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Jim Hightower: ‘Local’ Goes Loco

Corporate pretenders redefine a seemingly straightforward term to market their products

In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty declared, “When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

Mr. Dumpty would have loved living in our era of corporate-speak, when even a plain word of obvious meaning can be dumped down the semantical rabbit hole to be swirled and twirled by marketing meisters.

Jim Hightower
Jim Hightower

Then — sproing! — out it pops, looking like the same word, but now burdened with a convoluted connotation that is the very opposite of what the word appears to mean.

This corporatization of language is presently being applied to the common term “local” — as in: right here, in the immediate vicinity, this neck of the woods, hereabouts, our backyard, etc.

In the past few years, “local” has become an important commercial term, as small businesses have proudly attached it to their products, services and presence in the marketplace. The term differentiates them from the gigantism, plasticity, aloofness and frequent abusiveness of faraway, big-box, chain operations. The message conveyed by these local enterprises is that “we are your neighbors, you know us and we know you, we share a community bond beyond just taking your money.”

“Local” is a growing movement in U.S. commerce. About 30,000 small businesses have organized themselves into “local business alliances” in more than 130 cities. The movement is phenomenally popular with consumers, who like the personality and uniqueness of homegrown enterprises and prefer to buy from people who keep consumer dollars moving through the local economy.

As a result of the movement’s financial success, many more businesses are joining the local push. For example, such down-home outfits as Barnes & Noble, CVS, Frito Lay, HSBC, Starbucks, Unilever and Wal-Mart are trying to get in on the action.

Believe it or not, these giants are using TV ads and other promotional outlets to hawk their centralized, standardized and globalized brands as “local.” Here are a few of the twists they’ve made in the straightforward definition of the term:

» HSBC, a sprawling, British-based financial conglomerate, has thousands of branch banks in localities across the globe (from Boston to Brazil), so it has labeled itself “the world’s local bank.”

» Barnes & Noble, the biggest bookseller in the world, is trying to scale its image down to mom-and-pop level by proclaiming that “all book-selling is local.”

» Hellmann’s, a division of the Dutch-owned Unilever conglomerate, is claiming that its mayonnaise is a local product because most of its ingredients come from somewhere in North America — a 9.5 million-square-mile stretch of “local.”

» Starbucks, the ubiquitous 16,000-store caffeine purveyor, has been losing market share to cool, local shops that are the opposite of cookie-cutter chain stores, so the giant is opening a series of pretend-funky shops designed by corporate headquarters to present a “local vibe” — a consumer hoax that includes no display at all of the Starbucks name and logo.

These examples are closer to loco than they are to local!

Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance notes that the corporate pretenders are often boosted by economic development officials. She recently reported on a “buy local” campaign in Fresno in which county authorities sold out the true locals (as well as the English language) by proclaiming, “Just so you know, buying local means any store in your community: mom-and-pop stores, national chains, big-box stores — you name it.”

This “ya’ll come” perversion of reality is supported by PR consultants for giant marketers. As rationalized by Michelle Barry, an executive of the Hartman Group: “There is a belief that you can only be local if you are a small and authentic brand. This isn’t necessarily true; big brands can use the notion of local to their advantage as well. ... It’s a different way of thinking about local that is not quite as literal.”

Wow, Humpty Dumpty would be proud of her! By that definition, “Made in China” could be local.

To connect with the “literal” world of local business, click here to contact the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author of Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.

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