What kind of strategy should brands follow in the age of Trump and Brexit? Should they take note and subtly imitate emerging nationalisms in most world markets or should they just modify somewhat standardized, mainstream, liberal, cosmopolitan messaging present in so many of today’s brand communications?

There might be a cunning, alternative option as a substitute to these sometimes polarizing strategies. While global culture becomes homogenised (or rejected) and national culture is increasingly becoming associated with right-wing populism, nativism and narrow nationalism, LOCALISM – sometimes HYPER localism has emerged as an important source of identity. After all, people socialize, interact and create relationships and meaning in their local environment, around their neighbourhood, towns and region. This hasn’t changed with the onset of globalization. In fact, it has intensified.

Localism as a cultural anchor

Increasingly people find meaning and belonging in their immediate surroundings precisely because they need an anchor away from their fleeting, over-connected, volatile, non-reflexive, hypermodern lives.

Globalization and constant social change give people more personal freedom and opportunity to travel and ‘see and experience the world’. But at the same time these conditions also generate intense individualization and social atomization. They can negate any real sense of community. This is the reason why street parties and other community outdoor activities have dramatically risen in the last decade or so. In a fast-moving society where it is common for people not to know their neighbours, there is a certain comfort in rediscovering community spirit, and consequently a reluctance to abandon it after discovery.
Everyone knows that young people in big and expensive cities like London and New York are being squeezed out of the areas they love. They are moving into different areas and then turning these neighbourhoods into the places they want to live. This trend has led to a strong postcode tribalism. Cool Dalston or Haggerston-ites would rarely venture into dull South West London, for example. Indeed, young people are investing enormous energy in up-and-coming neighbourhoods they live in, socializing and mostly going out in them. People celebrate the fantastic Vietnamese restaurant or the characterful ‘old-man pub’ on their doorstep. Many avoid the cost and hassle of going out in the City Centre or go there only for special occasions/outings. Areas of London such as Soho, Fitzrovia, Mayfair are just referred to as ‘Central’ by Gen Z and Millennial party-goers, who increasingly won’t schlep around town by night-bus as much as their seniors.

Cost plays a part – but hyper-localism is more than just an excuse for being impecunious. A quick search of Instagram hashtags will reveal hyper-local tags with many thousands of followers; #hackney has 700k+ posts – nearly as many as #globaltravel.

Place branding goes small

Alongside, there has been a consistent rise in urban movements, community activism and (re)branding of local spaces over the last decade. People are resisting or modifying gentrification, fighting for public spaces and genuinely investing time and effort to contribute to their neighbourhood, town or region. This is the reason why many consumers are turning their back on chains and returning to small local shops. A new report into the state of Britain’s high streets, The High Street Tracker found a 110% increase in small, local retailers opening over the past five years. In addition, portals of multiple suppliers like localfoodadvisor.com, with its 20-mile radius search facility are proving to be very popular among consumers.

But it’s not just pure economics or politics. The Flag Institute, a charity which manages a list of banners in the UK receives more and more official registration request for county flags, with last year seeing unprecedented 6 new county flag application in Wales alone. County flags are not just about celebrating and promoting local identity, but they also help to sell the county to the wider country and even the world. Not just in terms of local tourism, but also potentially local produce, food and wine.

Brands need to tap into that in a serious manner. For example, large supermarkets are answering the growing consumer desire to understand the people and places behind the products they buy. Marks & Spencer’s ‘Meet the Farmers’, Waitrose ‘Meet the Waitrose Buyer’ and Sainsbury’s ‘Supply Something New’ campaigns are just a few examples of this. Tesco splash huge full-colour images of local farmers in the Arrivals area of regional airports like Belfast or Bristol. Similarly, the rise of campaigns like ‘I love Clapham Common’ illustrates how local activism can bring massive changes to local communities.

A close look at Hackney

In 2006, Hackney was declared ‘the worst place to live in the UK’. Hackney Museum staff felt provoked by this and they created an exhibition asking local celebrities why they loved the area. Hackney residents also rose to defend their borough and an extraordinary 10-year civic pride campaign was born.

Customizing the iconic ‘I Love NY’ branding, ‘I Love Hackney’ was celebrated on hundreds of thousands of badges, bags and posters. Driven by the Council, it has been worn proudly by residents and visitors ever since, and customised to promote improvements from recycling and clean streets to public health. During last year’s Digital Shoreditch festival, the now familiar logo was pixelated to celebrate the tech sector’s positive impact on the local economy and employment. A recent Ipsos MORI poll found that 90% of residents agreed that people from different backgrounds get on well in Hackney, while 84% said they felt a sense of belonging to their neighbourhood – significantly higher than inner London and national averages.

