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Superior pitch: Small companies harness North Shore’s branding power

Jan 29, 2019 05:48AM ● By Editor

Ethan Casady, owner of NorShore Clothing Co., in his Two Harbors store.  MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

By Gregg Aamot of - January 28, 2019

A few years ago, when Ethan and Amanda Casady visited the State Fair, they marveled at all of the Minnesota-themed merchandise for sale: baseball caps with “Sota” stitched across the front; T-shirts emblazoned with an image of the state; coffee mugs depicting scenes from the fair.

“I saw what a grasp that had on people – to have that Minnesota-themed logo on their shirt or hat,” Ethan Casady said. It made an impression, and he wondered whether people would be interested in shirts and hats that reflected the unique place where he lived and worked – along the North Shore of Lake Superior.

Casady, who runs a landscaping and snowplowing business, began to design some logos in his spare time – mostly sketches inspired by the deep-woods landscape all around him. Just for fun, he had the Duluth printer that makes apparel for his business put the images on some shirts and hats and told his friends about them on Facebook. When some orders started coming in, NorShore Clothing Co. was born.

Last summer, Casady opened a small store in Two Harbors — a tourist town on the shores of Lake Superior, about 25 miles northeast of Duluth — in the hopes of broadening his reach. Among the items in his shop: long-sleeve T-shirts with “NorShore Clothing Co. 61” printed across the front (in honor of the famous highway); coffee mugs that say “NorShore Clothing Co.”; baseball caps marked with the silhouette of Lake Superior. For good measure, he also sells locally made jewelry and jam, along with six packs of designer pop shipped from Spring Grove, near his hometown of Grand Meadow.

To be sure, NorShore is a side gig for Casady, who was plowing snow in the area on the morning we met in Two Harbors. But he believes in the emotional power of this region – in its ability to create strong bonds with people. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have bothered opening his shop here.

A NorShore Clothing Co coffee mug
A NorShore Clothing Co. coffee mug.  MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

Other businesses seem to think so, too. A few blocks away, for instance, the upstart craft brewer Castle Danger Brewery makes an array of beers “with Lake Superior water by hearty souls that embody the North Shore,” as its website puts it.

“Not everyone wants to drink the same beer, and not everyone wants to wear the same shirt,” Casady explained. “People are looking to set themselves apart – people are more mindful of local economies, more personalized.”

Lake Superior’s enduring appeal

In preparation for last February’s Super Bowl, held at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Twin Cities boosters pushed a “Bold North” theme that advertised the state’s hearty embrace of winter. In recent years, the Dayton brothers, Andrew and Eric, sons of the former governor, have stressed the “North” in their products, such as the clothing sold at Askov Finlayson, their men’s boutique whose website declares, “We don’t endure winter. We embrace it. Welcome to the North.”

Here on the North Shore, some small outlets have refined that statewide theme into a regional one that celebrates not only the North, broadly, but the North of the deep woods and, of course, the biggest of the Great Lakes. Among those businesses are a handful of apparel companies, like NorShore Clothing, that have emerged in recent years.

DLH Clothing, for instance, opened in 2014 in Duluth and follows a mission statement that “celebrates the lifestyle and culture of North Shore living.” One T-shirt design includes a street map of Duluth. The company, run by Duluth residents Michael Smisek and Sarah Herrick-Smisek, sells its merchandise online and also at a half-dozen Duluth stores. Also in Duluth, in the city’s Canal Park, Flagship – the retail outlet for the Duluth Screen Printing Co. – employs local artists to create north-inspired designs for screen-printed T-shirts and other merchandise.

North 61, meanwhile, sells adventure gear, saying it is “inspired by Minnesota’s North Shore” and imploring its customers to “breathe the energy of the North,” according to its website. And Sota Clothing Co., started by University of Minnesota-Duluth graduates, notes that it seeks to provide its customers with designs “that humbly boast their hard-earned Minnesota roots.” One of Sota Clothing’s hooded sweatshirt designs includes crossed canoe paddles, the abbreviation “MN” and an image of the state. (North 61 and Sota Clothing have Twin Cities headquarters).

Such micro-branding efforts have roots in what marketers call “place branding” – efforts by regions or states to create a unique sense of place.

Julia Van Etten, a marketing expert at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, said the Bold North campaign gained traction because it doubled down on what was thought to be a Minnesota deficit: the dark, cold winters. Instead of apologizing for the climate, she said, Minnesotans “owned it.”

To read more on this story and related reporting, follow this link to the website.

This report was made possible by a grant from the Otto Bremer Trust. MinnPost’s donors, foundation funders, and corporate sponsors support our work in the belief that promoting greater civic engagement and informed discourse is the surest path to a better Minnesota. They play no role in guiding the journalism produced by MinnPost.

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