Locations as Brands: How Brand Stories Capture the Value of Place

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on August 17
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From American Apparel and Vermont Cheddar to Swiss Chocolate, Places Shape the Meaning and Value of a Product’s Brand. Powerful Stories Capture the Full Scope of that Value.6358849222303555011959021636_vegas-burj-al-arab.jpg

 Pace and the Power of Place

Those of you who came to age in the ‘80s and ‘90s may remember Pace’s “Get a Rope” Picante sauce campaign. For the uninitiated, the Pace campaign consisted of variations on a single narrative arch: Open with a close-up of a cowboy, scraping his spoon into an empty jar of salsa. He yells for more, is handed a generic jar of salsa, looks at the label, then—faced twisted in utter cowboy horror—cries, “This ain’t Pace Picante Sauce!” His buddies rush to the scene, only to discover things are even worse then they thought: “This stuff’s made in New York City!” “New York City?” The cowboys yell, “Get a rope!”

 The message is pretty straightforward: Cowboys know their salsa, and the only thing worse than having no Pace Picante Salsa is the idea of having to eat salsa made in New York City. The ad ends with the reminder that Pace is made in San Antonio, Texas, where “people know what salsa’s supposed to taste like.”

The Pace Picante Commercial, 1992: "Get a rope!"

Country vs. City

Pace’s highly popular and successful ad campaign received attention for its obvious play on the cultural distance between Texas and New York. The commercial taps into a sense of place-specific cultural difference based in a long history of U.S. regionalism. The commercial draws on a history of western expansion driven by a national mythos of manifest destiny and rugged “frontier individualism.” Staging the cultural rivalry between country and city, the ad builds on a geographic national mythos that extends at least as far back as founding debates around the vision of the nation: Between, on the one hand, the Jeffersonian vision of an agrarian nation rooted in rural values and, on the other, Alexander Hamilton’s more urban vision of a nation centered in industrial manufacturing.

In simpler terms, the Pace ad plays on the ways in which deeply rooted cultural differences associated with place play an essential role in how consumers view the value and meaning of products. The full meaning and value of any product thus includes a rich narrative of place.

The Meaning and Value of Distance:

Historically, of course, the value of place was largely a matter of basic economics: High import costs made goods from far-off locations more expensive. Hence the tendency to conflate “imported” with “fancy”: References to a product’s distant origins provided a politely euphemistic way of calling a thing “expensive”—conspicuous consumption masquerading under the veil of a cultured cosmopolitanism.

The full value of imported goods cannot, however, be understood in strictly quantitative terms. Beyond the cost of shipping over long distances, the value of imported products reflects the cultural capital (a concept I return to below) linked to the appeal of exotic locales. Consider the “exotic” value of spices: Logistically, the import of spices into Europe from Asia and Africa required long, labor-intensive passage through often-dangerous trade routes. Culturally, tales of these faraway places informed the value of the products from these places. Romantic stories of far off trade and exploration—like those of Marco Polo’s widely circulated travels through Asia—imbued products from the East with the narrative value of what Edward Said has called an exoticized “Orientalism”: Vicarious contact with distant regions perceived in stories as mysterious, mystical, and dangerous. The earliest brand stories emerged in the “exotic” travel journals of early modern spice traders.


Netflix' vision of Marco Polo with Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan

Made in America: The Global and the Local

In the 1980s, global competition from Japan, alongside Cold War angst over the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, inspired new iterations of patriotic "Made In America" branding. Harley Davidson presented brand narratives that transformed purchasing and riding a Harley into a ritual act of patriotic allegiance: 



Today, in the wake of the "great" global recession, American Apparel's powerful "Made in LA" campaign mobilizes the "Made in America" brand in marketing narratives that position millenials as partiotic, globally conscious protagonists in a campaign against sweatshop labor:   


In contrast to the "fancy," exoticized narratives that shape the value of imported products, concerns over globalization have replaced the romance of the "far away" with a nostalgic, communitarian desire for the local.  Against the "adventure" of the imported good, local products now assume value through a comforting narrative of "home sweet home."  Consider how concerns over sustainability and the globalization of labor have brought new attention and value to "home grown" produce. “Locovores,” proponents of purchasing produce grown within a limited radius (usually about 100 miles), believe in the intrinsic value of eating locally to support local economies and farmers. The movement is also a response to the economic and environmental impact of big-time farms and food retailers. Since locally grown food requires less shipping, refrigeration, and packaging, many see eating locally as a means of reducing their carbon footprint. Restriction of food sources produced within a particular “foodshed”—a specific socio-geographic region of food production—is believed to promote more sustainable land usage in harmony with initiatives to support the economies of local communities.


