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If You Call It Local Will They Buy It?

(post, Eamon Molloy)

On Tuesday, five potato farmers rang the bell of the New York Stock Exchange, kicking off a marketing campaign that is trying to position the nation’s best-selling brand of potato chips as local food. - Kim Severson, NY Times May 12, 2009

The audacity and ingenuity of the marketing teams at the multinational food corporations is amazing. Frito-Lay has decided that pushing the local farmer angle will help them sell more chips. While I admire their desire to use the notion "know where your food is from" to sell more chips, I think the company misses the larger point driving the buy local movement.

The Buy Local movement started in fresh foods (produce, eggs, meats, fish etc.) and remains strongest in those food categories. To use a shopping notion from Michael Pollan, buy local works best on the perimeter of the grocery store. Once you move into the the center, the notion weakens. If a buy local preference is carried into the center aisles at all, it will be with local and regional brands. Kettle Chips comes to mind in Oregon for example.  

The big food corporations have spent the last 50 years nationalizing prepared food products. These companies have competed on primarily on price for a long time. Trying to add a value component, "local", to the marketing message is dicey. The local label is not like the organic label. Consumers looking for local are not the same consumers looking for organic although both share a fair number of consumers. The people looking for local products want to support agriculture with a human face. They want to know who the farmer is, what he or she does to bring that product to market. Frito Lay is not going to be able to make that kind of connection to the consumer.