Lessons From North Dakota

It’s flat, it’s cold and filled with lots of marketing wisdom.

In northern Michigan we take great pride in the fact that we are a hearty lot.  We scoff at bitter winters.  And laugh at blizzards.  But I’m going out on a limb to say that you’ve never really experienced winter, if you never experienced it in North Dakota. I’ve been there in January and still get the shivers thinking about it.   Think of daytime highs that never got above -15° for the air temperature.  But the real temperature, the wind chill, never got above -30°.  

The people who live in North Dakota give “hearty lot” a whole new definition.  I worked for about three years in Grand Forks on a great project with another car dealership group.  Through my time working with the Rydell Auto Group, I learned many marketing lessons that I carry on today.

Bud Solem, Fluid Motion Productions, captures the rural side of truck production in North Dakota.

Rydell was a company with about 80 dealerships, but they were based in Grand Forks.  They asked me to help them with the marketing of just the Grand Forks dealerships.  

I felt I knew something about the company because they were very similar to the Bill Marsh Group where I worked.  Rydell was third-generation, family-owned, highly respected in the industry, a non-negotiating car dealership, a clearly defined culture that revolved around a solid mission and value statement – all just like Bill Marsh.

I still needed to know more, but what I really needed to know was about the community.  I knew Grand Forks was cold in the winter (although I didn’t know it was -30° cold).  But I knew nothing about Grand Forks other than it was flat.  When I travelled to the region, I met with every media outlet that I could.  I wanted to know their business, but what I really needed to know was: Grand Forks.  I needed to be a sponge.  They were in the Red River Valley (which is the only US river that flows north to Canada.) They have strong pride in the Sioux tribe.  

Sioux warrior Sitting Bull is honored at the University of North Dakota campus.

They have some of the most fertile farmland in the country.  It’s home to the University of North Dakota.  It’s population for the state is roughly the size of the city of Detroit.

So why did I care? How did that impact marketing and advertising?  Let me show just a few examples:

  • Rich farmland = rich farmers: these are farmers that can afford $80,000 GMC Denali trucks.  And come the end of the year, they are looking for tax write offs.
    • Red River Valley: In 1997 there was a major flood along the Red River that nearly destroyed the entire downtown. Although the dealership was a long way from the river, since the area is flat, the floodwater severely damaged the dealership.  The flood still has a major impact on the terrain of the area.
    • The University of North Dakota means everything to the community.  Where does the town go in the middle of the sub-zero temperatures?  They go to watch hockey at the Ralph Engelstad Arena.  It was the home of the Fighting Sioux, until the NCAA made them change the name.  But the arena was intentionally built with the Fighting Sioux logos embedded into it so those logos could not be removed.  It is an amazing facility that would be the pride of any community.
    • And yes, the entire state has a small population.  As a result of that, the dealership needed to dominate the competition to get more than their fair share of the business – and they did exactly that.
The Ralph Engelstad Arena is the pride and joy of Grand Forks.

Here’s my point: when I went into Grand Forks, had I just looked at the demographics and the numbers presented to me with Nielson ratings, or newspaper distribution numbers – I would have missed the important things.  I would have missed the real opportunities to market to the community.

Many ad agencies use a cookie cutter approach to their marketing.  The theory is that it worked in Paducah, it worked in Poughkeepsie – well it will work in Grand Forks.   Don’t believe that for a minute.

In northern Michigan the average age here is higher than the national average.  We have rural communities.  It’s very conservative with a few liberal pockets. If you don’t know the community – you don’t know how to market to that community.

You need to not only know your customers – you need to know what drives the community.  Once you know that, your advertising and your marketing will be much easier, and much more on the mark. Ask yourself, do you really know your community? Can you know more? Do your people appreciate what makes your community unique? If you have an ad agency, do they know your community? If they don’t, start feeding them some information and make sure they act like sponges – they need to soak it all in.

The more you know about the community, the more you get to enjoy special events – like taking in a UND hockey game. It really is a blast.

UND Hockey is the hottest ticket in town.
  • Patrick Kryzsko

    Thank you for the great feedback from what you learned about my hometown. I haven’t lived there full time since 1984 when I graduated highschool and went into the Army, but I stay as closely glued to the community as possible. I live in Missouri now and what we have back in Grand Forks is a kin to Cardinal Nation and Michigan football. Michigan was the first team to play the brand new Fighting Sioux hockey team way back when and today, we are one National Championship behind their 9.

    Go Wolverines and Go Sioux!

    1. mike

      Patrick, you put a smile on my face. I understand why you still have a connection to ND. While the temperature was cold (and in all fairness, the cold went away…usually by July or August) I found the people amazingly warm and welcoming. For me it was a fantastic experience that taught me more than marketing lessons. It taught me life lessons about searching for people you want to help succeed and working with them…not with people you would be ashamed to work with. I have huge respect for the entire Rydell organization and valued the opportunity to help them. But that is a blog posting for another time. I didn’t know about the history of the Wolverines and the Fighting Sioux – thanks for sharing that.

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