I’ve been reading an early draft of Carol Sanford’s new book on moving beyond corporate responsibility, tentatively titled The Responsible Business. Sanford has spent her career helping organizations understand how to serve all stakeholders–not just thinking about same-quarter ROI for shareholders, but instead about all the parties who have invested capital into a business–customers, employees, partners, communities, and even Earth itself. Carol writes about how crucial it is for companies not to think of the community that its employees are part of and where the company conducts business as another group to be messaged to or handled, but rather a source of creativity and inspiration, a sounding board and constructive critic, and–most importantly–a key factor in the initial and ongoing success of a product or service.
Her points were on my mind as I spent the weekend here at home in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I feel a strong kinship not only to The Bluegrass State but particularly to the city, and I have spent some time thinking through why. Beyond my own personal ties to the area, it seems that Bowling Green has developed a strong sense of place, a feeling of energy as Western Kentucky University continues a massive period of growth–a revitalization of the historic downtown area thanks to the efforts of many community partners and a fantastic Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce that has made its new offices a crucial part of the downtown revitalization, earning the distinction of being the American Chamber of Commerce Executives’ Chamber of the Year. (Full disclosure: I worked for the Chamber’s annual magazine each summer while I was an undergraduate at nearby WKU and as a grad student at MIT, because I believed deeply in the city’s unique culture…and because I needed a paid writing gig.)
However, there’s one large Bowling Green corporate citizen who seems to deeply understand the importance of this sense of place to the point that they have spent the past few decades working with Bowling Green to create a collaborative identity based on their presence in the area. As some of you may know, Bowling Green is the home of the Corvette. The Corvette relocated its production to The Bluegrass State in 1981, after previously having been made in Flint, Michigan, and St. Louis, Missouri. Since that time, the Corvette has become a deep part of Bowling Green’s identity, and the car’s Bowling Green production has become a key element in the production of this General Motors car.
Case in point: in 1994, 13 years after the Corvette plant opened, The National Corvette Museum opened in Bowling Green, not far from the production facilities of the car. The production plant likewise welcomes a significant amount of tourism, hosted on its own site. The plant and museum have become the center to Bowling Green’s regularly hosting Corvette owners who take their cars “back home” to where they were created, culminating in the annual National Corvette Homecoming, an event which started the same year the Corvette relocated to the city three decades ago. The local Corvette Club, Corvettes Limited of Bowling Green, Kentucky, meets each month at the museum, and there is a National Corvette Caravan planned every five years to Bowling Green.
Many of these initiatives were planned by area or national Corvette enthusiasts. Initiatives like the Corvette Museum were projects of passion for people in the community. In the process, however, General Motors has dedicated its resources to supporting these many Bowling Green-area initiatives and to be a contributing member of the area. They have opened their plant to deeply encourage tourism to the area surrounding Corvette culture. And they have made Bowling Green a key part of their corporate development story.
The partnership has run so deep that, when Bowling Green secured a Minor League Baseball team a few years ago, the decision was ultimately made to name the team The Hot Rods, based on how crucial the Corvette is to Bowling Green’s business identity. And, since then, Kentucky has officially named the Corvette its Official State Sports Car. A publicity stunt? Perhaps. But such publicity is based on a deep and long-standing partnership that reflects the reality of how important Bowling Green has become to Corvette culture, and how important the Corvette has become to Bowling Green’s culture.
Just recently, we saw an example of how crucial the deepness of this relationship has been. Over the summer, rumors began to circulate that General Motors was going to relocate Corvette production to Michigan. A Lansing television station picked up this speculation based on comments from the UAW. There was some concern in Bowling Green, and the discussion was covered locally, but the rumors were immediately quashed by General Motors, who said there were some discussions of various car productions at a Michigan plant, but “Corvettes are born in Bowling Green (, and) nothing in the foreseeable future changes that long-time fact,” according to this piece on AutoBlog. The news story seemed not to cause significant concern in Bowling Green, precisely because of how deeply this relationship runs. The GM spokesperson, David Caldwell, also said to The Bowling Green Daily News:
This is a very unique group of people and facility in the sense that they are very valuable to the specialty manufacturing that a great sports car like the Corvette requires. [ . . . ] It’s a specific and unique and highly skilled operation there that obviously has proven to do a very good job for a long time.
In the comments section on AutoBlog, a discussion broke out of why it matters where a car is created. One reader asked what existed in Kentucky that made it any big deal to move the facility. Other readers quickly jumped to answer, posing everything from bourbon to more serious answers, such as the qualified workforce that’s been developed around Corvette development. While skepticism abounded, reader GalaxieSun wrote:
When GM shifted production of Saturn and allowed other cars to be built at Spring Hill, the majority of Saturn loyalists protested, and justifiably so. The rest, as we all know is history. To take Corvette out of Bowling Green would be dramatically worse. You can say what you want about unions, but none of them wants to damage a brand, and in that light the one thing they should consider is how significant the plant at Bowling Green is to the Corvette brand. And yes, it is a brand, unto itself. [ . . . ] Moving production to Lansing wouldn’t signal the end of the vehicle, yes we know that, but it would take a lot of the heart out of the Corvette brand. And getting that back could be next to impossible to accomplish.
Elsewhere, a Corvette fan said things such as that the move “would probably be the dumbest thing that GM has ever done.”
At a time when GM has been in such rough shape as a corporation and when Corvette sales have suffered as well, the iconic status of the Corvette brand and the passion of Corvette enthusiasts remain in place, and the local pride and community development Corvette has generated in the Bowling Green area is a crucial part of that story. Many brands could learn from how this mutually beneficial relationship has developed and how it positively impacts both brands. And, from a Bowling Green perspective, here’s hoping that there aren’t any changes in Corvette or pressures from GM as a whole to forget about the deep equity in Bowling Green and among Corvette enthusiasts that have made the place where Corvettes are developed a fundamental part of the brand’s story.
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium’s project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work. He also blogs for Peppercom’s PepperDigital. Ford is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.