Monday, August 31, 2015

The Surprising Market Potential For Going Mainstream

In this essay I’m going to touch on the proportion of the traveling public that prefers chain stores, which is, coincidentally, the same proportion drawn to mainstream attractions.

This proportion of travelers are the aim of communities that seem bent on surrendering differentiation and sense of place to generic development and mainstream facilities and events.

Surveys have shown repeatedly over the past 20 years that residents of Durham, North Carolina, where I live, identify a museum of local history as the community’s #1 cultural facility need.

In part, this may be due to Durham residents historically placing a higher value on authenticity of sense of place.  Studies show that on the continuum of authenticity, attractions such as history museums rank as among the most authentic.

But here, too, some developers, as they have across the country, often use their considerable clout with local government to push instead for mainstream facilities, which are rated in surveys of the general public as the least authentic on that spectrum.

A majority of communities long ago surrendered distinctiveness driven by a relentless envy to mimic other places and, in doing so, made them indistinguishable as just one of many.

As Seth Godin noted in a recent post entitled, The Average, “Progress is almost always a series of choices, an inexorable move toward mediocrity, or its opposite.”

Even among advocates for proposed local history museums such as Durham’s, it has not been uncommon to even hear some advocates dismissing more authentic aspects such as artifacts and collections while promoting digital alternatives.

Ironically this would, in the view of many, make museums, well, less authentic.

Museologists such as digital specialist Dr. Ross Parry view digital not as the end of older technologies such as display cases and labels, for instance, but as an extension.

In fact, Dr. Parry has contended for at least the last few years that museums are already “post digital,” meaning that this technology is now “normative” or mainstream.

It has become what University of Chicago cultural policy analyst Gwendolyn Rugg terms as “assimilated, embedded, naturalized.”

In fact, I am persuaded by an essay that was posted here in America about the same time as Dr. Parry’s declaration which eloquently makes the case that on the authenticity continuum, which is always relative, artifacts will always be more authentic.

Unfortunately, over the eight decades since a museum of local Durham history was first proposed, many priceless artifacts and even potential collections have vanished.

Communities face forces that likewise see development as the end of one thing and the beginning of another.  This is why they so easily dismiss nearly temporal place-based assets as they replace them with mainstream palaces.

It isn’t just a portion of developers and architects as well as chambers of commerce, destination marketers and officials which have become mainstream sycophants, but especially financial institutions and chains that hedge loans by insisting on cookie-cutter developments.

Ironically, when it comes to appealing to travelers as well as residents who are stayers vs. just boomers, these mainstreamers are forcing a majority of communities now into mediocrity and a future with very limited appeal.

So what do the numbers say about which is most precious and popular, authentic or mainstream, when it comes to positioning a community to generate visitor-centric economic and cultural development, which was my now-concluded career?

Is it really just “six of one or half dozen of the other” or do mainstreamers have the advantage they seem to think?

According to studies, about 1/5th of travelers actually prefer to frequent experiences at the less authentic end of the scale such as mainstream events, sports or performing arts.

This compares to 73% who prefer real or authentic experiences such as museums, historic sites and natural areas.

Visitors are also very clear when it comes to what is authentic. 

The data show that destinations and attractions considered real, authentic and genuine have “historical truth.”  These are places that are “original in origin or design,” places that are “natural” and “unique,” “non-commercial.”

Researchers have also found that authenticity is also not a moniker easily attained.  For example, fewer than half perceive the beach or science centers or aquariums to be authentic.

Interestingly, even 74% of those who experience casinos, which are considered the least authentic on the spectrum, preferred real and authentic to fantasy or mainstream experiences.

Another indicator of the relative popularity of communities that have surrendered sense of place and authenticity to emulate mainstream comes from retail studies.

They show that 29.5% of consumers prefer to buy from mainstream national or regional chain stores.

So it appears that surrendering sense of place and authenticity for mainstream means a community has actually narrowed its appeal to somewhere between just 21% and 29% of Americans.

Meanwhile, the few communities that still struggle valiantly to differentiate as well as protect and foster a distinctive sense of place, appeal to between 73% and 80% of Americans.

Developers, architects, financial institutions and politicians should take note. It pays to foster sense of place and authentic and real attributes. In other words, to list only a handful:

On balance, always favor the real and genuine over the mainstream;

Encourage architecture with respect for local settings, neighborhoods and indigenous districts rather than cookie-cutter designs or franchise/ego architecture;

Value an indigenous cultural ecosystem over events and facilities that may be so-called “world class” by mainstreamers, which are certain only to erode differentiation and homogenize sense of place;

Always favor scenic preservation, tree canopy and natural areas over impervious surface; and

Listen to residents who are “stayers” vs. “boomers” when it comes to safeguarding sense of place and community character.  Aim your appeal toward travelers and relocating or expanding businesses who value place based assets.

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