The state is embracing the cold and rebranding itself as “The North.” But does this new identity represent everyone who lives in this historically Scandinavian region?
Photos: courtesy of Askov Finlayson; ognianm/iStock; Kritchanut/iStock
BY REID FORGRAVE
The population of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, increased this week by one million people as the Super Bowl comes to a cold-weather city for only the sixth time in its 52-year history. Minneapolis is the coldest of all cities with NFL teams. The average low temperature on February 4, the date of Super Bowl LII, is 9 degrees Fahrenheit–though in 1996 it dipped all the way down to a record minus-28. This year, the predicted low is -5, and that doesn’t even include the wind chill.
Those one million visitors–plus 100 million American television viewers–will watch the big game under the banner of an advertising campaign touting “The Bold North.” Instead of escaping to a balmy beach city, fans of America’s premier sporting event will go on full Arctic blast. It’s a winter-centric ad effort that might seem absurd and even a little too “Game of Thrones“-ey to the rest of the country.
But for many Minnesotans who have long felt mischaracterized by the rest of the nation, it seems perfect. When the region was awarded Super Bowl LII, many hardy Minnesotans were ready lean into the cold rather than pretend to ignore it–despite Minneapolis’s one other Super Bowl, in 1992, being best remembered for a much-mocked winter-themed halftime show that featured a “Do the Frosty” rap song. The reason? The state has been on a full-on campaign to embrace its wintry reputation as something to celebrate, rather than something to bemoan.
In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, the Twin Cities is also host to the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, a cross-country skiing festival, and a beloved annual winter carnival that features a 70-foot tall ice palace. It’s all happening under the banner of an actively promoted identity, “The North,” which led to the state’s “The Bold North” advertising campaign around Super Bowl LII. Instead of apologizing to outsiders for their frighteningly cold winters, Minnesotans are bragging about how their climate creates hardy folk. Instead of telling the coasts that their state is a really nice place to visit in the summer, Minnesotans are hoping that wintry pursuits like ice-fishing, snowmobiling, and drinking at chic outdoor ice bars will hold an exotic appeal for people who more commonly dream of winter escapes in the Caribbean.
The movement that helped define this cold region’s suddenly cool identity started with a pretty clichéd garment, one that’s almost standard-issue for anyone hoping to survive a brutal Minnesota winter: a block-lettered, knitted winter beanie.
A LOCAL DYNASTY
After getting his MBA from Stanford, Eric Dayton moved back home to the Twin Cities. In 2011, he and his brother, Andrew, opened two Scandinavian-themed businesses in a transitioning warehouse neighborhood adjacent to downtown Minneapolis: A Nordic-inspired restaurant called The Bachelor Farmer and a boutique clothier specializing in outdoor wear. They called the latter Askov Finlayson after two neighboring towns whose Scandinavian-sounding names grace the Exit 195 sign on Interstate 35 between Minneapolis and Duluth. The name felt, to Dayton, perfectly Minnesotan, conjuring memories of his family’s trips to their cabin up north.
This family isn’t just a regular Minnesota family. Eric Dayton’s great-great-grandfather, George Dayton, opened Dayton’s department store in downtown Minneapolis more than a century ago. The store became a Minnesota institution and led the family to open the first Target store in 1962. Target, of course, has since grown into the second-largest discount retail chain in the United States, right after Walmart. Eric Dayton’s family is one of the most prominent in the state; his father, Mark Dayton, is a former U.S. Senator and the current governor of Minnesota.
As Eric Dayton attended Williams College in Massachusetts, studied abroad in Paris, and pursued graduate school at Stanford, he noticed some things about the way the rest of the world viewed Minnesota: The first thought was always, “those awful winters!” Next came the hokey accents from the movie “Fargo.” Worse still were the people who paid Minnesota no regard at all.
Dayton hated all of that. He saw Minnesota’s winters as a boon: Cold winters produce interesting people; cold winters engender hard work and perseverance. As the Silicon Valley saying goes, creativity comes from constraint, and what’s more constraining than a five-month winter? The constraint of using only seasonal, regional ingredients defines the New Nordic cuisine that has influenced fine dining over the past decade. Those difficult Minnesota winters are what spurred the creation of the world’s largest continuous skyway system, which connects buildings in downtown Minneapolis–cumulatively stretching 11 miles and connecting 80 city blocks. Conquering hard conditions confers a sense of achievement. That’s the feeling you get when you reach the end of a long Minnesota winter: that you beat something that tested your spirit.
