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Marian Salzman

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Corporations: Pillars of the Community?

Posted: 06/06/11 02:52 PM ET

There's a real paradox today in the meaning of the word community. On one hand, we're building our communities online and forming tribes with like-minded, digital folks who share our likes and dislikes, our restaurant recommendations and, in the case of places like Egypt, our desire for democracy.

But there's another community movement happening right alongside the new digital neighborhoods: the huge uptick in building brick-and-mortar communities and in all things local. Make that hyperlocal in the case of the media industry -- the whole concept of news has been turned on its archaic ear with the advent of social media. Take Patch, a news site deeply embedded in hundreds of cities and towns, like Stamford, where I live, that also serves its communities with a socially minded model (and by that I mean making a difference). And the renewed interest in farmers markets (another check in my area's "pros" column: the Westport Farmers' Market), farm to table, flea markets -- all of which are quickly becoming the barometer for what makes a town worth living in in this world gone loco for local -- and issues that affect us at home are shaping our worldview and making it more granular.

So it stands to reason that big business needs to be looking -- wide-eyed -- at how it, too, can integrate into their geographic area, by investing in local businesses (by giving them business or by sponsoring fundraisers or backing entrepreneurs) and ultimately supporting the community.

With hyperlocalism making marketing noise these days, many businesses are looking to leverage location-based enterprises such as Foursquare to microtarget potential customers where they live. But why aren't these same big brands looking to go local when it comes to the service sector or business-to-business propositions? With all the talk of transparency and brands needing to be "in service" to consumers, the opportunity to serve our very own communities in which we work is substantial and in tune with the times. (It's no longer valid to think that "local" means "small" in the same way we used to -- because as "small" once meant fewer resources and production, it now might very well mean quality and service done with great respect and care.) Going local is also a fantastic way for businesses to attract talent, build pride and revitalize towns that might need a boost, and show not just consumers but also friends and neighbors that you are invested in the community in which you live.

The biggest mandate for city governments now is to recruit corporations to not only reside there but also recruit there -- which might mean building great shopping, foodie-worthy restaurants, and cool markets near office parks. Think of Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class -- a notion that's a decade old but still relevant. And consider Pittsburgh, which Florida notes as an example of a city where grads of prestigious universities, such as Carnegie Mellon, should consider making home but don't. Major sports teams, great museums (including one for hometown hero Andy Warhol), cool urban neighborhoods of varying ethnicities, fabulous architecture... yet many students leave Pittsburgh post-degree, contributing to a sputtering economy. Florida says members of the creative class are highly educated, well compensated and talented in fields ranging from high tech to journalism to finance to the arts, and they believe creativity and individuality and a certain level of culture should be steeped within the towns in which they reside. I guess they're not there yet on Pittsburgh, despite a quality of life that we can't buy in the New York metro area (which I know because I sometimes hit a salary calculator website after visiting my company's office there), Warhol museum or no.

Where the new local notion does work is Austin. It can easily source hometown talent while investing in all things local, even though it's a bit of an oddball spot ("Keep Austin Weird," anyone?). It's got amazing live music, quirky boutiques, trendy restaurants and galleries, and affordable housing, and it's home to some great ad agencies and smaller design firms. It's a community of like-minded people steeped in the creative class ethos. I've seen many friends move to Austin to work in everything from advertising to journalism. I often argue that Austin is the new Cambridge -- with a perkier climate, SXSW, a comparable university and the best damn Tex-Mex food. So remind me again why we live in metro New York (or L.A. or Chicago or any other place with an impossibly high cost of living)?

Not that I'm really complaining. I'm one of the lucky ones who hasn't had my job outsourced to another country or coast. In today's connected world, I'm not so sure there is great value in going abroad or even across state lines to seek out service providers. We've got plenty of good options in our own backyards -- and with the "take a number" mentality of distant megaproviders, it's time to get local and invest in our own communities when seeking services for our businesses.

Using local services is a sort of pay-it-forward model of good business practices. If you outsource to India, you're simply not supporting the folks trying to feed families and pay mortgages in your own neck of the woods. With local comes the feeling that you are not just a number, you are a neighbor and fellow community member. And there's real weight to that. That, and it would be nice to be able to take a meeting or meal with business partners who imagine a world where "outsourced" simply means going out to lunch for an hour or two.

I also imagine a time when big companies can invest in entrepreneurial endeavors in the towns in which they are based -- think of the single mom who wants to open a teahouse or the group of students who need a community center. Interestingly enough, in a recent study on millennials by Euro RSCG, the company I work for, we found that today's rising generation believes strongly in the power of businesses to do good. Forty percent of those surveyed said corporations have a greater capacity than governments to create change, while only 27 percent said the opposite. If business is indeed being perceived as more influential and changemaking than government, we should shoot to change the world. But let's start in our own backyard, because doing well by seeking services from your neighbors is not only a smart investment; it's also a crucial part of keeping our communities growing and thriving and redefining their value.

Perhaps a day will come when corporations become the pillar of the community (much like local government used to be), and marketing communications agencies, law firms and analysts of all sorts service big business and create their very own community, right on Main Street. Then community members could seek careers at home, and some of us would no longer have to endure a lifetime in airports.

And if business leaders are replacing government leaders as folks we look to to change the world (although government will still need to step in to create incentives for me to bring my business home and foster a prosperous local environment), they'll need an army alongside them to fight the good fight. For even if most big corporations are focused on global growth, it's worth it to them today to view home base as a local source of pride, prosperity and success.

 

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