They called it "Grapegate."
The brouhaha started when The New York Times named grape salad as a Thanksgiving staple in Minnesota, setting off a social media firestorm. One letter to the editor summed up the outrage: "Dear New York Times: What the hell is 'grape salad'? Signed, All of Minnesota."
The dish pick, part of a state-by-state Thanksgiving food feature a few years ago, not only missed the mark—the consensus here is that wild rice is the better choice—but exemplified a problem Minnesotans have dealt with for decades: being mislabeled and misunderstood by outsiders.
Sure, the winters are frigid, one of the top tourist attractions is the Mall of America and the movie "Fargo" was set in the state ... dontcha know. But its largest city, Minneapolis, anchors a thriving, progressive region brimming with excellent music, food and theater. The area is also home base for 18 Fortune 500 companies, including Target, Best Buy, 3M, UnitedHealth Group and General Mills, which help fuel a booming agency scene.
"This is just a wide-open adventure land," says Jeff Kling, chief creative officer at Minneapolis-based Fallon. "People think of it as a flyover city. But it's a secret city. What's here is not known to the outside world, and people don't like to be challenged in their ever-calcifying worldview."
But like a pick through ice, Minneapolis leaders are starting to chip away at the worn-out stereotypes that once defined this place while also embracing its cold-weather heritage. The stakes are high because a global audience will be tuning in as the city prepares to host Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4. The game will be played in the warm confines of the roofed U.S. Bank Stadium, but events leading up to the game will focus on the outdoors. The slate includes the Great Northern, an 11-day event featuring the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships and a ski festival that's sure to attract notice from the more than 5,000 media members expected in town for the game. Super Bowl visitors can also zipline across the Mississippi River, taking in views of the Minneapolis skyline.
The Great Northern—and its rallying cry, "Raise a mitten if you're in"—is the brainchild of Eric Dayton, son of Gov. Mark Dayton and a local entrepreneur who has emerged as a cold-weather evangelist. He's pushing the state to embrace, not run from, its lengthy frigid winters as he spearheads a move to separate the region from the rest of the Midwest by rebranding it the "North." (See sidebar.)
For local agencies, Minneapolis' image matters because the competition to lure talent can be fierce.
"There's a lot of competition. The shops around here keep you at your best," says Jörg Pierach, founder of independent PR and creative agency Fast Horse, whose clients include Coca-Cola Co. and Heineken USA. "That said, the competition for talent is ferocious. What's difficult about it is people don't generally move to Minneapolis. So we have to really focus on growing our own and retaining people."
Agency holding companies have a sizable, but not dominant presence. Omnicom's BBDO has an office here that services its long-running relationship with Spam and Skippy maker Hormel, based 100 miles south in rural Austin, Minnesota. Publicis Groupe owns Fallon, and Interpublic has Carmichael Lynch, while MDC Partners has a stable of shops in town, including Mono, Colle McVoy and Yamamoto. One of the biggest Minneapolis agencies is Olson, which was rebranded as ICF Olson after it was acquired in 2014 by Washington D.C.-area consultancy ICF International. Still, there's room for independents to thrive, including Periscope, Fast Horse, Space150 and Zeus Jones.
What often happens, according to multiple agency executives, is that Minneapolis natives get their first agency job here and then bolt for the coasts, only to return later in their careers. It's a boomerang effect.
Some outsiders admit to being nervous when moving here, but the city has a tendency to win them over. "I wasn't sure about Minneapolis," says Target Chief Marketing Officer Rick Gomez, who came from Chicago-based MillerCoors in 2013. But "it's a lot more sophisticated a city than you would think given its size."
It's hard to ignore the advantages. Commutes are easy: A common refrain is that everything is 15 minutes away. It has a variety of music, theater and arts venues. Prince is from here, after all, a point of pride celebrated all over town, including at the iconic First Avenue music venue where the legend filmed "Purple Rain." If you don't like cold weather, you can easily avoid it: Downtown Minneapolis is connected by pedestrian skyways that connect building after building and span eight miles.
Top executives at several agencies, including ICF Olson, Periscope, Carmichael Lynch, Colle McVoy and Yamamoto, are women. "There's a part of Midwestern culture that is based on effort and merit. It is a little less splashy and a little more humble," says Louise Clements, who leads ICF Olson. That makes it a "terrific breeding ground" for women executives, she adds. "It's more about what you do than who you know in markets like Minneapolis."
The fact that rural areas are a quick drive away helps agencies as well, says Liz Ross, president and CEO of Periscope, whose clients include Target and Best Buy. "You are able to get a real bead on how people are buying things outside of cities," says Ross, who has also lived in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. "So you don't have the same disconnect as you have in some of the major cities, [like] being surprised that Trump won."
Minneapolis is less diverse than its big-city neighbor to the south, Chicago. Minneapolis, population 413,645, is 61 percent white, 18 percent black and 9 percent Hispanic, according to Census Reporter. Chicago, population 2.7 million, is 33 percent white, 29 percent black and 30 percent Hispanic. That can make recruiting diverse candidates challenging. But the region's agency and marketing leaders are tackling the issue with a diversity program called BrandLab that connects Minneapolis marketers and agencies with low-income high schools.
Minneapolis also has a youthful spirit. The city skews a bit younger than Chicago with a median age of 32, compared with 34, according to Census Reporter. (The U.S. median age is nearly 38.)
When the city shows itself off to the world during Super Bowl week, two 20-somethings will take a leading role: Emily Pritchard and Martha McCarthy, whose social media agency, the Social Lights, was chosen by the Super Bowl host committee to oversee a 70-person war room aimed at educating visitors about the region. Pritchard, 29, and McCarthy, 28, founded the agency in 2011 during their final semester studying entrepreneurship at University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities.
The war room will be charged with spreading information about logistics and, yes, the weather. The Super Bowl's slogan is "Bold North."
"We're leaning into the winter," Pritchard says. But it's safe to say grape salad won't be on the social media menu.