Why you need to think local during a global pandemic

Michael Ash of The Local Collective explains how connecting to communities can be put to work at a national level.
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By Michael Ash

The narrative around effective advertising has largely shifted towards using creativity and sophisticated mass marketing to grow market share for brands. But there’s a missed opportunity when it comes to using local insights to create cultural influence – even during a global pandemic.

We often talk about the role of advertising and consumer behaviour in this pandemic from a macro level. But when you dig deeper, each lockdown has triggered behaviours and attitudes from a local level.

For most brands, local has translated into CSR initiatives, but it can be so much more. Local can be a playbook which brands can use to disrupt the market.

Since the pandemic began in April, the number of Canadians who feel connected to their country has dropped significantly, especially when compared to how connected they feel to neighbours, community and even staff at local businesses (according to research by Maru/BLUE). In fact, you could argue our sense of connection to the country as a whole is the lowest it’s been in a while. The truth is, attitudes towards “local” are changing, with 83% of Canadians now saying they are willing to pay more for local products, according to BDC.

This begs the question: should we invest in brand anthems that rally the Canadian spirit? Or should we invest in brand actions that give us reassurance and optimism from a local level? Hopefully the answer should be a healthy dose of both.

The most obvious local playbook for brands has been supporting small businesses throughout Canada. And while shop small is admirable, it’s also easy to imitate. It’s something we’re all saying, and it’s beginning to lose its cultural currency. So, where do we find other local insights to create cultural influence?

For starters, we can talk to the local businesses the old school way and hear what they have to say. I naturally assumed that a photography studio and print shop I stopped by recently would be hurting, but as it turns out, business was ramping up because of an explosion of amateur photographers in the neighbourhood. In the words of the store owner, the lockdown is boring people out of their minds and they’re looking for new creative outlets or to restart ones they’ve previously put on the back burner. It just so happens that these folks aren’t crazy about editing their photos on a computer as much as they want print outs of their newfound joy.

Then there are all those local fitness studios peppered throughout Canadian cities. It might be easier and cheaper to sign up for generic virtual classes, but a growing number of studios are offering their tribes the option to stay connected with a combination of Zoom, Instagram Live and outdoor bootcamps. Let’s be honest, it’s a lot more rewarding to see a few familiar faces from a local gym than to see an avalanche of unfamiliar faces projected onto a grid.

Finally, nearly half of Canadians who are employed have been working from home for at least the last six months, and four in five don’t plan on travelling during the upcoming holidays (according to Maru/BLUE). You can argue that more folks are playing tourist in their backyards than ever before – making each neighbourhood a potential brand experience in itself.

Now imagine if in all these scenarios, brands played a role by partnering with local businesses, and capitalized on local trends to get talked about. What sophisticated mass marketing and messages don’t account for are the cultural influences that emerge from a local level. They’re not macro stats from the get-go. But they have the potential to catch on quickly and spread just as fast.

Michael Ash is strategy director at The Local Collective.

Featured image by Juan Cabezas de Herrera.