‘You’re not from around here, are you?’ The playbook for a meaningful local label

Thinking about highlighting your brand's local roots? Think again, writes Wunderman Thompson Perth senior strategist Barry Walker.

“Then COVID came.” Three simple words that I’m starting to hear with increasing regularity around conference room tables.

I get it. A pandemic’s impossible to ignore. Border shut-downs, travel restrictions, quarantine, death. We’ve all been impacted in immeasurable ways. But it’s the influence on brands that’s caught my eye, in particular the subtle rise of the brand locale.

Buying local’s long been understood by most as a means to keep money within a local economy. Think farmers markets versus big box supermarkets. But has ‘local’ ever reached deal breaker status for the masses? I’m going to assume many of you are mentally shaking your heads. Yup, Amazon would no doubt agree.

Why, then, are we seeing a proliferation of brands lead with a loud and proud ‘we’re local, just like you’ message now? Perhaps the thinking goes that a global pandemic and the captive audience it provides offers the best chance to drive home any and all local credentials. 

I ask because I’m not against it, not really. After all loyalty, no matter how you elicit it, is a rare commodity for brands these days. And there are great examples. Nike’s ‘Nothing beats a Londoner’ comes to mind. It’s one thing simply to point out you’re local, as many, many brands are now doing. It’s another to really understand and articulate the true value your brand is bringing to a place, and to the people that associate so strongly with that place. Here, Nike get that ‘local’ is earned. 

In his latest book ‘Can’t Sell, Won’t Sell’, Steven Harrison talks about the ‘Somewheres’, a large group of people who, according to American social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, represent around 50% of the population that identify strongly with the place they grew up in simply because they still live in or very close to it.  

Brands would do well to think twice before jumping on the local train as a pandemic-driven way to force a stronger relationship with customers. Local might be a thing but it’s seldom the thing.

If local is to play an integral part of what binds people to your brand it needs to be a path to better, not a presumption of loyalty. 

Maybe the overarching playbook rule here should read ‘nothing about us, without us’? Availability of resources, economic conditions, community health, politics and religious freedoms all serve to influence and bind people to the place they call home.

Brands need to work harder to understand the emotional context that events, both local, national and international have on a place for the people living there – how they’re made to feel because of them, how their dreams are positively and negatively impacted not only for themselves but for their loved ones and the communities they all live within.                                  

Influenced by key cultural events like natural disasters, wars, sporting victories or even landmark movie releases, people of different generations all play distinctive roles in guiding the culture of a place.

Brands can’t ignore the past. Culture might move quickly but it gathers what it needs along the way. Taking stock of the cumulative historical context of a place – how each event influences and is influenced by the people that live there breeds true understanding. 

The magnetism between people and between people and place that compels us all, either in mind or in body, to stay in or return to our place of origin is inescapable. Brands must seek to understand what can’t be seen. The invisible bonds that bind the hearts and minds of people to place are all powerful. 

Our quality of life engenders greater attachment to the place we call home. Economic realities, both good and bad, can work to motivate people to move or stay in their communities.

Brands mustn’t ignore the realities of people’s lives. Acknowledging the shifting circumstances people find themselves in opens up relatable ways to lead, not only from a category perspective but from a moral one, too. 

Barry Walker is a senior strategist at Wunderman Thompson Perth.


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