Marketing Authenticity: 7 Corporations Riding on the Coattails of a Movement

real coffee

The collapse of the economy has had a curious effect on our culture. Shuttered chain stores and denuded neighborhoods have made us realize how unstable and unsustainable a society predicated on constant growth and fueled by the twin demon drugs of easy credit and cheap consumer goods can be. When the Circuit Cities go away and the lesser Starbucks close, we realize we didn’t really need them anyway.

All over the country, people are reconnecting with their communities, saving money, working cooperatively, bartering and living a less consumption-dominated life. People are realizing the joy of self-sufficiency and the beauty of taking care of one another instead of just ourselves. There are so many payoffs to living this way. It’s cheaper, it’s more meaningful and it’s easier on the planet.

The evidence of this movement is everywhere:

There’s the Slow Money Movement, which promotes an economy based on preservation and restoration rather than extraction and consumption.

Community gardens are on the rise. A National Gardening Association study indicates about one million American households have community garden plots and an additional five million say they would like to acquire one. The rise in community gardens has sparked a move by US Representative Jay Inslee of Washington State to propose a community garden grant proposal from the USDA. August has just been named Community Gardening Awareness Month. There are free farmstands, foraging movements and community canning projects springing up all over the country.

And this movement isn’t just about food. There’s the Buy Handmade Pledge, Really Really Free Exchanges, online bartering groups, DIY Bike Kitchens in San Francisco, Bozeman, Sacramento and LA, community acupuncture networks all over the country and even events that simply aim to take back public space such as Park(ing) Days and San Francisco’s Sunday Streets program.

At the same time, corporations are doing their market research and finding out what people care about right now, and they’re trying to get in on the action.

According to a Hartman Group Survey from 2008, 52% of consumers polled said it was important for them to buy local goods whenever possible. The report also found that the desire for “local” products wasn’t just about freshness but also about a return to simplicity, handcrafted production and the ability to match a product with a place or face.

Another survey shows an alarming lack of trust in corporations. A survey this year by IBM found that fewer than 20% of adult grocery shoppers indicate that they trust food companies to develop and sell food products that are safe and healthy. It’s no wonder people are starting to take matters into their own hands.

I suppose you can’t blame the corporations for trying to muscle in on the action. They wouldn’t be very successful companies if they didn’t. But a look at some of the latest marketing campaigns leaves me scratching my head. Corporate efforts at co-opting this movement are often clumsy at best. I wonder if they’re as off-putting to others as they are to me.

1.  My “favorite” recent action was by Starbucks.


After putting its less well-capitalized and often more quirkily authentic brethren out of business, sucking the soul out of the neighborhood coffee house, and commoditizing coffee to the point where consumers couldn’t see the difference between a $4.00 latte at Starbucks and a $2.00 latte from McDonalds, Starbucks was hurting. The company’s latest strategy involves “Unbranding” a few select stores by taking away the Starbuck’s look and logo and instead naming the stores after the neighborhoods that surround them. They are also sending spotters into independently owned shops and copying the look and feel, as well as sourcing the décor items locally. If it works, they’ll roll it out all over the country. Oh Goody. This one makes me want to choke on my home-brewed, fair trade, organic blend.

2. Another good one that got a lot more media attention was Lay’s Chips local campaign.


According to the company website, the campaign is meant to put a spotlight on potato farmers from California, Florida, Maine, Michigan and Texas that grow potatoes used in Lay’s Potato Chips. The theme line is “Happiness is Simple,” designed to “uniquely celebrate the brand, its place in Americana and role in bringing people together for life’s simple pleasures.” The campaign highlighted the simplicity of Lay’s Classic Potato Chips in a day and age where consumers are looking to keep things less complex. I don’t know if this would fly if the campaign showed the complicated machinery that harvests, transports, processes, packages and distributes the potatoes that makes those chips. I’ve got a simple idea: buy some potatoes from your local farmers’ market and roast them in olive oil at 400 degrees until brown and crisp. Save a few, cut them, dry them and stick them in the ground. Mound the dirt up around them. A few months later, you can dig up your own potatoes. I can tell you from experience that this works.

3. Then there’s the Eat Real, Eat Local campaign Hellman’s mayonnaise rolled out in Canada.


The campaign touts the fact that the eggs and canola oil used in the mayonnaise come from Canada. That’s all well and good, but it’s a processed food made from commodity crops, in factories, in a very very large country called Canada by a multinational company that also owns Lipton, Knorr, and personal care products Dove, Lux, and let’s not forget everyone’s favorite petroleum-based moisturizer, Vaseline. Come on.

4. Barnes & Noble has put together a video blog featuring “local booksellers” from all over the country.


Barnes and Noble Booksellers. Because as the site says, “All Bookselling is Local.” Really? I don’t think so. I’m all for promoting reading, but it would be nice if communities had the choice to shop at bookstores owned by people who live in their communities, spend money in their communities, feature local authors from that community and stock books of local interest. Now that’s local bookselling.

5. Whole Foods, Interloper?

whole foods

Whole Foods has long touted its sales of local produce and the chain does do more than most of its competitors to support local farms. But it does something else that I find too slick by half. When it opens a new store in a new community, the store designers add touches of local color through themed displays, historical photos of the town or area, and murals.  Though it’s nice if they do hire local artists to create materials and I’m sure they sometimes do, and it no doubt makes for a pleasant shopping experience for the locals, to me it feels like a disingenuous way of establishing itself as part of the community and as an entity that has a history in the town, when it really isn’t and doesn’t.

6. Shop the local…box store.


Speaking of national chains masquerading as local stores, here’s a great article that details how shopping centers all over the country are rolling out “shop local” campaigns even though the stores in the shopping center are anything but local. Think Lowe’s, Wal-Mart, Target and other big boxes.

7. Localwashing


While we’re on the subject of Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart and other chains are increasingly highlighting locally-grown produce with big, hit-you-over-the head signage. But as this article details, much of the produce the signs highlight is anything but local, prompting a new word to be coined this spring: local washing.

All of these examples, like the fashion industry’s co-option of hip hop style, and the record companies’ mass marketing and replication of any fresh voice that comes along, are just part of living in a capitalist society. It can feel crushing sometimes. Looked at positively, it keeps us nimble, creative and active, in an effort to stay one step ahead of the marketers. Because once people get a taste of what it’s like to have something conceived of, built and shared among individuals – once we start to feel like humans, not just consumers – there’s no going back. It’s what keeps us innovative and what may ultimately save us.

Images: Ben Cumming, ginnerobot, grilled cheese, That Other Paper, elliottcable, fab4chiky

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.