The Outpost is not in a beautiful neighborhood. Sandwiched between a gas station and a credit union, the two-story concrete slab blends into the landscape as you breeze by it on the interstate highway. But inside, it is anything but drab. The Outpost is a 3,500-square-foot events space unlike any other—at least, any other in El Paso, Texas.
The interior of The Outpost looks like it was decorated by Willy Wonka, if Willy Wonka was an EDM-loving industrialist. It features a sleek, modernist community space trimmed by mirrored cement walls, tiled murals, and cacti; a Gibson recording studio; an adult jungle gym painted in powdered-colored neons; and an entire wall of free goodies: snacks, shoes, beauty products. There’s a hair salon upstairs, and outside the compound there’s a Danish-style hot tub immersed into a roadside sanctuary encircled by palm trees.
This funky venue is part of an ambitious project funded by The Participation Agency (The PA), a New York-based marketing firm with clients such as Budweiser, Oreo, Pandora, Red Bull, and Foursquare, among others. The PA is opening five “outposts,” roadside villages in some of America’s smaller cities where over 1,000 touring musicians a year can recharge—eat, do laundry, shower, sleep—for free, but also engage with the communities they drive through. It’s specifically located on I-10 because it’s a route all musicians take while touring Texas.
On one recent Wednesday night at The Outpost, I witnessed a motley crew holding court: a local bar owner discussing immigration policies with a hip-hop radio host, an architect decrying Austin’s skyrocketing real estate prices, a city councilman revealing where a visitor might get their teeth on the city’s best late-night tacos. There was talk of a new local shopping center composed entirely of recycled shipping containers and a deep conversation about why Juarez, Mexico (just across the border from the city) is essential to the region’s economic stability. It was a hodgepodge of people, locals and out-of-towners, who perhaps don’t regularly hang out together—yet here they were, downing tequila shots and ranking Phil Collins songs. (“Against All Odds” was the victor.) Imagine an adult version of a college dorm community room—that’s The Outpost.
The project is symbolic of a new agency trend. Firms are increasingly exploring markets beyond major American cities. In the aftermath of a contentious American election, one that laid bare how starkly divided the country is on almost every major issue, many in the left-leaning creative industries hope to connect with populations outside of major metropolitan areas like New York City and Los Angeles—especially municipalities in states that swung for Donald Trump. What’s more: There is money in these not-fully-tapped markets. Brands know how much power Middle America has now. While some New York City agencies are collecting data, conducting interviews, or using targeted Facebook research to better understand under-the-radar areas, The Participation Agency is doing something wholly unique: It’s setting up shop, putting boots on the ground for a long-term activation in order to get to know “Middle America” better.
“Brands don’t spend money in cities like this and we think that’s a big miss,” says Ruthie Schulder, cofounder and president of The Participation Agency, of the industry’s herd mentality. “There are so many vibrant cities in this country that are being completely ignored by marketers,” she says. “Why is the person buying Nike in El Paso less valuable to you than the person buying Nike in Brooklyn? It shouldn’t be.”
The Outpost compounds are stationed between smaller metropolitan areas that are conveniently accessible to artists on the road, from the Southwest all the way to the Northeast. The first phase launches in five up-and-coming creative hubs: Boise, ID; Lancaster, PA.; Asbury Park, NJ; Omaha, NE; and El Paso, TX. The counties these cities sit in predominantly voted for Trump, save for El Paso and Omaha, though those two towns are both situated in red states. (Nebraska voted 60% for Trump this past election, while Texas has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980).
The Outpost program has a dual mission—to support the creative class beyond the nation’s biggest cities, but also to connect artists with communities they don’t necessarily interact with. Traditionally, musicians sing, the audience watches, then they both go back to their respective homes (or buses). The PA will host intimate acoustic sessions, post-concert Q&As, lectures, events, art shows, even a podcast. They’ll invite community organizers, government officials, and local cultural heroes. It’s all meant to make musicians stick around longer.
“You literally have artists traversing the county and coming into contact with all these people, but there’s no forum for conversation,” explains Schulder. “There’s no one bringing these groups together.”
