Does state make $8.33 for every $1 spent on Pure Michigan campaign?

The Pure Michigan slogan is everywhere — on license plates, freeway signs, billboards, clothing and social media. It’s a brand as synonymous with Michigan as Vernors and Kellogg’s. Its ads, featuring sweeping panoramic views of lakes and trees and the voice of Detroit-raised actor Tim Allen, have even inspired parody videos.

But Pure Michigan as we know it today almost didn’t exist.

The advertising agency hired to develop the campaign initially pitched the slogan “Find Your True North.” Travel Michigan, the state’s tourism division, rejected the idea because they thought it might send the message to visitors that the state favored its northern destinations. After brainstorming words like “water” and “purity,” the agency, McCann Detroit, came up with “Pure Michigan.”

As it enters its second decade, the campaign has become a flashpoint for critics who say its success is evaluated based on flawed assumptions about its return on investment. Bridge Magazine found it impossible to independently assess Pure Michigan’s ROI, since neither the state nor the company hired to produce the data would provide direct access to the methodology.

Where Michigan Tourism Stands Today

Michigan’s tourism economy as measured by Gross State Product – including arts, recreation, hotel accommodations and restaurants and bars – was approximately $14.2 billion in 2016, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. That’s up $1.8 billion (or 15 percent) from the low point of the Great Recession in 2010.

The tourism industry reported to Bridge Magazine a brisk 2017, including increases in hotel occupancy and average daily rates, meetings and conventions, leisure travel, state park campground use, and Mackinac Bridge crossings.

The Pure Michigan Controversy

Pure Michigan has an annual budget of $35 million, only part of which goes to the TV and radio ads. The Michigan Economic Development Corp. has adopted the slogan for use in its business attraction marketing.

The state hired Toronto-based Longwoods International to evaluate the Pure Michigan campaign, including its return on investment. Longwoods’ research found that the ads were responsible for generating millions of trips and more than $1 billion in visitor spending in 2016. The company’s analysis said state spending of $12.9 million on Pure Michigan advertising in 2016 led to $107.3 million in new state tax revenue, or $8.33 for every dollar spent.

But neither Longwoods nor Travel Michigan would release full access to how the company calculates ROI; the company said its methodology is proprietary.

Related coverage from our 2018 Michigan Issue Guide

    Travel Michigan said the company asked visitors if they saw a Pure Michigan ad and whether it prompted their trip. The company controlled for “internal and external factors,” but those factors were not disclosed. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, to independently verify the results.

    The Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank, has criticized the state and Longwoods for the ROI findings. The Mackinac Center claims the figures are too high to be believable, and the MEDC — which houses Travel Michigan — has a conflict of interest in seeking the data because it manages the program being studied and would have an incentive to want positive results.

    Travel Michigan in 2017 parted ways with Longwoods and signed a new deal with Indianapolis-based Strategic Marketing and Research Insights. The state said the change was more about gaining new marketing insights on the campaign and less about the ROI criticism.

    In addition, concerns about the brand’s viability were raised after the lead-poisoning water crisis in Flint, given Michigan’s image as home to pristine freshwaters.

    What’s the future of Pure Michigan?

    Travel Michigan leaders say the Pure Michigan campaign will have to adapt as the tourism industry adjusts to the ways technology is disrupting where vacationers stay and how they plan their trips, specifically among millennials and users of the sharing economy. And the state is using more digital and social media marketing in the campaign. But there are no immediate plans to end or change the award-winning advertisements.


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    Tue, 01/23/2018 - 9:35am

    How is it possible that MEDC can deny a FOIA request for documents about Pure Michigan? The propriety exemption is not self-executing, and the issue is definitely worth pursuing through a FOIA request and appeals and litigation if necessary. While I believe Pure Michigan has been a good investment, it is ultimately up to the legislature and citizens to have the information they need to make that determination.

    Kevin Grand
    Tue, 01/23/2018 - 12:23pm

    I'll do you one better, Lee.

    If the ROI is a high as the proponents of "Pure Michigan" are telling everyone (and $35-million is public money so low), then I see absolutely no reason why the Michigan Chamber of Commerce should not be responsible for picking up the entire tab for this program, and leave the general fund alone.

    The can tack in onto a surcharge for it's members, while touting how much more money the program will bring in if the businesses directly benefiting from it would just kick in a little more.

    Let's see if they're willing to practice what they preach.

    T. R. Shaw
    Fri, 01/26/2018 - 10:50pm

    Irregardless of the actual and exact ROI, there is no doubt the Pure Michigan campaign has increased Michiganders self-image or our state and become a point of pride. It has created an identity and visceral feeling about our state we didn't have at a time we needed it, and constantly reminds us how great Michigan really is. There is no way to calculate the intangible impact it has had on the psyche of everyone in Michigan.

    chester marx
    Sun, 06/17/2018 - 3:15pm

    Find the ads too saccharine.

    Tue, 06/18/2019 - 1:58am

    My single biggest objection to this MDEC campaign is that the name on my license plate should only be Michigan in classy, bold block letters, not slanted wimpy "Pure Michigan" script. I don't care if they put Pure Michigan in advertisement, but I'm proud of the name of this territory as it was originally admitted into the Union in 1837 as the state of MICHIGAN, not "Pure Michigan". Get this non-voter approved advertising off of my license plate!
    (and yes, I'd say the same thing about, Scenic Idaho, and Explore Minnesota. These are NOT the names of the states and they all make it harder to know what state the vehicle is from as compared to New York, Alaska, Colorado, etc.