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Communities of Commerce

The true relationship between marketers and communities shows great promise, and yet it is vastly untapped.

Usually, when marketing people are talking about “creating a community,” they are thinking figuratively. They mean the kind of togetherness you might find over coffee at Starbucks or the sense of connectedness that makes MySpace.com the online phenomenon that it is.

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That’s not exactly the sort of “community” Leon Redgate had in mind when he re-opened a shuttered movie theater in Fairfield, Connecticut. Leon just thought that a movie theater was one of the few places in town that could bring everyone together. When Leon thought about “community,” he meant it literally.

As he told The New York Times: “People know they’re going to come in and have a smiling kid, a friend of the family, maybe, serving them popcorn. It’s really a hometown feeling.”

It would be easy to dismiss Leon as a sentimental soul, especially when you consider that his little movie house, aptly named “Community Theater,” is surrounded by no fewer than three mega-plexes, ready to swallow him whole. That’s not what happened, though. Leon’s Community Theater is going strong, attracting some 1,600 townsfolk a week, each happy to pay $4.00 a ticket and $2.00 for popcorn.

“I love this place,” says Carrie Schwartz, a college freshman who is among the 160 young people who volunteer to work at the Community Theater for free, plus tips. “You go to the multiplex and people give you attitude. I’d rather work at a place where I know the customers and where they don’t feel they’re overpaying.”

Leon Redgate may not be getting rich with his venture, but his idea of using a movie theater to help build his hometown’s sense of community is more refreshing than it should be.

The city of Altanta seems to be on a similar wavelength. Like Leon Redgate, Ryan Gravel got the idea of taking something that had been abandoned and using it to create a community. Ryan’s idea was to use some 22-miles of rusty railroad tracks as a loop of hiking and biking trails that would beautify and connect Atlanta’s neighborhoods and parks to the many shops and restaurants downtown.

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As marketing opportunities go, this one (now a $2.8 billion project known as the Atlanta Beltline) may sound a bit on the subtle side. But with the right touch it could pay huge dividends to brands that find a point of relevance within this newly emerging community.

In fact, none other than Wal-Mart seems to be jumping on a chance at a similar kind of community-building in Pass Christian, Mississippi, where Hurricane Katrina ripped apart the town. The locals may or may not be mourning the loss of the Super Wal-Mart that was destroyed during the hurricane, but there does seem to be some excitement about the so-called Wal-Mart Village that might replace it.

Instead of re-building another big-box, Wal-Mart is considering the construction of a new kind of Wal-Mart store that’s surrounded by housing and is designed to fit in with the town’s historic district and contribute to the community’s recovery from the storm. Whether that actually happens remains to be seen, but one can’t help but be encouraged when the Wal-Marts of the world start looking at communities that way.

Maybe Wal-Mart has been watching Cabela’s, the sporting goods retail chain, which has turned community-building into a thriving business model. You’ve probably read about Cabela’s stores, which look like hunting lodges and double as tourist attractions. In fact, their store in Buda, Texas reportedly pulls in as many tourists as the Alamo each month.

In addition to its entertainment factor, Cabela’s is succeeding because it doesn’t just build a store, it brings along restaurants, hotels and other retailers. All of that extra commerce, along with the newfound “tourism,” tends to lower the tax rates of the communities it serves.

JetBlue has had a similar — if unintended — effect on Burlington, Vermont, where everything changed after the airline started to fly there. The new route brought new visitors, some of who subsequently decided to buy second homes there. As a result, what used to be a pretty funky college town is now moving upscale.

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Whether that’s a positive thing for Burlington is a matter of debate. Tourism certainly is the most common nexus of community and commerce, but it can cut both ways.

For example, in the remote village of Jiaju, located in the mountains of southwestern China, a burgeoning tourist market may be doing more harm than good. Everything was fine when there was just one hostel in town, but as more and more tourists arrived, and Jiaju turned into a hot-spot, more and more locals started converting their homes into hostels to accommodate the crowds.

Unfortunately, as reported in The New York Times, all of that converting “left the mountain nearly stripped of the tall pines and cedars that once graced its slopes … The ensuing erosion washes out the roads and brings dangerous landslides” and these days “the road to Jiaju village is sometimes jammed with traffic all the way up the mountain.”

It’s a much happier story in the otherwise quiet community of Sturgis, South Dakota, which welcomes that kind of traffic — as long as it rides in on Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Each year, Sturgis hosts a motorcycle rally, welcoming about a half a million bikers who drop all kinds of money there before leaving a week or so later.

Jennifer Gabriel, of the Sturgis Chamber of Commerce, says the rally is not only a boon to her town, but to the country as a whole. As she explained in The Wall Street Journal, it’s a ripple effect. Noting that the bikers travel from faraway places to get to Sturgess, stopping to eat and buy gas along the way, she says her “little old town … helps states and communities across the nation.”

Perhaps the most unusual example of community and commerce is found in Frikat, Algeria, home of La Maison Lahlou, a brand of couscous made, by hand. La Maison is a family business, but one that engages the entire community in its enterprise, employing “a network of about 300 women” who roll couscous in their homes in the village and surrounding countryside,” according to The New York Times.

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This community network enables La Maison Lahlou to turn out some 50 tons of couscous each month. For now, their product is sold only in Algeria’s big cities, but the Lahlous do hope to sell their couscous in Europe and North America someday, too.

Sometimes, as with La Maison Lahlou’s couscous, communities actually create new markets. More often, as with Leon Redgate’s Community Theater, the Altanta Beltline, Wal-Mart Village and JetBlue, it’s a market that creates a new community.

Sometimes the outcome is good, as it appears to be with Cabela’s. Other times, it’s maybe not-so-good, as the citizens of Jiaju seem to be learning the hard way.

The lesson is that, for most people, “community” is a deeply held value, and not just another marketing cliché. The thought is that the true relationship between marketers and communities shows great promise, and yet is vastly untapped.