Marketing content shared with Michigan Business Network by:
Bonnie J. Knutson, PhD
The School of Hospitality Business
Broad College of Business
Michigan State University
My husband and I were married when we were 19 and still in college. Like many young couples of our era, managing school, two jobs, and family didn’t leave a lot of discretionary time nor money. But we were good savers, even if it was only a quarter here or a dollar there. This brings me to the old Alka Seltzer containers. Some of you may remember them. They looked like little glass tubes and contained the round tablets that fizzed when dropped in water. (These classic containers are now categorized as “vintage” collectables on eBay.)
When the glass tube was empty, it became the perfect size to hold quarters. The diameter was just big enough to let a quarter slide down inside, stacking one on top of the other until the tube was full. Alka Seltzer became our own little bank, and the glass tubes became our own little vacation savings account. As we packed each one, it was stored in our dresser drawer.
I can vividly remember the first time we opened that drawer and realized that we had saved enough for a weekend away. We were like two kids anticipating Christmas morning. We searched to find the perfect place so we could stretch our Alka Seltzer allotment as far as possible. Remember that this was pre-Internet without Trip Advisor, YELP, and Groupon so it took some work. When the Friday afternoon finally came, off we went to what we hoped would be a magical time together. And it was. While I can recall our room, the little restaurant where we had dinner, and lounging by the pool, it is walking through the resort’s grounds at night holding hands that holds my most vivid and fairy-tale memory. You see, that was the first time I had ever seen trees up-lit. It seemed as if the leaves on each tall, stately elm, maple, and ash were dancing, making irreplaceable patterns above us. It was truly magical.
Since that weekend, every home in which we have lived has incorporated tree up-lights in its landscaping. Why do I tell you this story? Because these up-lights give me a sense of place.
Sense of Place has become one of marketing’s recent buzzwords. It’s been used to promote everything from national parks to housing developments. And, yes, it is also used in marketing your business. The truth, however, is that we can’t really define the phrase, so we
don’t really know how to leverage it effectively. Trying to define it is akin to what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in his 1964 test for obscenity, “I shall not today attempt further to define [it]…and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so, but I know it when I see it…”
Geographers look at sense of place from a locational perspective with its topographical characteristics. Anthropologists see it in terms of the relationship between culture and symbols. Sociologists think of it in terms of a feeling of belonging. Architects try to figure out how they can design and build it. And marketers just want to use it to increase revenues. But no matter what the viewpoint, there are three fundamental points to remember in developing your sense of place.
ü First, just as perceptions are different for everyone, so is sense of place. Those up-lights are one of mine, but they were never my husband’s. While he lovingly remembered our walks beneath those trees, he found his sense of place stepping onto the first tee at any golf course.
ü Second, a sense of place needs a place; it has to have a geographic location. Here is where your business has a leg-up on the competition. By definition, you already have a physical place. Yours can be a neighborhood, a hometown, or even an exotic island. And if you are online, your place is the little screen that rests in my laptop or computer screen. The question is whether it also has an emotional sense of place.
ü Third, it must have a distinctive identity that consumers can’t necessarily explain but can feel. The key ingredients here are unique, authentic, and character. It is this third point over which you probably have the most control, but it may also be the hardest for you to implement. It seems that, with the exploding competition, finding that unique and authentic concept to establish your distinctive character becomes more challenging. But those who successfully do it are reaping the benefits.
There is no question that the understanding how a sense of place develops and becomes relevant to your customers is not an easy thing to do. Social psychologists, geographers, designers, and marketers have been trying to figure how to do it for years. All you can do is take what they have learned so far and work to integrate it into every aspect of your operations. Remember that a sense of place is an emotional bond between a person and his/her
surroundings and is often rooted in past experience. This truism comes down to the notion of banked memories and takes us back to my story of Alka Seltzer containers and up-lights.
So be sure to have your trees uplit when I visit your business. It will give me my sense of place.
Your bottom line will thank you!