Although the “I love Hackney” campaign occurred parallel to the process of gentrification, this civil action wasn’t openly hostile nor totally embracing gentrification. This kind of intermediate approach seems the most appropriate for many brands as well; brands can combine authenticity, local fandom and community development with building and expansion of their businesses.

The power of local products

Marketers are of course aware that many consumers are willing to spend their money on local products and services seeing them as more genuine and authentic. One of the most famous Austrian ham and cold meat manufacturer is family-run Berger which uses pork sourced within a radius of 50km from production, while the pig fodder comes from the Danube area of Austria, and not say, from a South American plantation. Indeed, the branding of all the different meat ranges comes with a distantly regional, Lower Austrian twist. The region is now almost synonymous with the Berger brand and its emphasis on quality, authenticity and provenance.

Local sourcing and local fandom often contribute to jobs and local economy or provide wider recognition and acclaim of their community or region. Terroir wine or more recently local craft beers are the most obvious examples. But whereas with Terroir wine, it’s about the unique aspects of a place influencing and shaping the flavour of the wine, with craft beers (and increasingly spirits too) it’s far more about drinking beer that matches your location, such as Brixton Pale Ale in Brixton. This has also lead to pubs making their own house beer. You can’t get much more hyper local than the pub cellar.
However, McDonald’s recent campaign proves that use of localism in marketing doesn’t have to be assumed only in premium (terroir) or ‘hipster’ (craft) categories. McDonald’s “Meat of our Regions” campaign put markedly French regional flavours in the spotlight. Each week McDonald’s unveiled a new burger made with meat from a famous French cow breed. The burgers were paired with local-inspired condiments, from onion sauce to béarnaise, and French Emmental cheese. The campaign was a great example how a huge global brand can reflect local culture in an authentic way – something that was appreciated by both French metropolitan and regional consumers.

Brands should try to create community ties

Although all recent surveys show that most consumers reportedly want to buy local food, a far smaller number of people actively seek out and find local produce. It’s easy to write this off as the disjuncture between a trendy opinion, or socially desirable answer, and actual behaviour in practice. We think it’s more than that.

Consumers need to be animated and brands need to translate interest in localism into action. The most obvious way is through transformation of brands into localised experiences where brands create genuine stories, personality and engagement with the local communities. This could be as easy as having local market concessions in supermarkets, local atelier and artists present in the glossy local mall or food manufacturers tying in with local farmers’ markets. Or it could be as ambitious as producing local festivals, retail theatre events or collaboration with other local brands and local initiatives to produce consumer platforms that build relationships and cultivate community ties with the neighbourhood, town or region. For example, local Food and Drinks festivals that have mushroomed all over the UK in the last decade, creating a perfect opportunity for local and regional brands to showcase their products AND celebrate community spirit in an engaging and compelling way.

Coca Cola provides a highly innovative example. For their vending machine in Sweden, they use a local dialect as payment. Of course, automated dispensary machines that accept unconventional forms of payment have made huge waves recently, but Dialekt-o-maten might be one of the most unconventional yet. Not only it can read people’s voices, it rewards users with a free soft drink if they can prove they speak in a Swedish regional dialect.
The machine uses Dejavu Project open source codes as well as unique codes capable of recognizing elements of language including intonation and tempo. The installation was implemented to support Coca Cola’s summer campaign that featured 90 different holiday destinations on its labels, including the ones in Sweden. Consumers from different parts of Sweden were thrilled they could use their authentic regional accents to get a completely free drink from a big transnational brand like Coca Cola.

We can expect more and more global giants to tap into people’s regional identities and focus on localism, authenticity and regional pride in their stories, platforms and activations. This makes brands exceptionally relatable and challenges a natural sense of big-brand scepticism.

So, what can brands do to engage with (neo) localism?

  • Brands can use activations such as accents, beloved local celebrities, local nicknames, in-jokes or history to engage with their customers and to gain ‘genuine’ authenticity.
  • Brands can use one region of a country or city to signify bucolic tradition, postmodern quirkiness or any other message in order to resonate with the new hyper-local consumer.
  • Although it might seem ambitious, global brands, especially global retail brands should aim to provide bespoke local experiences, making an effort to cater to individual communities at a local level; they should curate and collaborate with the truly local – but make sure they work closely, align genuinely with local issues and concerns and are invited in, rather than barging their way.
  • As most research shows that consumers prefer to shop “little, often and local”, brands should work with local government and citizens to animate people into reviving local high streets without turning them into identikit and formulaic spaces with any distinction or character.
  • Most importantly, brands need to provide genuine and unequivocal connection to local spaces in their strategies. Consumers can easily detect faux localism if the relationship is not deep enough probably seeing it as just another forgettable corporate ploy.