Schulder and her cofounder, Jessica Resler, have wanted to pursue this passion project since 2015. But the election—and bitter separation that ensued between supporters of the two major political parties—was a “kick in the pants to do this,” admits Schulder.
“There aren’t conversations happening between these people,” says Schulder, stressing the highly publicized gap between “coastal elites” and “flyover cities.” Music, she believes, is a democratic unifier between all classes and political parties. Blue state, red state, doesn’t matter—they all love Springsteen, right?
Throwing large-scale events is The PA’s speciality. It has made a name for itself as an experiential marketing firm with a knack for over-the-top cultural activations. This includes turning a vacant New York City city lot into a grassy oasis of calm—complete with lounge chairs, plastic pink flamingos, and a white picket fence—for a “Timeshare Backyard,” which residents of the concrete jungle could rent by the hour.
The Outpost isn’t what one would call a charity project; it’s more of a passion project. Schulder says she wanted to build it first without any outside influence or sponsorships because she wanted to retain creative control.
“We want to do something different: We’re putting out money where our mouth is,” says Schulder.
The PA’s belief: Once brands saw The Outpost in action, they would come. Indeed, since The Outpost launched on March 3rd, 20 brands—including L’Occitane and Jenga—have already signed on. The PA says it’s in talks with 20 more brands that are interested in sponsoring the project, as well. Sponsorship opportunities include providing swag, sharing the cost of monthly expenses, and hosting special events.
But at the end of the day, the founders have full creative control. This is their opus, one intent on trying to heal an America Schulder no longer recognizes. She’s emotionally tied to what The Outpost brings together: the arts, local culture, and to some degree, politics.
There’s a lot of talk among various industries about “bridging the gap” and “starting conversations,” but more or less it comes down to this: The experts, the pundits, and the media don’t truly understand what happened in Middle America during the election. They don’t understand Middle America. This realization has pushed politicians to invest more resources in previously ignored areas, and subsequently driven the advertising and marketing industry in the same direction.
“There’s a massive opportunity for agencies to really understand the power of the middle,” says Paul Jankowski, founder of New Heartland Group, a Nashville-based agency dedicated to connecting brands with the 60% of consumers who live in Middle America. The firm helps clients like PespiCo and Arby’s resonate in areas like Knoxville, Austin, or Oklahoma City.
Jankowski believes brands don’t need to necessarily change their campaigns, but rather their tactics. Jankowski helps companies reach underserved cultural segments by what he has identified as key lifestyle touchpoints: food, sports, fashion, technology, and outdoor activities. For example, professional football is all the rage in some areas, while college ball rules supreme in others; in some parts of the country, outdoor activities like hunting and fishing are more popular than rock climbing. As such, Jankowski might recommend a client keep their messaging, but communicate it through a country music star in lieu of a pop star.
The key, however, is pairing the right touchpoint and the right execution. For that, you need to actually interact with the community you want to reach.
“The middle speaks its own language: It speaks American,” says Jankowski. “Using big data [like Facebook analytics] is great but if you don’t immerse yourself, you miss the essence of this important group.”
He notes that many small towns boast multi-generational advocates. “Communities are welcome to people who want to understand them,” he says, adding, “spend the time, because [brands] might have them for multiple generations.”
At The Outpost: El Paso, musicians are treated to a slew of free products, ranging from pricey musical equipment to essentials for life on the road (like toothpaste). They also enjoy a healthy dinner; local bloggers, writers, and bar owners organize outings to show artists the best of local culture. It’s a lot more meaningful than what musicians usually do when they find themselves in some far-flung town: hit up Walmart.
Beyond musicians, Outpost plans to cater to various creatives visiting the town: authors, graffiti artists, basically anyone touring on the road. The first floor of The Outpost is a community hall that can hold up to 200 people for lectures, parties, and discussion groups. Schulder stresses, however, the point isn’t to push big-city values on small city populations.
“We’re not trying to impose New York City culture,” she explains, “we’re not coming to ‘save’ these cities.”
To that end, Schulder hired music industry veteran Josh Cocktail, as well as local residents—millennials clued into their locale’s culture—to execute her vision. Empowering the youth movement, she believes, is key to making an endeavor like The Outpost last. The PA is committed to support the project for five years, with each city’s edition rolling out within the next three to 12 months.
