By Ron Poitras
OK, here we go – gear up – one more logo, another brochure, and remember: bold captions, short, pithy phrases. Prepare your piece of good design to float as high as possible in that chaotic ocean of mediaspace. So much doubt in the process! Does anyone read this stuff anymore? Thousands of commercial messages per day are now being discharged into the average American brain. What chance does your little brochure have? There must be a better way! How did marketing go from selling surplus, to ‘capturing eyeballs’ and manufacturing wants?
Farmers invented marketing. Farmers first created surplus and then had to find a way to get rid of it. In the beginning they used barter. Then money, that most powerful of abstract ideas, entered the picture, and things haven’t been the same for farmers since.
As the distance between producers and consumers increases, the personal element is reduced, and crucial information in the exchange gets lost. Loyalty, that which builds relationships and keeps customers coming back, absolutely needs that personal touch. Survey after survey stresses the deep yearning people have for what is genuine and authentic.
Our culture is not being fed anything real, and the pangs of hunger are leading us to a hell like nothing we’ve seen before. Corporate CEOs and PhDs in business schools are writing books that say successful marketers need to build allegiance to a warm and fuzzy brand. Let’s hope that they are wrong. Branding in the nineties has become a form of psychological manipulation on a scale that is truly frightening. Brands are no longer about selling products; they are icons targeted at core values and aspirations around which young people in particular are building identities. The most intensely marketed demographic now is the baby, the future consumer. Before an American child is 20 months old, he or she can recognize the McDonald’s logo and many other branded icons.
In an age burdened with so much publicity, logos, brochures, and so on, those trying to market local goods that are produced in an environmentally sound manner must scream for attention to be effective. So many messages of lesser value contribute to media pollution instead of public awareness; so your job is to be not just another barking dog in the neighborhood, but the local alpha dog, the one whose goods have worth.
How can you convey this sense of worth? Remember that food is something else; it’s almost religious. What else do you know that comes from outside and goes most intimately inside? (OK, there are a few things.) In what other context can quality matter more? Veggies sold by farmers marketing directly are alive, they have a personality!
Remind your customers that the food you grow carries the soul of the places where it was grown. Who else can tell your customers about the ecology that grew the plants, the weather that affected them, the care that was required? Each time you talk personally with someone about his or her world, a world you’ve come to share, you move to inhabit your territory a bit better. The personal connection that is formed remains as an image in your mind with real effects on your identity, and on the world. History, geography, ecology, exchanges about the weather, personal stories all become part of a narrative that ultimately holds a place together and builds a culture.
Too many of the images we hold of our world are what Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters magazine, calls a kind of Huxleyian ‘soma’ that drives us to conform and consume. The message that socially responsible marketers put out needs to be different. It has to become a way to feed our imaginations with real stories about real people and real places. Marketing in this context becomes part of rebuilding the identity of the different regions of Maine, connecting directly to the resources and the individuals who live there. Our work – the products and services we provide – becomes part of the stories we tell. Regional identity programs that help citizens reconnect to the places where they live also build local pride and help rebuild social capital. Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone has clarified a direct connection between building healthy regional economies and increasing opportunities for participation in civic life. The local food economy may be the most promising segment of an area’s economy around which a region’s identity can develop, because freshness is such a strong indicator of the quality of the product, the fact that food is bought frequently and often marketed directly, and because these items so effectively highlight regional as well as seasonal variations.
• For an excellent, down to earth introduction to the basics of marketing, it is hard to beat the Guerrilla Marketing series of books written over the years by Jay Conrad Levinson. Many of these books probably can be found in your library. Try Guerrilla Marketing for the Home Based Business, 1995, Houghton Mifflin, New York.
• For those of us who have repeatedly over the years dipped in and out of Christopher Alexander’s pattern language book (Oxford University Press, 1977, 1171pp, $65) for inspiration for everything from window placement to the design of neighborhoods, it is encouraging to see another useful application of this holistic way of thinking, this time to provide a detailed bioregional perspective for the Pacific Northwest. I wish something like this existed for our area. See www.conservationeconomy.net/
For background and perspective on the madness of modern marketing methods, check out any of the following:
• Naomi Klein, No Logo, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1999
• Kalle Lasn, Culture Jam, Harper Collins, New York, 1999
• Douglas Rushkoff, Coercion: Why We Listen to What They Say, Penquin Putnam, New York, 1999
For biting commentary and sharp anti-marketing graphics, pick up a copy of ADBUSTERS: Journal of the Mental Environment, Adbusters Media Foundation, Vancouver BC Canada. (www.adbusters.org)
Ron Poitras is the community planner at the Hancock County Planning Commission, and he promotes the area’s locally grown foods to restaurants and tourists. You can contact him at 395 State Street Ellsworth, Maine 04605, (207) 667-7131, fax (207) 667-2099, email firstname.lastname@example.org.