maintains. "I'm not suggesting print advertising is dead, but sometimes there's no money for that. There are certainly lots of pay-per-click programs, but how many times do you click on ads on Google? Most people never do that. But you can still build your brand organically. Wherever we can expand our digital footprint, we will do it."

Chicago-based writer Jason Ankeny is the executive editor of Fiercemobile content, a daily electronic newsletter dedicated to mobile media, applications and marketing.

Although experts agree that an engaging online presence is a must for any business, a user-friendly website and compelling products and services aren't enough to distinguish your brand from the rest of the pack. "Getting your brand out there and setting yourself apart should be easy, but it's not," says Mary van de Wiel, CEO of branding and communication design consultancy Zing Your Brand. "You've got to be fearless, and you've got to live out loud--make yourself unmistakably unforgettable."

Here are some suggestions for making it happen:

Establish an identity. "If you can't work out what the unforgettable, differentiating spark is, you're a dead brand walking," Van de Wiel says. "It's a matter of working out what you want to do and working out the attitude of your brand. Your brand has a behavior and a tone. Brands like to show off and have fun. It wants to come out."

Be easy to find. "You want to make sure you're not invisible to search engines--that's why some people avoid all-Flash websites," says Mike Whaling, president of online branding consultancy 30 Lines. "Make sure you're represented in all the local directories. Go to GetListed.org, type in your business name and see where you come up on searches."

Steal good ideas and make them your own. "It's important to create a look and feel that represents your business in the best way, but not everyone has a design aesthetic, so you might need a little bit of help along the way," Van de Wiel says. "I recommend that people look around and see what speaks to them. If you can identify that, then track down the person who worked on that website. But be accountable, give the designer some benchmarks, and be clear about how you want to express your business."

Watch for opportunities. "Lots of people miss the boat in terms of call-to-action. Once you get people to your website, it's not always clear what you want them to do," says Nicholas Chilenko, principal of web design firm Nicholas Creative. "Make sure there's a clear path of motion through the site. The goal is to get customers to convert. Insert subtle cues throughout the copy, and give them some incentive to make that initial contact."

Remember other marketing channels. "Don't forget about basic digital tools--e-mail marketing still works," Whaling says. "E-mail can feature posts from your blog; repurpose content you're using elsewhere. Also, leverage your offline promotions to complement what you're doing online. For example, list your Yelp page on your business card and encourage customers to go there to let you know how you're doing."

Lighten up. "Some people are so intense about their brand, but it shouldn't be a struggle," Van de Wiel says. "We like people who are friendly and relaxed. So have fun." --J.A.
This e-mail was sent to the Dateline NBC producer of "America Now: City of Heartbreak and Hope," which aired on April 19, 2010.

After allowing time for the dust and tempers to settle, I want to express my disappointment with the Dateline piece on Detroit. The story told was one-sided, and failed to accurately reflect the other side of the story--and Detroit. For so many who look to outlets such as yours for information, they will yet again walk away with a misperception about the city and its people.

For the access and assistance given to your organization and staff to research this story, the outcome was disappointingly shallow. Media outlets come to the city and tell and then re-tell the same things--Auto epicenter, riots, white flight, desolation. Same story, different byline.

While we acknowledge our challenges, which mirror or even pale to those in other urban cities, we also recognize our potential and accomplishments. Nowhere did the story include those who are buying into and supporting the city's rebirth. No energy or excitement surrounding the Riverfront, Eastern Market, Tech Town, Avalon Bakery, Indian Village, the DIA, Campus Martius, and the list goes on and on.

We are not perfect, nor do we desire to be portrayed as such. But, we also find no value in being incorrectly painted as a city whose residents must resort to hunting racoons for food. It is this image that contributes to fueling decisions to not return, invest or remain in our city.

In all fairness, it would be great for Chris [Hansen] to return and tell the rest of the story--where people are not struggling on $200 every two weeks to feed their families, shooting racoons to eat, contributing to government corruption, or attending a struggling school system. This may be the reality for some of Detroit, but it is not the reality for all of Detroit.

Rounding out the story would prove that NBC's interests and efforts were not to simply gain ratings at the expense of the city, its residents and supporters. You showed the heartbreak...we'd like to see the hope.

Thank you.

