Once upon a time, local bricks and mortar businesses rushed to figure out what it would mean to reinvent themselves in the virtual arena, where they would instantly become global entities. How would their business models work? What would their brands mean? What opportunities and risks would they face?
Fast-foward to the age of Facebook and Twitter, where we are all carry on a good portion of our existence out there in the virtual ether, in a way that would once have seemed as unfathomable as living on the moon. And with all the good that has come from seamless, instant, intercontinental sharing, there has also been the dark side of homogenization – the rise of Starbucks has meant the loss of local coffee shops; the triumph of Barnes & Noble has bankrupted local bookstores. Chains of all kinds have come to dominate the commercial landscape, not to mention the ubiquity of Amazon as the river into which all commercial streams seem to flow.
So here we are: alone in our pajamas, tweeting and googling and updating our relationship status, ordering takeout on Seamless Web and cruising for Sigg bottles on Amazon. Alone. Or if not physically alone, then at the very least quiet, isolated in the glow of the screen that connects us to the real world out there. Have we begun to feel untethered out here in cyberspace, where skyping almost counts as a date? Itchy for more personal, tangible relationships with not only people but things, the objects we used to touch before we bought them, from the shopkeeper who used to be a friend of the family?
And what about safety? Has your food been e coli-contaminated in an unknown warehouse or mercury-poisoned in an overcrowded estuary? Were your baby toys and bottles made in a nameless factory in China out of plastic that releases toxins or decorated with paint that's made of lead? The farther you get from the source of the things you purchase, it's not only lonely but also potentially hazardous.
Perhaps in the context of our increasingly virtual interactions, we are experiencing a longing for the simple feel-good of buying things from people and places we personally know. Perhaps ‘local’ is a safe harbor in a world of consumer confusion – all-natural? organic? made in China? And buying local products is good for our environmental footprint and good for the economy, so perhaps there is also the appeal of fancying oneself a good citizen.
Whatever the reasons, 'buy local!' has become a pervasive rallying cry. The movement began - as movements do - with fringe groovers in liberal big cities. They sought out local produce, and farmers markets flourished. They patronized independent bookstores with a save-the-whales-style fervor. And they fueled the Whole Foods phenomenon: locally sourced products of all kinds, conveniently collocated. Trouble was, access to farmers markets and Whole Foods and independent bookstores remained limited to a relatively small number of privileged city dwellers. Likewise access to coffee that doesn't come with a corporate pedigree.
But regular folks want good stuff too - fresh foods, safe toys, personal handshakes. Enter Wal-mart. And Target. And McDonalds. Major corporations who've spent decades perfecting the art of centralization and leveraging economies of scale, passing on benefits like value or quality or variety to their consumers. Those consumers are now demanding they explore another direction: local.
So what happens when corporate giants try to go mom-and-pop? In the coming weeks, we will look at the various ways large consumer brands are addressing the local movement. We'll make some educated guesses as to the strategies we can expect to see, and what those will mean for branding, innovation and design. And we'll offer a few recommendations for how consumer brands can best navigate these changes and turn potential challenges into opportunities.