Six Common Mistakes That Kill “Buy Local” Campaigns

By Jeff Milchen and Joe Grafton

Inspired by the success of many grassroots groups, hundreds of U.S. communities have initiated “buy local” campaigns in recent years, and with good reason — they can be a powerful tool to help local entrepreneurs while creating local wealth. However, only a fraction of those campaigns endure to create real shifts in culture and spending. While hundreds of campaigns have started in recent years, most have faded away quickly without making substantial impact.

But don’t let that discourage you from what can be a superb investment. The good news is most efforts fail for reasons both predictable and easily avoided. Recognizing these common mistakes and learning elements shared by the most successful campaigns can help you succeed.

1. “Reinventing the Wheel”

Every campaign should reflect the culture, language and ideas of your community — local personality matters. But the core principles and best practices for developing effective campaigns have been developed, refined and collected.

Too many new initiatives consume multiple meetings discussing decisions for which best practices not only exist, but have been turned into templates and clear “how-tos” that will save you time and money. Start by gaining a solid understanding of what’s worked and what hasn’t elsewhere. You’ll then have the foundation from which to innovate and adapt to your community’s unique circumstances and a large network of peer organizations to tap for new ideas and ongoing improvement. You’ll also inspire ongoing engagement by showing people that your group moves forward effectively and respects participants’ time.

The American Independent Business Alliance makes this task easy. AMIBA is a non-profit organization that exists to help people organize successfully by collecting best practices and sharing useful examples, templates and how-tos across all member organizations.  AMIBA staff can help you create the necessary infrastructure quickly and allow your group members to focus their energy on what they are passionate about.

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2. Including “Local” Outlets of Chains 

At the root of buy local campaigns and local Alliances is giving local independent business a collective profile and voice they previously lacked and ensuring the local economy includes a robust independent business community. So successful campaigns focus on the positive virtues of locally-owned, independent businesses.

Unfortunately, many municipal governments or existing business groups start campaigns with the goal of simply raising sales tax revenues or keeping sales on their geographic turf. But successful campaigns depend on the engagement of local residents and business owners, whose interest will be diminished (at best), if they see the likes of Target or Applebees framed as “local.” Also, some residents will be confused or angered by seeing national chains and franchises included. [More on franchises and potential “grey areas” here.]

Local governments have played a key role helping initiate many successful buy local campaigns and Independent Business Alliances with start-up funding and support for local trainings, but their role should be a step removed from setting criteria, policy and decisions. Campaigns run by local governments rarely last — getting local business owners and advocates to take ownership is key.

3.  Homogenous Leadership
It’s natural for people to think they should seek out others who are like-minded to join their effort, but beware: a diverse range of perspectives is key to reaching a broad audience and innovating.

Be proactive in recruiting board members who share a common vision, but differ in age, race, political views, affiliations and (for business owners) business sector and customer demographics. Non-business owners often can offer great insights, too. If your group reaches consensus on important decisions too easily, watch out!

Also, take care to ensure your buy local initiative isn’t reported or perceived as either a liberal or conservative undertaking. While political engagement to advance pro-local policy is encouraged, the campaign should remain free of partisanship.


Click to view many ready-to-use outreach materials

4. Defining a Campaign Around Shopping
Of course, retailers are among the businesses most directly impacted by both chain and online competition, often are the most visible, and may be among the easiest to recruit for your campaign. But retailers, who comprise a minority of businesses, will be better served by a broader and more powerful campaign than one focused narrowly on shopping.

To build a strong and well-funded effort, you’ll want to engage restaurants, print shops, farmers, accountants, artists and countless others who may not feel included by a shopping bag logo or urgings to “shop local.” This is why a majority of thriving groups choose names using inclusive language like “Go Local,” “Local First,” or “Independent Business Alliance*” paired with their community name.

Also, be aware many independent businesses don’t have storefronts (about half of all businesses are home-based!) Consciously referencing agriculture, crafts, home-based businesses and others will ensure your message serves all local independents.

5. Not Demonstrating Bottom-line Impact
A few “true believers” may support your campaign financially out of altruism, but most business owners will need to see evidence of your impact to earn their continued financial support or engagement. In addition to effectively advocating for local independents and driving public education in the community, be sure to articulate clearly how that work translates into concrete benefits for your constituency.

For example, don’t just tell business members they get to use your logo in their window and website. Calculate the number of impressions created by your entire membership, remind them how your pro-local brand reaches a broader audience than any individual business can, and how brand awareness creates familiarity that makes customers more willing to try an unfamiliar business. Use the graph above to show the tangible impact on consumer decisions your campaign can make.

6. Focusing Only on Consumer Decisions
Shifting spending habits of individual consumers obviously is one goal for your campaign, but it’s equally valuable to push schools, governments and other institutions to do more local sourcing and spending. In fact, working to influence spending by these entities can create whole new business opportunities in your community. This requires both building relationships with local officials and engaging residents as citizens acting as stewards over their community, not merely as consumers. (Ask AMIBA for templates to help in this realm.)

Also, recognize local government actions often play a huge role in determining what type of businesses succeed. Zoning, tax policy and streamlined processes for small business all are key areas to evaluate and work to improve. Unfortunately, many communities have poor planning and perverse tax incentives that subsidize stand-alone big box stores or prioritize business attraction over growing from within. This costs taxpayers money and diminishes opportunities for local entrepreneurs, but engaging citizens can change local priorities. 

The “Come In” window decals pictured on cover are available to you here.

Getting Started

“Building Buy Local Campaigns that Shift Culture and Spending” is a pamphlet that will guide you through the essentials and offer visual examples from many of the most effective local campaigns. Thanks to underwriting from American Express OPEN, it’s available free upon request in both English and Spanish.

Once you’ve read it, get in touch with AMIBA and take advantage of the extensive support and materials provided for affiliates. We’re happy to consult with your group by phone to help plan initial steps.

Jeff Milchen (@JMilchen) and Joe Grafton (@JoeGrafton) each spent many years leading local campaigns and helped other community efforts via the AMIBA. They are among a team of expert facilitators who provide presentations and trainings to communities launching campaigns, trade groups aiming inspire their members to these ideas, local governments and many others

Recommended Resources on Buy Local Campaigns:

Overview of buy local campaigns and evidence of their impact

Top reasons to buy local, eat local, go local

Free pro-local business web graphics

Posters, decals and other ready-to-use materials

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