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September 17, 2009

After Greenwashing: Faux Localism

Large corporations try to coopt the authenticity and credibility of local businesses.

Spurred by the recession, the revolt against processed foods and a desire to help one’s neighbors, the movement to “buy local” is gaining some serious ground. The evidence: mega-corporations from Wal-mart to Barnes & Noble to Starbucks are trying to shed their images as purveyors of mass-marketed commodities and associate themselves with the credibility enjoyed by local businesses. Will it work?

This disturbing new trend is chronicled by Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher with the New Rules Project at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, in an article that ran on Alternet.org a few days ago. As the author of f Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses, Mitchell knows a few things about the toxic intersection of mega-retailers, marketing and localism.

Photo by code poet, via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

It seems that people’s allegiances to local businesses is having a demonstrable impact on sales at big-box stores and with national brands. So they are starting to fight back — with deceptive marketing. Localism is the new marketing bandwagon for trans-national corporations that rarely let local sentiments override their private business objectives.

Mitchell cites a number of laughable claims:

  • Winn-Dixie, a supermarket chain with 500 outlets, now bills itself as “Local flavor since 1956.”
  • Hellmann’s mayonnaise brand — owned by the processed-food giant Unilever — is test-marketing an “Eat Real, Eat Local” advertising campaign in Canada. It claims that its product is local because most of its ingredients come from North America.
  • Wal-Mart — a company that has decimated Main Streets around the country and sucks up one-fifth of all U.S. expenditures on food — stocks a small amount of local produce, and then hangs banners that say “Local” in the aisles.
  • Starbucks is “un-branding” some of its Seattle stores, giving them new names that disguise their connection with Starbucks — now perceived, correctly, as a by-the-numbers franchise having no local authenticity.

Even cities are getting into the act of promoting faux-localism. Mitchell describes how city officials in Fresno, California, and Orlando, Florida, launched “Buy local” campaigns that encourage shopping at national chains. Some town officials are eager to reap any new tax revenue from local expenditures, and a “Buy local” campaign offers a fresh, hip way to do it.

But if the point of buying local is to support the local economy and community business people, then big-box expenditures don’t cut it. According to a study by the firm Civic Economics, for every $100 spent at a chain store, only $13 of it stays in the community — while the sum for independent local stores is $45 of every $100.

In my town, the local hardware and lumber store, Cowl’s, is one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the U.S. It’s a trusted, respected inter-generational local business that is not going to push shoddy merchandise on its customers or flee town if profits dip a bit. Home Depot can’t begin to deliver the same sort of local commitment — but that doesn’t stop it from trying to appear local.

And so the battle begins for who shall “own” localism. Will corporate marketing succeed in redefining our understanding of the term, local? Or will we succeed in protecting the integrity and meaning of the term? The continuing struggle over the term “organic,” as in organic food, is a cautionary tale.

Still, it’s a distinct thrill to see mega-brands at a competitive disadvantages despite their massive amounts of focus-group research and marketing dollars. I suspect that many faux-local campaigns will mostly fail because they are so palpably bogus. Slick advertising is the very antithesis of quirky localism. Yet we have seen how marketers have altered our understanding of lots of things in our lives.

If the commoners have any hope here, it is in the irreducible experiences of living locally and interacting with people who have a commitment to the community. A marketing campaign by a mega-brand cannot truly redefine local experience or elicit the trust and authenticity that local experience engenders over time.

Which is why these marketing scams are more dicey than their hosts may realize. Bogus claims of localism are insulting, and invite consumer disgust and even retribution. So here’s a fair warning to the brand-managers, image-consultants and corporate strategists who wish to appropriate localism: Tread very carefully. We are watching.