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Opinion: The Bastardization of “Local”

Walker Evans Walker Evans Opinion: The Bastardization of “Local”Not really. Geico, you're based in Maryland. Photo by Walker Evans.
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When you hear the term “local business,” what comes to mind? A mom-and-pop restaurant? A franchise owned by someone who lives in your neighborhood? A multi-billion dollar global corporation based on the other side of the country?

The correct answer is “all of the above.” There are no formal guidelines for use of the word “local” in marketing campaigns, so anyone is free to use the word to mean anything that they want. The same way that phrases like “all natural” and “organic” can be slapped on things like Doritos purely for the sake of marketing to individuals that want to feel good about their purchases.

According to BusinessDictionary.com, a “local business” is a business that provides goods or services to a local population — though it’s most often used to describe a locally-owned business. In the age of the internet, globalization and corporatization, that means that nearly every business could technically be considered local.

You can #eatlocal at McDonald’s because they have locations in your city.

You can #shoplocal at Amazon.com because they have a warehouse in your city and will deliver right to your door — can’t get much more local than that.

Uber is local because they have local drivers, and Fox News is local because you can watch it in your living room, and Apple is local because there’s a store selling iPhones at your nearest shopping mall.

While these examples might sound extreme, there’s already a precedent.

Facebook ran a series of video commercials in 2018, touting their support of local businesses. They targeted several cities (including Columbus) and collaborated with business owner participants to showcase how their platform helped local entrepreneurs when engaging with customers.

While Facebook’s #supportlocal message sounds great in a commercial, reality paints a bit of a different story. Changes to internal algorithms have severely limited the organic reach that small businesses have with their accumulated fans and followers. Some research indicates that average organic reach declined to 1.2 percent in 2018, which means that a local restaurant with 1,000 followers is only reaching 12 people on average with each post.

The solution? Pay Facebook to reach your followers by boosting posts, or leave your customers to suspect that your business has no activity because they never receive updates that they thought they signed up for. Keep in mind that these algorithmic changes affect nonprofit Facebook pages as well — that includes everything from church groups to fan clubs, to grade school PTOs, to local newsrooms.

In January, Groupon jumped on the bandwagon with their #VoteForLocal video advertising campaign. It touts the success stories of local business owners as a reason that customers should make a return to purchasing deals through the online platform that was all the rage during their recession-era launch.

The message in the ad is clear: Groupon is a company that helps local businesses grow. But what goes unstated is that these local businesses would be even more successful if their customers purchased their products and services at normal prices, without giving a large portion to a multi-billion-dollar firm in Chicago in the process.

Even Main Street USA’s arch nemesis Walmart has been toying with “buy local” advertising campaigns in select Canadian markets last year. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to imagine these campaigns expanding into U.S. markets in the near future.

At the end of the day, there’s little that can be done about the use of the world “local” when it comes to corporate marketing. If the boardrooms decide it’s a good idea, then they’re going to run with it.

Instead, it’s up to customers and consumers to educate themselves and make informed buying decisions that aligns with their beliefs. If you are someone who wants to support local restaurants, stores, artists, entrepreneurs, creatives, artisans and service-providers, then you should do just that. Giving your money to corporate middlemen should always be optional.

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