Of course, distribution distance is only one way in which location can distinguish the value and meaning of a particular good. Often, these distinctions of quality reflect more subtle cultural associations, like those tied to histories of ethnic tradition and migration.  Consider the words of Chris Foley, brand manager for Pace Picante Sauce:

"There are some predisposed assumptions from our core users about where a good salsa would not come from and that would be the Northeast… It's like saying, 'He's the guy who gets his bagels from San Antonio."

Salsa from Texas has ethnic authenticity not available in New York City. And authenticity circulates as its own form of value. The impact of the Pace campaigns lies in the ways the ads draw on the potent power of place as an essential source of value in the story of the product’s brand. This power emerges from meanings and associations deeply embedded in the network of connections biding particular places to the production of particular things.

Stories Beyond Numbers

Writers can "feel" the power of place. Carl Sandburg called Chicago the city of "broad shoulders." Words imbue places with mystique and meaning. Paris is known as the "city of Light." New York is "the city that never sleeps." And Reno is "the biggest little city on earth."

These notions imply a particular "structure of feeling" that comes to somehow permeate the meaning and character of a place, beyond quantitative accounts of population size or economic production. Anyone who has been to New York and Dallas knows they are not the same. (For more on my impressions of Dallas, see “Dallas Strength” on the MarketScale blog site.)   Nor, for that matter, are different parts of Los Angeles. Yet these differences cannot always be explained in numbers, in statistics or other numerical accounts. People who have lived or spent much time in both Santa Monica and Pasadena know how different these two cities are. These differences, however subtle and beyond the radar of quantitative analysis, are real.

Referring to what he called the “industrial atmosphere" of a place, the economist Alfred Marshall suggested that the collective air we breathe causes certain productive things to occur and not others.

At a time when globalization and homogenization supposedly flatten distinctions between places, how does one find the differences that matter? When articulating the unique qualities of a place, how does one calculate differences that often elude calculation? In what follows, I explore how narrative marketing captures the more subtle distinctions of place that inform the meaning and value of products.

Personal Story: LA, 1998

The urban historian Norman Klein once told me that the “perceived qualities of a city are not imaginary, but are actual features of the world." Such was the gist, anyway. That was, after all, 18 years ago now—back when I was an undergraduate at UCLA. Memory is tricky. And we were in mixed company. But I’m pretty sure it was Klein who said that perceptions of a city are real. In any event, that’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

Klein was one of a collection of “scholarly experts” invited to participate in a conference on L.A.’s changing urban geography. The conference was held at what was then the city’s newly remodeled Getty Center. My thesis adviser, Kate Hayles, then an English professor at UCLA, had invited me to the conference. I was fascinated by urban geography, and this was my chance to mingle with the “heavy hitters” in the field. After the presentations ended, I made my way into the post-conference mixer. I was new to this kind of scene. The “get-together” felt like the fancier academic version of an after party: Spread out on the Getty’s roof-decks overlooking the city, glass tables topped with sushi and bottles of free wine. Whatever it was, it felt very L.A.

I was young, ambitious, and anxious to impress all the experts whose names lined the spines of the books on my shelves. I was particularly excited to meet Klein. His book, The History of Forgetting had been a key source for my senior thesis, which I had pretentiously entitled, Speculating L.A. Postmodern Dialectics of Urban Space in Science Fiction and Los Angeles. Thinking of it now, the title makes me cringe. But I remain proud of the work. It was a labor of love.

That evening at the Getty, I spent my time trying to maintain appearances, doing my best to “look smart.” Later, as the crowd faded, I began to relax from the odd angst and pressure of social performance that comes with attending parties filled with academics. Alone, I had a chance to enjoy the view from the Getty: The immense Los Angeles cityscape, stretching east past Century City, back toward downtown; south across Santa Monica down to Long Beach; then west into the hazy reaches of the endless Pacific sunset. As the orange glow of evening gave way to rivers of traffic lights coursing across the vast grid of L.A. freeways, the city presented its unique aura, a sense of fantastic mystery that I wanted to articulate in my work.


View of Los Angeles at sunset, as seen from the Getty Museum

I was passionate about capturing some way to explain the palpable “science fictional” quality I sensed in the city around me. It was the first time I had tried to come up with material explanations for cultural perceptions. I eventually linked L.A.’s fantastically futuristic quality to a very real network of historical realities. Among them:

  1. The culture of Hollywood-driven fantasy;
  2. A legacy of future-oriented land speculation and real estate “boosterism” that saw LA as the “city of tomorrow”;
  3. The flattened out sprawl of the city’s post-war, freeway geography;
  4. A history of natural disaster;
  5. And the ongoing influence of Disney.