Locals, so far, are enthusiastic. Patrick McNeil is the owner of International, a three-floor bar in downtown El Paso, and founder of Neon Desert, the only music festival in America held in a downtown area (it features acclaimed acts like Foster The People, Tyler the Creator, and Future). The music aficionado is one of several community stakeholders who have been eagerly working with The PA to ensure community involvement at The Outpost.
He has watched many of his childhood friends get priced out of areas like Austin and return home to rejuvenate El Paso with cool eateries, bars, concert halls, and the ultimate in youth colonization: yoga studios. Programs like The PA, he says, prove that people are willing to invest in a city that doesn’t get the publicity that say, Portland does.
“The difference is that this agency is accelerating local culture,” says McNeil, who likens it to the corporate sponsors he secures for his music festival. “It helps offset the costs. If it’s done tastefully, I think it’s a good thing. Eventually, it will help people catch on to El Paso.” The last time I saw McNeil, it was midnight, and he was leaving The Outpost to take a Los Angeles musician, along with two local pals, to visit some “hip El Paso bar that looks just like a grandma’s attic.”
The desire to not come across as modern-day carpetbaggers is a common concern for other agencies reaching out to rural areas. Saatchi & Saatchi New York is one such company that, following one too many election headlines touting “don’t forget about rural America in 2016,” decided to take action.
Last year, a team from Saatchi & Saatchi New York took a road trip across 13 states, starting with New Hampshire, to measure small cities’ pulses. They interviewed over 1,000 people. There were no focus groups or “anything that felt artificial,” says Saatchi & Saatchi New York chief strategy officer Wanda Pogue. The team wanted to connect with people in their own environment and make them feel comfortable. For example, the team did not dress in the standard New York City uniform of all-black clothing.
Over the course of the cross-country trek, Pogue discovered several themes out in flyover country—both revolving around renewed patriotic values. The first was pride in small-town America, with everyone from millennials to senior citizens saying they trust their neighbors far more than they trust the mainstream media or big corporations. She also found that the younger generation, specifically, resent the fact that their businesses and ideas don’t receive a tenth of the attention their bigger sister cities receive.
“The feeling was that in America we now only celebrate the things that come from pockets like Silicon Valley and the belief is that the smallest of places are also making great big inventions and amazing things,” says Pogue. In that regard, if they want to connect with broad swathes of the country, brands need to better celebrate homegrown, small areas of innovation—as well as work with local influencers who can organically spread the word.
The “Made in America” movement also resonates strongly across America, specifically as it pertains to craftsmanship and handmade goods—a real tangible output that symbolizes an American effort and skill that can’t be replicated by machines.
Pogue says the people she met told her that American products represent “the physical hard work, grit, and sweat that this country was built on, and we should be proud of that and celebrate that instead of walking away from that.” The challenge is to transfer that emotional connection toward brands in a way that explains and respects that legacy. For brands, that could mean touting which of their goods, if any, are produced in the States.
As Pogue puts it, “it’s about leveraging what brands are already doing today but with a sensitivity and insight” into what local communities actually want.
New York-based digital agency Hungry is doing just that by researching local influencers. The most influential voices in a local community are often not a Kardashian on Instagram.
“There’s a really good chance in a small town in rural Alabama, that’s not the type of media they’re consuming—they’re perhaps not even using Snapchat,” says Brady Donnelly, managing director and founder of Hungry. “It might be the local hero is the coach of the football team or the mayor. Or maybe the football team is the center of social life there. How do we reach them and how do we reward them when they win?”
“It is worthwhile for brands to come to markets like this if you come in the right way and create a program that makes sense for the place that you’re in,” says Schulder. “We’re creating a model for it.”
Beside, says Schulder, a marketer’s dollar goes farther out here. For what a brand might spend on a three-hour party or celebrity appearance in New York City, they can fund a yearlong, meaningful activation in a smaller city.
And as Schulder notes, “Getting boots on the ground and actually having daily, weekly, monthly interactions with people is so much more valuable than putting Kendall Jenner on Instagram one time.”