“I was driving home one day and saw it on the back of a bus,” said Don Burch, owner of Qwest Outdoors, a retailer of outdoor gear in Louisville, Kentucky. The advertisement, in black with white lettering, said, “Keep Louisville Weird. Support Independent Businesses.”
“I tried in vain to find out who was doing it,” said Burch.
Weeks later he finally discovered that the ads, which have been appearing on billboards and buses around the city, were sponsored by John Timmons, owner of Ear X-tacy, a 20-year-old music store.
Timmons had been alarmed by the growing number of chains in Louisville. The year 2003 had been particularly bad. Both Wild Oats and Whole Foods came in, dramatically affecting sales at Rainbow Blossom, a 27-year-old locally owned natural grocer. Then the city lost a long-standing local bookstore, Hawley-Cooke, which decided to sell to Borders Books & Music, rather than face continued encroachment by the chains.
Borrowing a slogan that independent businesses in Austin, Texas, had been using (“Keep Austin Weird,”), Timmons started with one billboard, and then expanded to buses and now tee-shirts and bumper stickers. The ads included no web address or any other explanation of who was behind them, other than a subtle clue: the font and graphic style mimicked bumper stickers for Ear X-tacy.
Eventually people began to figure out the source and Timmons started getting calls from business owners who wanted to get involved, and then from the media. “All the sudden it snowballed,” he said, noting that he doubts that he could have achieved the same results by sending out press releases and following a more standard marketing approach. Local radio stations, the Louisville Courier-Journal, and the Associated Press have covered the campaign.
More than 100 independent businesses are now part of an informal coalition that met for the first time in March, voting to formally organize as an independent business alliance (no name has been selected yet) and to affiliate with the American Independent Business Alliance.
“What we can do by banding together is to point out the benefits and make people feel good about shopping at locally owned stores,” said Burch, who has become an active member of the coalition. “There’s always more power with many voices.”
Leslie Stewart, a publicist for Ear X-tacy who has been managing the Keep Louisville Weird campaign, said that next they plan to create an independent business directory, expand the advertising campaign, and develop a loyalty card that would enable residents to earn rewards by shopping at any participating independent business.
“The public reaction has been very positive so far,” she said. “It’s become such a topic of discussion in town.” She is now receiving at least three inquiries from local business owners each day.
“Communities have to think about whether they want to lose their personality,” Burch said. “If I were to blind fold you and drop you into an Olive Garden, you’d have no idea where you are.”
— How to start an independent business alliance in your community.