“There’s this emotional rhythm people have begun to understand, that you feel different in different seasons and that’s OK,” says R.T. Rybak, a former Minneapolis mayor. “There’s something more to winter. It’s about thinking and reflecting and resetting who you are and then going back out into the world.”
But “The North” is not just an existential exercise. There are important economic reasons to recast the state as a more desirable place to live. For one thing, the state faces a very real talent shortage in the workforce. The Super Bowl, its “The Bold North” branding, and the area’s Scandinavian-style chic are all a serious opportunity to showcase everything the state has to offer prospective residents.
BIRTH OF A REGION
Dayton and his brother, who run their businesses under the umbrella of their company, North Corp, had no idea if their notion of branding the state as The North would resonate with other Minnesotans. To Dayton, “Midwest” and “Upper Midwest” had always felt cheap and inauthentic, as if the East and West Coasts were defining his region. “Midwest” sounded like a giant, identity-less blob. Dayton found it almost as insulting as “Flyover Country.”
“Whenever you say that you’re from Minnesota and you’re also from the Midwest, it never quite sounds right,” says Jim Moore, the longtime creative director at GQ magazine and a native Minnesotan. “It never quite feels like the Midwest. People in Ohio, Indiana, Missouri call themselves Midwest. How can you be this far north and also call yourself Midwest?”
But every other cardinal direction seemed to already have an American identity attached to it, a broad-sweeping generality that played to each region’s rose-colored vision of itself. The East connotes fast-paced big-city living. The South is genteel and tradition-bound. The West is about the frontier, the excitement of newness and discovery. But The North? It’s just cold. Or it’s Canada. So the Dayton brothers ordered 150 beanies stitched with the word “NORTH” and displayed them in their store. The hats sold out in four days.
“It wasn’t like we were explaining this to [customers] or trying to push it on them or sell them on it,” Dayton told me on a recent–and bitterly cold–Minneapolis day. “People would literally walk in, look down, and say, ‘Yep, I get it, The North. I’ll never call it the Midwest again. I’m getting four hats,’” Dayton claims.
All this sounds well and quaint, a couple of entrepreneurs making a few bucks off a little regional branding project. Except at the same time the idea of The North happened to be taking root in the state formerly known as Midwestern Minnesota, Scandinavian-themed businesses were opening up all over the state: an acclaimed Swedish restaurant at the American Swedish Institute, a Minneapolis cocktail room called the Norseman Distillery, and a distillery in Duluth called Vikre Distillery that makes the Scandinavian spirit aquavit. The Minnesota Orchestra won a Grammy for a raucous performance of two symphonies by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, works that helped give Finland its national identity. Even the region’s newspaper of record, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, began referring to the region as The North. It turned out one company’s branding campaign had catalyzed an actual identity movement, one deeply connected to the state’s large, ethnically Scandinavian population.
The Minnesota Vikings football team saw this organic movement and joined in. In 2015, just before the team was about to move into a new downtown stadium–which is shaped like a Viking ship–the team’s marketing department tested the slogan “Defend the North” at a game. Fans responded in a visceral, positive way.
Meanwhile, Vikings executives noticed that Iceland had united over its soccer team during the 2016 European Championships, and had pioneered the Viking War Chant: to the quickening beat of a drum, Icelandic soccer fans clapped their hands above their heads and shouted in unison. So the Minnesota Vikings called the Icelandic Vikings and asked for their blessing to use the chant. Two famous Icelanders, the captain of the soccer team and the actor who plays “The Mountain” in “Game of Thrones,” appeared in a video shown at the stadium that introduced Viking fans to the new tradition they call the Skol Chant.
This branding attempts to be inclusive by defining “The North” as a mentality that represents this geographic location: strength, resiliency, perseverance. But perhaps inadvertently, the branding effort channels, well, whiteness–Scandinavia and Paul Bunyan and the like–to the exclusion of Minnesota’s growing immigrant population. The state is home to the nation’s largest Somali population and second-largest Hmong population. While there is truth to the fact that Scandinavian countries, specifically Sweden, have long been (like Minnesota) relatively welcoming of refugees, “The North” may not quite represent everyone who lives in the state.
“Is the branding just meant to portray these traits of the North, like toughness and resiliency, but also openness?,” questions Dee Sabol, executive director of the Diversity Council in Rochester, MN, home to the Mayo Clinic.
