MINNEAPOLIS – Barely bundled up, Eric Dayton takes a short stroll between the North Loop businesses he owns with his brother, the Bachelor Farmer restaurant, Marvel Bar, and the Askov Finlayson men’s store, taking in the 18 degree February morning.
“It's a nice day, snow on the ground, this is quintessential Minnesota,” he proclaimed.
On this block of Minneapolis, his love of his native state sparked what’s become a national conversation. It all started with a made-in-Minnesota winter stocking cap Dayton and his brother Andrew began selling three years ago, knit with the single word, “North.”
“They continue to be a very popular item, we've sold now thousands of these hats,” said Dayton. “We get people sending photos of these hats from all over the world. Usually people come and say, hey, I love the idea of the North, how do I get involved?”
The hats sparked a grassroots North movement, even the hashtag #TeamNorth, and a debate over Minnesota’s identity. Is Minnesota part of the Midwest or are we in the North? Does calling the region North better define Minnesota’s culture? Dayton makes a case for changing minds, calling Minnesota America’s North.
“It’s simple geography. Some people trying to refer to this as a rebranding effort or marketing, and to me, we are not trying to make something up here, this is the North. We have the East Coast, South, West, where is the North? Right here all along,” said Dayton.
Dayton simply wants the rest of the country to know Minnesota offers more than frostbite. He's quick to stress the North movement isn't anti-Midwest, just pro-Minnesota, as he tries to flip the script on cold hearted criticism of our state. His main message: stop apologizing for Minnesota’s cold winters and embrace it instead.
“Let's treat it like an asset and show people why our winters are great what they do when they live here this time of year,” he said.
In his recent TedxMinneapolis talk, “Stepping into the Punch: Claiming Our Identity as America’s North”, Dayton detailed what happens when Minnesotans hesitate to tell their own story and other regions offer their own definitions, using the example of the New York Times article on Thanksgiving side dishes by state.
“They proclaimed Minnesota’s favorite traditional side dish to be Grape Salad,” he told a roaring crowd.
“It hasn’t frankly been that flattering and hasn’t been accurate, so this is about let’s take control of the narrative here, tell our own story,” said Dayton.
“The Midwest was everything left over and lumped together and written off. There are some distinct regions within this big nebulous Midwest blob that existed. We are one of them. Let’s tell people what that is about. We just had the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, the Loppet, the Winter Carnival, Crashed Ice. These are great examples of Minnesota and the North and our winter at its finest, and that's a story we need to tell,” he added.
Dayton is also putting more focus on a growing campaign, to “Keep the North Cold.” He’s partnered with family friend and legendary polar explorer Will Steger to give proceeds of every North product sold to benefit Steger’s nonprofit organization, Climate Generation, which focuses on educating students about climate change.
“In the first few months, we raised $10,000 for Climate Generation, and this is something we see continuing forever. This is an important part of our identity, our state, or heritage, I just took my son this past weekend to skating outdoors. I want to make sure he can do that with his son and so on and so on, so we don’t lose that,” said Dayton.
The North story will gain more momentum come February 2018 when the narrative is told on a super stage. The Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee will elevate the North through the NFL's platform when Super Bowl LII comes to Minneapolis and the rest of the country will be welcomed to the “Bold North.”
“It resonated with everyone, we won the bid based on our bold new stadium. We said, well, let’s have a “Bold North” Super Bowl. Let’s design it for the cold but make it bold,” said Maureen Bausch, Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee Chief Executive Officer.
Bausch leads the charge, wanting fans to also see the warmth of the people.
“Movies haven’t really been our friend,” Bausch said, pointing to the Hollywood depiction of Minnesota. “We are a lot more than that. The cuisine in this market, the theater, the arts and entertainment, Minnesota music. I mean let's showcase it.”
Exactly what Paul DeBettignies from Minneapolis works toward everyday as an IT, tech and HR recruiter. He’s widely known online as Minnesota Headhunter and constantly fields one constant question from potential job candidates.
“A lot of times the first question, is how cold is it there? Second question is no really, how cold is it there?” said DeBettignies. “We have this Midwest passive aggressive Minnesota Nice thing. We don't like to promote ourselves which is not serving us well.”
He worries calling Minnesota the "North” furthers a frigid stereotype. Minnesota born and raised, he sympathizes when candidates search for sunnier states.
“The idea that we were going to brand ourselves in a way that would make it sound like we do hug snowmen and live in igloos year round frustrated me,” said DeBettignies.
DeBettignies hopes the "North" conversation will lead in a broader direction, showcasing Minnesota’s four seasons and list of attributes to better attract and retain talent, especially to fuel innovation and lure more tech startup companies to the region.
“Not everyone wants to live where it's 3 above, they just don't. If I can show them what a Minnesota summer is like we are only going to embrace the North. We need to be able to tell the whole picture. Not everybody wants to go to the Boundary Waters. Some people hate mosquitoes and humidity, right, but they can stay in town on the weekend at Minnehaha Falls. We need to be able to paint that picture, not just a notion,” said DeBettignies. “I don’t care how we get there, wherever there is, as long as we are talking about who we are, what we are doing and doing it in a positive light.”
Dayton is convinced the cold is Minnesota's economic edge, bringing growth and opportunity.
“Being in a place that is cold, that presents some challenges, creates a work ethic here, that I would consider a defining characteristic. I think it leads to creativity, there is a strong correlation between creativity comes out of constraints and limited resources,” said Dayton.
Dayton’s dream is for North to be used as naturally in Minnesota conversation as "you betcha!"
“I want to see the CNN weather person, pointing to the map, saying here in the North, it just becomes part of the vocabulary,” he said.
Whether Minnesotans continue to catch on to the North or stick to the familiar Midwest, the momentum of the debate still points to the top of the map, and the people that make the destination.
“I think it's the people here, the work ethic, the kindness, humility, and generosity,” said Dayton.
What is North? For Dayton, the definition is not just geographical, but also found within.
“I think people feel a real sense of pride and that is what is propelling us forward, not any effort on our part,” he said.