Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Chain Stores and Localvores

Marketing is the language of commerce, and like any language it can be used for good or ill. Sometimes the line is hard to draw.

One of the latest marketing buzzwords to escape the hive is "local-washing," a variant of "green-washing."

Green-washing has been around for a while. It means making false or exaggerated claims that a product is environmentally friendly. Local-washing, then, means asserting (or suggesting) that a product or service is local when in fact it is not — or when using the term "local" is, at the very least, a bit of a stretch.

The new marketing technique takes advantage of the growing "localvore" movement, in which consumers favor products (food and other things) that come from their own region. The growing popularity of farmers' markets, business alliances like Indiebound (for independent booksellers), and region-based movements such as Local First Vermont are a few of the more organized manifestations of the increasingly popular "local first" way of thinking.

Big corporations are learning to take advantage. Wal-Mart stores, where an increasingly large number of Americans do their grocery shopping, now feature local produce sections. But according to Stacy Mitchell of the New Rules Project, "[t]he chain's] local-food offerings are usually limited to a few of the main commodity crops of the state in question...Yet this modest gesture has won Wal-Mart glowing coverage in numerous daily newspapers. Few ask...[whether this actually creates] more and better opportunities for local farmers than the grocers [Wal-Mart] replaces...Wal-Mart, like other chains, has learned that tossing around the word 'local' is a relatively inexpensive way to convey civic virtue."

Starbucks is rebranding some of its stores, removing their corporate identity entirely in order to disguise them as independent shops. Barnes & Noble encourages store employees to create video blogs about their favorite books as part of an effort to make individual stores "feel" more local. Supermarket chain Winn-Dixie touts "local flavor since 1956." HSBC, the huge international financial institution, calls itself "the world's local bank."

These techniques can seem disingenuous, even outright fraudulent. On the other hand, it's hard to blame the chains for availing themselves of whatever cultural developments are attracting consumers. They didn't get to be big corporations by being inherently evil, they did so by outcompeting in the marketplace. Now, suffering something of a backlash, they are casting about for ways to maintain their dominance.

Can big chains fool enough of the public enough of the time to make their local-washing campaigns succeed? Can we accept a certain level of exaggeration as a natural manifestation of market forces at work? Or is any degree of local-washing unacceptable deception?

Is more regulation needed? Vermont has strict rules about when a product can be labeled with the state's name. New York City's Greenmarkets permit only produce grown on farms within a specific mileage range of the city.

What do you think?

Meanwhile, stay tuned. No one knows how all this will shake out.  See you at the Greenmarket!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Merchandising: Capitalizing on the Surprising

In our office we have a coffee mug with the picture, name, and slogan of a singer-songwriter we knew years ago. She left the business awhile back, but if she ever turns up in our orbit again, it's fair to say that the presence of that mug will have some effect on the interest we'll take.

I thought of this when I learned of a high-class twist on the time-tested concept of the promotional mug. In conjunction with the release of Pedro Almodóvar's latest film, Los Abrazos Rotos, the illy coffee company has created an arty cup-and-saucer collection featuring emblematic scenes from the director's most famous movies.

Now, much as I adore Penélope Cruz, I'm not about to spend $60 for the privilege of sipping espresso from a cup with her face on it. But that's not the point. Just the fact that I've learned about this promotion (via a Twitter post) has incrementally increased the likelihood that I'll see the film.

Why? Because the film's promoters did something just a little bit new, a little bit different, and hence a little bit worth tweeting about.

When I saw Rock of Ages on Broadway a couple of months ago, every audience member was handed an LED "cigarette lighter" to wave during the show's classic hair-band songs. It was a great promotional gimmick, because the darn thing's actually useful as a small flashlight, so I've held on to it. Although I loved Rock of Ages, I'm sure that tiny piece of swag has increased the number of people I've recommended the show to, because carrying the little light around in my bag has kept the musical closer to top-of-mind.

Merchandising—whether it's swag (free stuff) or purchasable items (original cast albums, concert t-shirts, an Almodóvar espresso cup)—is here to stay, because it works. But coming up with something creative, something a little different from what people are used to—something, in other words, worth talking about—can give a campaign that extra nudge and push the product deeper into public awareness.

It doesn't even have to be expensive.  For the right price, you can get a logo imprinted on just about any manufactured item you can think of, but the do-it-yourself method works too: I've seen musicians selling, along with their CDs and t-shirts, unique items such as art prints, self-printed books of poetry, homemade cosmetics, and logo-imprinted candy.  Some of these items are more lasting than others, of course, but the creative thinking is evident.  Singer-songwriter Kay Ashley hands out "Kay-zoos" at her shows—bright yellow kazoos emblazoned with her logo.  During her set, she has you play along with a particular song, and when you go home you have a lasting (and possibly useful) souvenir.

So it's not necessarily about spending a lot of money.  It's creative thinking that can give your product a push into the public's consciousness. Go and create.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

I’m in the Mood for Some #Moonfruit!

This week's post comes from Elisa Peimer, one of Oren Hope's founding partners.

Since I wrote about Twitter a couple of months ago, I’ve been Twittering along – tweeting about music, life, and work, and catching up on friends through their tweets. Occasionally, I like to check out the trending topics to see what people are talking about. Generally, it’s what I expect – Michael Jackson, the political situation in Iran, Wimbledon, or the hot celebrity of the moment.

But the other day I saw the top trending topic was something called #moonfruit. What the heck was moonfruit, and why was everybody talking about it? Intrigued, I clicked on over, only to find that moonfruit wasn’t a story at all, or even any kind of discussion. It’s a promotion, run by web development firm Moonfruit.

To celebrate their tenth birthday, they’re giving away a Macbook Pro every day for ten days. To enter, you have to include the tag #moonfruit in your Twitter posts. Each posting is entered into the contest for a random drawing, which means the more posts you include the tag in, the more chances you have to win. Consequently, thousands of people are tagging #moonfruit in their posts, skyrocketing the tag right to the top of the Trending Topics list. Which means it’s on every Twitter user’s front page, which means that people like me, who’ve never heard of Moonfruit, are clicking on it to see what it is.

Moonfruit has managed to get in front of hundreds of thousands of potential clients on one of the world’s most popular websites for two whole weeks, with the kind of promotion that’s so simple it’s been done for ages. It’s the Web 2.0 version of an enter-to-win box – fill out a form, drop in your entry, and hope for the best. Except that now, all you have to do is type the tag into your tweet and you’ve entered the contest. But what makes this so much more powerful is that each entry is shared with all of your Twitter followers, so the contest and the company awareness spread in a classic example of viral marketing.

I have got to say that this is one of the most brilliant marketing schemes I’ve seen in a long time.