All of these had informed the city’s very real futuristic sensibility. And this sensibility shaped the creation of things “made in L.A.”—the architecture, the films, even the planes.

 And I got an A+ on my thesis, so, you know… score!

 Actually, the grade was an afterthought: I was genuinely passionate about the project. I majored in English, but my thesis drew me into architecture, urban planning, history, sociology and geography.

I am still fascinated by all of these fields—and particularly interested in the project of capturing the relationship between the perceived qualities of a place and how these qualities inform the distinct features of the things—the products, the creative objects, and goods—that come from that place. The project taught me how the significance of even the most common of everyday things lies in often-vast networks of unseen connections.


Places Produce Things

In other words, I learned that places produce things. The fact may seem self-evident. Yet I don’t simply mean that places produce things in the obvious sense that everything has to be created then distributed from some place. Rather, I developed an ongoing curiosity for how the specific character of a place like Los Angeles—or any place—informs which and what kinds of things are created. I learned how differences of place shape differences in products.

Of course, specific locations contain particular resources that create a unique sense of “place.” Some of these resources are more obvious—like, Kona coffee beans. Other resources are, however, more subtle, and emerge as the nuanced effects of local cultures and traditions—like New York bagels. Because all places have different resources, all places make different kinds of things. Products bear the complex and unique character—a kind of DNA—of the places in which they are produced.  

What’s more, this sense of place in turn plays an essential role in the full meaning and value of things. In other words, these distinct qualities carry their own kind of cultural capital—dimensions of value connected to intangible cultural perceptions. After all, people don’t tend to buy perfume from Pittsburgh. And if they did, it would not have the same meaning and value as perfume from Paris. Similarly, there is a reason why a genuine Swiss watch has meaning and value not associated with, say, a genuine “Reno watch.” (Not that I have anything against Reno!)

How Narrative Marketing Can Tell a Different Story about the Relationship Between Products and Place

The main question geographers and other experts have typically asked about the relationship between places and products looks something like this: Why does one place beat out others to produce a particular good or commodity? How and why, for instance, did Hollywood surpass New York City to become the center of the nation’s film industry? Or why did Detroit and not, say, Pittsburgh, emerge as the national center of the automotive industry?

To figure out how Hollywood came to be, social geographers might look for the city’s "competitive advantage" in film production. But this method focuses on the place, not as much on the relationship between place and product itself: They take the fact of films—the fact of a certain kind of film—for granted.

The alternative is to imagine that there is something about Hollywood and certainly about the nation that surrounds it—that influenced how certain films and the corresponding celebrity culture would turn out.

Stories about Networks

That is the kind of story I want to tell: Stories about the ways the qualities of a place influence the quality of the products made in that place. Telling this story requires thinking about how the broad network of elements that make a place—social, cultural, historical, natural, material, technical and all the rest—interact differently in one spot compared to another to create certain kinds of products. This focus on the network of production is central to truly powerful brand stories. In other words, narrative marketing involves presenting the story of the broader network involved the creation and value of products.

This broader network of production provides a fuller picture of the distinctions that differentiate products made in one place from those made in another. Understanding these qualitative distinctions also requires a certain familiarity with a place. It requires research and experience. For instance, I can more precisely explain distinctions of place if I refer to my own experience in a particular location. For me, this means looking at Los Angeles and the general region of Southern California—say, for instance, the area from Santa Barbara south through San Diego to the border with Mexico.

I have spent a lot of time at and between these two places. Certainly, they have much in common. However, these places demonstrate differences that count in shaping products in a certain way and not another. These locations and their products all have a different feel. One need only find the distinctive nature of places and then trace how those local tendencies yield products of a certain kind.

Hard and Soft Resources

Consider how social scientists determine the factors that inform the “competitive advantage” of a particular place. In addition to the "hard resources” of location—availability of labor, raw materials, and markets—researchers recognize some "softer," less tangible resources at work. These softer resources assumed particular importance amidst the shift from an industrial to service economy. In a service economy, where production focuses on non-material labor, issues like the particular concentration of local knowledge, social norms, access to education, and cultural familiarity all began to inform the kind and character of businesses that emerge in particular places.

"Labor" is not just access to physical bodies, but skill and education or "human capital," as the economists say. A further extension goes toward the idea of "social capital"—the connections and knowledge people in a place have of one another's skills and resources, and the capacity to draw on them.

Place as Cultural Capital

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has argued that culture is organized in a way that parallels economic exchange, in which the associations with certain products, locations, and practices take on symbolic value that circulates as “cultural capital” within a “cultural economy.” Ironically, an immediate example of what Bourdieu called “cultural capital” operates in the very reference to his name. Even referencing a French intellectual like Bourdieu draws on a certain cultural value of place—the problematic elitism of France as a global center of culture and intellectual history—as a type of cultural capital that arguably informs the exchange value of this article! (It’s just all so meta!)