Karen Dumas
Group Executive/Communications

Office of Mayor Dave Bing
City of Detroit

Detroit's TechTown Featured on CNN

Randal Charlton, Chanell Scott and Matt Cullen are interviewed by CNNMoney

Detroit Regional News Hub

Last month Detroit Unspun broke the news about a special benefit comedy event for food rescue organization Forgotten Harvest, featuring metro Detroit native Dave Coulier and local favorite Ken Brown of the Mitch Albom Show on WJR 760 AM.

Time is inching closer to the show, to be held  at 7 p.m. on May 15th at the Detroit Music Hall, and Coulier was kind enough to record a video invitation to the event himself!

Urban Land Institute

City’s “Jewel” Demonstrates Transformative Power of Public Realm

Detroit’s Campus Martius Park, a 2.5-acre thriving green space created from a  desolate downtown parcel, has received national recognition as the first-ever winner of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Amanda Burden Urban Open Space Award. The award for the park, unique in a city more often characterized by hardship than success, was based on a competition to recognize an outstanding example of a public open space that has catalyzed the transformation of the surrounding community.

The announcement was made today at ULI’s Real Estate Summit at the Spring Council Forum in Boston. Detroit’s park was chosen over finalists Bremen Street Park in Boston; Falls Park on the Reedy in Greenville, S.C.; Herald and Greeley Square Parks in New York City; Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle; and Schenley Plaza in Pittsburgh for the top honor.

Known as “Detroit’s Official Gathering Place,” Campus Martius Park is a vibrant central square that has become the heart of the city’s downtown redevelopment initiative. With extensive landscaping, moveable seating, and an ice skating rink, it serves as a much-needed recreational respite and an entertainment venue that is breathing new life into the area. The space attracts more than 2 million visitors year-round, and has catalyzed an estimated $700 million of adjacent development, including street level cafes, retail shops, and the new one-million-square-foot Compuware World Headquarters.

The selection of Campus Martius Park illustrates the power of well-designed open space to make a tangible difference in the quality of life in urban areas, said award creator Amanda M. Burden, chair of the New York City Planning Commission, director of the New York Department of City Planning, and 2009 laureate of the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. “This park has far exceeded all expectations, in terms of the lift it has provided to Detroit’s social and economic well-being,” Ms. Burden said.

“It reflects a creative, innovative approach to transforming an eyesore into a jewel. What makes Campus Martius Park work so well is that quite simply, it’s a place where people want to spend time. As a result, it’s a magnet for investment. That’s the definition of a successful urban open space.”

A $10,000 cash prize is being awarded to the Detroit 300 Conservancy, which originally developed the park as a legacy gift to the city. According to Detroit 300 Conservancy President Robert F. Gregory, the organization had unwavering faith in former Mayor Dennis Archer’s goal of building  “one of the best public spaces in the world” in Detroit. “We had great confidence that Mayor Dennis Archer’s original vision could, in fact, be achieved in Detroit. Our confidence was based on a number of critical factors including very strong community support, a model partnership between the City of Detroit and the private business and foundation community; outstanding civic leadership; a great planning team and a dedicated principle to apply best practice solutions in every facet of the design and operations of the Park. “

The park projects optimism, civic pride and hope, Ms. Burden said. “Campus Martius Park is making a difference in how people in Detroit feel about their city. All great planning comes down to the granular approach of how a building meets the street, how a street feels, how you feel walking in the city, and how it feels to be in public spaces and use public spaces that are inviting. Great cities are not about buildings. They are about people.”

The creation of the ULI Amanda Burden Open Space Award immediately followed the announcement in October 2009 of Ms. Burden being selected as the winner of the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize. The Nichols Prize, awarded annually by ULI, recognizes a person whose career demonstrates a commitment to the highest standards of responsible development. The Nichols prize includes a $100,000 honorarium, which, at Ms. Burden’s suggestion, ULI devoted to an annual competition honoring transformative and exciting public open spaces.

The six entries making the final round, including Campus Martius Park, were selected from 88 entries representing urban areas throughout the United States. The large number of applicants for the first competition is an “encouraging sign that an increasing number of cities are discovering the transformative power of the public realm,” Ms. Burden said.

The Urban Land Institute (www.uli.org) is a global nonprofit education and research institute supported by its members. Its mission is to provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide. Established in 1936, the Institute has nearly 33,000 members representing all aspects of land use and development disciplines.