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Other companies are pushing marketing messages that work by association. One example that caught Dan Cullen's eye was a CVS television commercial that begins in a Main Street bookshop, following the owner around as she tends to her customers. The bookshop then transforms into a CVS. The bookshop owner is now the customer. The feel is still very much Main Street. "Suddenly the kind of unique, enjoyable, grassroots bookstore experience morphs into a CVS experience," Cullen said. "There's a Potemkin facade that a lot of chains are trying to put up because consumers now want something other than a cookie-cutter experience."
Still another corporate strategy is to redefine the term "local" to mean, not locally owned or locally produced, but just nearby. "With the term 'local' being so nebulous, it seems ripe for manipulation," noted Mintel, another consumer research firm that counsels companies on how to "craft marketing messages that appeal to locally conscious consumers" and how to avoid "charges of 'local washing.'"
Corporate-oriented buy-local campaigns that define "local" as the nearest Lowe's or Gap store are now being rolled out in cities nationwide. Some represent desperate bids by shopping malls to survive the recession and fend off online competition. Others are the work of chambers of commerce trying to remain relevant. Still others are the half-baked plans of municipal officials casting about for some way to stop the steep drop in sales tax revenue.
Many of these Astroturf campaigns are modeled directly on grassroots initiatives. "They copy our language and tactics," said Michelle Long, executive director of Sustainable Connections, a seven-year-old coalition of 600 independent businesses in northwest Washington state that runs a very visible and successful "local first" program. "I get calls from chambers and other groups who say, 'We want to do what you are doing. It took me a while to realize that what they had in mind was not what we do.' Once I realized, I started asking them, what do you mean by 'local'?"
Examples abound. In Northern California, the Arcata Chamber of Commerce is producing "Shop Local" ads that look similar to the Humboldt County Independent Business Alliance's "Go Local" ads, except they feature both independents and chains. Spokane's Buy Local program, started by the local chamber, is open to any business in town, including big-box stores. Logon to the Buy Local web site created by the chamber in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and you will find Wal-Mart among the listings.
When billboards proclaiming "Buy Local Orlando" first appeared in Orlando, Florida, Julie Norris, a cafe owner who last year co-founded Ourlando, an initiative to support indie businesses, was excited to see the concept getting such visibility. But she soon realized that the city-funded program, which provides businesses who join with a "Buy Local" decal, seminars at the Disney Entrepreneur Center, and a listing on the web site, was open to any business in Orlando. "We sat down with the city and said, 'What you guys are doing is a real disservice to the local business movement,'" she said.
The city did agree to remove from its press materials and web site a reference to a study that found that, for every $100 spent locally, $45 stays in the community. The problem was that the study, conducted by the firm Civic Economics, found that to be true only if the money was spent at a locally owned business. Shop at a chain store, the analysis found, and only $13 of that $100 spent stays in the community.
The Economic Development Corporation of Fresno County also appropriated the $45-stays-local statistic when it kicked off its Buy Local campaign at the Fashion Fair Mall. The figure was repeated on a TV news story without any clarification that it did not apply to the types of chains visible in the background. Like the Orlando initiative, the Fresno campaign aims to boost sales tax revenue by deterring online and out-of-town shopping. It goes out of its way in every radio and TV spot to make sure people know that "local" means national chains and big-box stores. "Buy Local" stickers and posters are now visible on malls and chains throughout the Central Valley. "For someone to say you are not local if you are a big box, I say baloney," explained Steve Geil, CEO of the Economic Development Corporation. "They invested here."
When the City of Santa Fe decided to launch a campaign to encourage people to shop locally, the Santa Fe Alliance, a coalition of more than 500 locally owned businesses that has been running a buy-local initiative for several years, signed on. But the city's message, according to Kate Noble, a city staffer who runs the program, is that shopping at Wal-Mart is fine, as long as it's not Walmart.com. "It has only diluted our message and confused people," complained Vicki Pozzebon, director of the Alliance. "The city asked me not to push the $45 versus $13, but just say 'local,'" she added.
These sales-tax-driven campaigns may well be doing more harm to local economies than good, according to Jeff Milchen, co-founder of the American Independent Business Alliance, a national organization that helps communities start and grow local business alliances. "If you encourage people to shop at a big-box store that takes sales away from an independent business, you're just funneling more dollars out of town, because, unlike chains, local businesses buy lots of goods and services, like accounting and printing, from other local businesses."
The irony of trying to solve declining city revenue by trying to get people to shop at the local mall is that the mall itself may be the problem. While many California cities are facing budget cuts and even bankruptcy, Berkeley has managed to post a small increase in revenue. Part of the reason, according to city officials, is that Berkeley has more or less said no to shopping malls and big chain stores and is instead a city of locally owned businesses that primarily serve local residents. That creates a much more stable revenue base. Berkeley hasn't benefited from the temporary boom that a new regional mall might create, but neither has it gone bust.
Can corporations succeed in co-opting or so muddling the term local that it no longer has meaning? The Hartman Group's Barry thinks that's possible. "For many consumers, these things are not being called into question much. They say, 'Hey, it's my local Wal-Mart or my local Frito-Lay truck.' It depends where you are on the continuum and how you define local, which is a term that is really up for grabs."
Milchen is less concerned about what he calls faux-local campaigns in cities where there is already a strong local business organization. "It's more of an educational opportunity than a problem, so long as they respond to it," he said. But in places where local enterprises are not organized, he fears these corporate campaigns may succeed in permanently defining "local" for their own benefit. Michelle Long shares that concern: "That's my fear. People are going to do diluted versions and hold the space so that real campaigns don't get started."
Such dilution has prompted local business advocates to reconsider their language. Many are now using the word "independent" more than "local." Controlling language is critical, said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, who is pushing for tighter regulation of the word organic, as well as rules governing terms like natural, sustainable, and local. "We've been fighting so long without the help of federal regulators that some people have forgotten that tool."
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