In terms of goods, consider how European, and particularly French, locales often operate as signs of “enlightened consumption.” The cultural associations attached to Paris designers, clients, and commentators create, in themselves, an export market for products attributed to the milieu.

Value becomes not just a matter of adding up numbers tied to labor and production costs, but a complex matter of exchange based on an intangible web of cultural associations.

Eventually, we start getting to what the poets and other writers are after in their attempts to capture the “feel” of a location. Things—products—emerge from a network of hard and soft resources: A mix of physical labor and raw materials combined with human, social, and cultural capital.

Collectively, this network shapes the culture of a place.  Looking at culture in this way allows a pursuit of the local even in a place like LA—a vast metropolis often portrayed as a kind of cultural vacuum…

Los Angeles

I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re beautiful. Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.

Andy Warhol

Nobody ever accuses LA of being “deep.” LA is not intellectual like New York or Boston; nor is it perceived rich in history like London or Paris. It is instead, in the voices of its critics, a place with little substance at all: A "world of hyper-reality," said Umberto Eco, and "the world center of simulacrum and the unauthentic," remarks Jean Baudrillard.

But the flip side of all this emptiness is, I believe, a certain kind of substance that shapes the goods. Some think there is an identifiable LA-region "feel" across the whole range of furniture, appliances, cars, and even medical equipment created there. In Business Week's hyped-up version, Southern California designs are distinctively "exuberant, warm, optimistic, and playful . . . part California, part Japanese, a brash expression of Pacific Rim confidence in the 90's. Think myth, metaphor, humor, and color.” In a recurring LA refrain, we also learn that "The new rule is no rules,” and that California designs have a special "sense of fantasy and wit" and "invented histories."(quoted in Soja, 23

This LA combination of deviance and embrace of pop culture gives it a lot of business. At this relatively democratic moment of consumption, LA can—as the examples to come will show—get into a lot of things. As I look at how place character plays out in specific industrial sectors in Los Angeles, I have in mind that there are analogous processes of “character” in other regions as well, even though the substance is different.

National Cultures as Global Brands

According to Michael Storper, a geographer at UCLA, while globalization has created a situation in which we see the same products all over the world, not all these “same anywheres" have the capacity to conceive, create, manufacture, and deliver these increasingly ubiquitous products. In other words, while one can find Starbucks in places all over the world, not that many places could serve as the origin of these in many ways distinctly Seattle coffee shops and their corresponding products—whether those products are coffee beans, CD’s, or certain varieties of green tea.

This is why people often prefer that goods of a particular sort come from a particular distant place, almost as a matter of type. So perfume should come from Paris, not Pittsburgh, watches from Geneva rather places like Garden Grove, California. (Not that I have anything but love for Pittsburgh and Garden Grove. I was born in Garden Grove.)

In realms where it can work, U.S. marketers take advantage of their country's image of exuberance, showy "fun," and athleticism. In the right niche, it can sell durables. For instance, U.S.-designed sports utility vehicles manage some sales in Japan, along with US-designed off-road-looking clothes and accessories, akin to stuff from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Narrative Marketing as the Production of Cultural Value

While French perfume and Swiss watches represent more iconic examples of “place value,” as a content writer, I remain interested in how we determine the more subtle place-specific differences that shape the character and value of products. Narrative marketing involves telling stories that help us more fully understand how subtle differences of place shape the unique value and meaning of products and services. Narrative marketing captures the qualitative feel of Southern hospitality, the energy of New York City, or the independence of Texas and ties these cultural qualities to real value.

In this sense, narrative marketing engages a vision of marketing as a fundamentally cultural process. In his excellent book, Marketing in Context: Setting the Scene, marketing scholar Christopher Hackley draws on the cinematic concept of “mise en scene” to explore how the meaning of marketing emerges in the cultural contexts of lived spatial environments. Against traditions that reduce marketing to “formulaic management techniques, or a deep science of consumer control,” Hackley sees marketing in more inspired terms, as “something that is produced by, and experienced in, particular social situations” (2).   We experience marketing via experiential immersion in a multi-sensory environments “crafted with persuasive intent”—that is, places, like Las Vegas, designed to engage particular emotions and encourage particular behaviors.


Seen in light of Hackley’s notion of marketing as a cultural process, narrative marketing suggests more than a “form” of presenting information.   Rather, narrative marketing has the power to shape how we understand our lived environment and, by extension, the value of the products created within these environments.


Topics: Creative, advertising, Brand, Thought Leadership, Marketing Theory

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