“Maybe to the dominant culture in Minnesota, that’s what it does portray,” Sabol says. “But those concepts and tying those concepts together with this Scandinavian imagery, that’s not something that people from other cultures will understand. We’re ignoring our diversity a lot in the way we present ourselves and talk about ourselves.”
Dayton agrees that the state still has a ways to go when it comes to cultural inclusivity, particularly when it comes to the state’s outdoor winter traditions. Askov Finlayson has made this more than just a corporate sentiment: the company donated $100,000 to the Minneapolis-based Loppet Foundation to connect youth in culturally diverse north Minneapolis to cross-country skiing opportunities. In addition, Askov Finlayson has partnered with Target to benefit 1,000 underserved youth through a local nonprofit called Wilderness Inquiry.
“It’s so important that everyone is able to see themselves in The North and that it represents our true diversity,” Dayton told Fast Company in statement. “But we aren’t seeing equality in access to the outdoors and the opportunity to participate in our winter traditions. We’re working hard to change that. I see inclusivity as a core value.”
COLD AND PROUD
Minnesotans have always had a reputation for being outdoorsy, hardy folk–but they have at times, especially in the Twin Cities, run from that image. There was a time when Minnesota tried very hard to pretend to be something it’s not. Minneapolis used to brand itself as “The Mini Apple.” Few of the city’s restaurants embraced the cold or its Scandinavian history; they would advertise themselves as Chicago steakhouses or Vegas nightclubs. Calling itself “The North” represented a departure from that inferiority complex. As a branding project, The North was noticed by Madison Avenue executives as a simple and authentic connection. It wasn’t just a cardinal direction; it was both a statement of a region’s historical identity and an invitation to outsiders to participate in something that’s rugged and off the beaten path.
“Eric saw this undefined identity for Minnesota,” says Todd Waterbury, the New York-based chief creative officer for Target. “He saw potential in the cold.”
With all the branding’s emphasis on the virtues of Minnesota’s cold climate, you might note the irony that “The Bold North” Super Bowl will be played in an indoor, climate-controlled environment. (The only cold-weather Super Bowl ever held in an outdoor stadium was in 2014 at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.) Minnesotans might brag about their ability to survive long, brutal winters, but downtown buildings in the Twin Cities are connected by those heated skywalks, heated cables help remove snow and ice from roofs, and remote starters make locals’ cars warm and cozy before they even walk out of their houses. This is modern America, not Winterfell.
But the cold matters to Dayton in ways that go beyond his invented branding. A central value of Dayton’s philosophy about The North is something he learned when he went on his first canoe trip in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters at age 10: “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” The state’s environmentalist bent is a big part of its identity; a recent study ranked Minnesota second nationally in environmental quality, after Vermont. So Dayton pledged that his company would aspire to be like visitors to the Boundary Waters and leave no trace.
His company has for a couple of years run a modest corporate giving program called “Keep the North Cold” that focuses on climate change. This month, Dayton announced a company-wide restructuring centered on its climate mission. The company will measure the carbon footprint of its operations and supply chain, determine its environmental impact, and give away 110% of that number annually to organizations addressing climate change.
The model was conceived by Dayton and Adam Fetcher, a native Minnesotan who was press secretary for the U.S. Department of the Interior under President Obama (and who recently proposed to his girlfriend while on a dog-sledding trip in the Boundary Waters). The hope is that it inspires a new model for the clothing industry to tie contributions directly to climate change. To kick things off, Askov Finlayson is pledging to give at least $1 million to climate action organizations over the next five years.
The night after Fetcher proposed to his girlfriend last winter, he decided to sleep on a frozen lake, in a sleeping bag but without a tent. The temperature got down to minus-7 that night.
“Waking up that morning was the best experience of my entire life,” he says. He draws a difference between two types of fun: easy fun, like when you go to the beach, play some volleyball, and instantly feel relaxed and happy. The other type of fun is more challenging. It’s not always instantly enjoyable, but once you fight through the challenges “it touches your soul in a way that is so much more meaningful,” he says.
When outsiders tell Fetcher how awful those Minnesota winters must be, he tries to refocus their feelings.
“You have a choice in that moment: ‘Yeah, you’re right, it’s brutal,’” he says. “Or you can stand up for where you’re from and say it’s those cold winters that make me who I am. It’s a mind-set about embracing challenges and becoming better for it. And that’s what we see as the future