Localism and The 350 Project

How to save local, independent bricks and mortar businesses in the face of big-box and Internet retailing?  Former retailer and now consultant Cinda Baxter had a great idea in March 2009 that led her to start The 350 Project, a marketing initiative to promote consumer patronage of local businesses and give visibility to the idea of "buying local."  The basic idea is that you should pick three local businesses that you would hate to see disappear, and then spend $50 a month at those and other independent local businesses.  The aggregate benefits for local businesses could be impressive.

As the project’s website points out, if half of the employed population in the U.S. did that, it would generate $42.6 billion in revenue.  That could be quite a boost to local bricks-and-mortar businesses at a time when Internet retailers and big-box stores are grabbing so much market share.  And the local community would benefit as well:  For every $100 spent on retail purchases, a national retail chain leaves behind only $43 (in payroll, taxes, etc.) while an independent local retailer returns $68 to the community.

Fortunately, The 350 Project has a fairly strong definition of what an “independent business” is.  It aims to support to the dry cleaners, restaurants and movie theaters that are truly based in the community, and that are not franchises or national/regional brands or “fronts” for brands.  The business’s ownership must be private; have no out-of-state headquarters; and have no more than six outlets; among other criteria.  So in an age faux-local marketing is increasing (my local Whole Foods considers “local food” to be anything that was grown within 350 miles), the Project uses some strong criteria for what is local.  It also offers lots of posters and marketing materials that independent bike stores, restaurants and other local businesses can use.  

I confess that I have a few problems with The 350 Project.  The faux-folksiness of its over-produced website makes me wince.  The calculated chumminess feels like overcompensation, as if to signal that the project is not truly homegrown and authentic but rather a contrived facsimile, on the order of Sarah Palin’s famous “you betcha’s.”  If the folksiness is meant to be disarming and ingratiating, it comes off as phony to me, as in:  “Welcome to my celebration of indie business. Pull up a chair, kick back, and make yourself at home. We’re all friends here.”  The  headline for the website’s legal fine print reads, “Big, hairy important legal information.” 

Alarm bells started to beep and buzz when I learned that American Express is a sponsor the project (presumably to promote small-business use of its credit cards, which is fine as far as it goes) and that Cinda Baxter is a rabid fan of arch-marketing guru Seth Godin.  I found it discomfiting, too, that if a local business uses the site’s materials as the basis for something new, the results are legally considered the intellectual property of The 350 Project.  Protecting the brand identity and asserting proprietary control are seen as more important than facilitating an open source/commons model that could be truly generative and transformative. 

Okay, so maybe folksy marketing b.s. may be a fact of American culture, and maybe small businesses haven’t heard of the Creative Commons licenses.  Still, it’s too bad The 350 Project doesn’t recognize the strategic value of a more open, participant-driven commons of local businesses.  (American Express might feel threatened if small retailers got too organized?) 

On balance, it’s great that the 350 Project is out there promoting local independent businesses in a way that they would not likely do on their own.  (That's one of the conundrums of local businesses:  they usually don't have the resources to do marketing that can compete with the big guys.)  Now if only the Project could go the next step and let Main Street businesses themselves play a more participatory, formative role in promoting their interests, especially in Washington and vis-a-vis the large, national corporations.  Help them go way beyond the hidebound Chamber of Commerce ethic.  Now that could be the beginning of a truly great platform for saving local independent businesses.