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NOTIONS: Do national brands make city grand or bland?

January 3, 2005

Bruce Hetrick is on vacation this week. In his absence, this column, which appeared on Jan. 28, 2002, is being reprinted.

Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy's, died this month. Most folks remember Dave for his TV commercials. I recall hometown pride, because Dave learned the restaurant business from a Fort Wayne chicken establishment I frequented in my youth.

Over the years, I helped build Dave's fortune one "single everything, no onion" at a time.

Wendy's ads-especially the ones before Dave the pitchman-made me laugh. The best was the one that Vice President Walter Mondale immortalized when he asked fellow presidential candidate Gary Hart, "Where's the beef?" That line, plus a little monkey business, destroyed Hart's campaign.

I even remember my first Wendy's. At age 15, I'd just gotten my first job, wrapping coins in the basement of Fort Wayne's Lincoln National Bank. All morning, I'd sit in a vault with three retirees. We'd dump heavy bags of pennies, dimes, nickels and quarters into machines, fill paper tubes with coins, set the tubes into metal trays and stack the trays for armored car delivery to Lincoln Bank's branches.

At lunch time, I'd run canceled checks to the other downtown banks, sometimes stopping at the new Wendy's for a burger and Frosty.

As Wendy's grew into the nation's third-largest fast-food chain, Dave made customers comfortable by making their surroundings predictable. A Wendy's in Birmingham looks like one in Boise looks like one in Biloxi. In marketingspeak, Dave understood "branding." He delivered a consistent experience no matter where you ate.

We've become brandaholics in America. Today, my phone rings and the callers-even those from the tiniest companies or not-fort-profit agencies-say they want to "brand" their organizations.

But does all this branding deliver grandness or blandness?

Four years ago, the pundits and powerbrokers of Indianapolis were doing their best Rodney Dangerfield, whining that Indianapolis "don't get no respect" because the city lacked a Starbucks coffee shop.

"Real cities have Starbucks," they said. "If we don't get one, no one will take us seriously. We won't be able to recruit trendy tech employees with little burgundy eyeglasses. Writers clad all in black won't have anyplace to park their waferthin laptops and churn out manuscripts. Conventioneers with colorful nametags around their necks will boycott us."

"We want to be hip to the max," they said, "Starbucks will make us so."

In 1999, Starbucks appeared. Soon there were more and more and more Starbucks. There are more Starbucks now than gas stations.

And the pundits and powerbrokers, doing their best Jesse Jackson, said, "I AM somebody, I AM somebody," because Starbucks had blessed us with its presence.

This month, however, the closing of a little java joint on Massachusetts Avenue sent the pundits and powerbrokers reeling.

The local owner of the closing cappuccino café said he could not compete with the Seattle behemoth that had parked itself across the street from his establishment, taking with it the Mass Avenue minions, now clad all in black with little burgundy eyeglasses and toting wafer-thin laptops.

The pundits and powerbrokers, doing their best John Wayne, said, "How dare that big national bean baron swagger into our town and gun down that little fella? By gosh, we're gonna lose local charm! We need to defend home-grown! Somethin's gotta be done!"

My friends, we've got trouble, right here in Circle City. We lust in our hearts for the Hard Rock Cafés, the Planet Hollywoods, the Crate & Barrels and the Starbucks of this world.

We convince ourselves that these trendy brands will make us players like other places. We think their presence will draw droves of residents, businesses and visitors. But when the big guys arrive, we bemoan the little guy's bellyflop and critique the lack of unique.

I like having the big brands around. Choice is good and some of their products and services are superior to local offerings.

But I have a secret weapon in the war against homogenized America. It's called a wallet.

With a single piece of plastic or oldfashioned paper money, I can decide whether the profits from my purchases ripple throughout this state or make a beeline for New York, Seattle or Stockholm.

Fellow pundits and power brokers: Starbucks isn't evil for setting up shop on every corner. We are, if we opt only for national chains and lop off the locals.

On the way to Wendy's, I can stop myself, say, "Famous Betty's would be better," and make a U-turn.

I can embrace Planet Hollywood if Bruce Willis wants to invest here. But if the food stinks AND I HAVE TO SHOUT TO BE HEARD OVER THE DIN, I can help bankrupt the place by communing at the Claddagh.

Wanna make this city a player? Put Hard Rock Café on the marquee. Then drop your bills at the Slippery Noodle.
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Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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