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USA Today: Minnesota small town just says no to 'Starbucks Nation'

by Debbie HowlettUSA TODAY
October 1st, 2003

It's not that people here have anything against Starbucks. Most of them have tried a latte or Frappuccino. Many of them even enjoyed it.

But the 2,400 residents of this historic town on Lake Minnetonka are trying to battle what Mayor Lynn Johnson calls "corporate sameness." They don't want the big chain stores that have cropped up across America, such as Starbucks, Home Depot and Wal-Mart.

"We are not big-box. We are small town all the way," Johnson says.

To make that point, the town hired a Minneapolis advertising agency to craft a campaign for Excelsior's image. The firm, Andrews/Birt, developed advertisements in the form of cheeky letters to Starbucks, Home Depot and the Hard Rock Cafe. The letters bluntly say no thanks to corporate franchises.

The tag line in the ads: "Secede from Starbucks Nation."

Three of the ads ran in June, July and August in a free alternative newspaper in Minneapolis. A Starbucks regional manager, based in Denver, met with civic and business leaders to emphasize the importance of good corporate citizenship and respect for community values by the coffee company, which has 7,000 stores worldwide.

Hard Rock Cafe officials were unavailable for comment, and officials at Home Depot did not return phone messages.

Starbucks remains a bit perplexed by the ads.

"I don't know if I understand what they mean," spokeswoman Lara Wyss says. "We don't have a store in Excelsior. We weren't looking to put one there."

Still, the first-of-a-kind ads resonate with many young adults who might have a skeptical view of corporations in the aftermath of Enron and other business scandals. Some observers call it part of a backlash rooted in the protests at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in December 1999. A concern about corporate globalism -- and the idea that bigger is better -- has begun to seep into mainstream American towns.

"People are beginning to realize, especially in small towns, that while they can pimp themselves for corporate dollars, that's not going to keep the economy going 30 years from now. It's not sustainable," says Pratap Chatterjee of CorpWatch.org, a group that opposes globalization. "And it's definitely young people at the forefront of this movement."

And one aim of Excelsior's ad campaign is to attract younger visitors -- "the 20-to-40 crowd," says Linda Murrell of the Chamber of Commerce.

Excelsior, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in August, was a summer resort in the early 1900s with a casino and 100-room hotels. In the 1950s and '60s, a new amusement park and dance hall drew visitors. But for the past 25 years, the town has struggled to find a similar niche.

Many of the current visitors arrive on tour buses to shop at antique stores and other shops. The town could have been lifted from a Norman Rockwell canvas. At its heart is a three-block stretch of Water Street with an ice cream parlor, barbershop and movie theater. At the end of the street is a public park with a band shell and picnic benches.

The nearest Starbucks is in an upscale town across the lake: Wayzata, population 4,113, where the Pillsburys and others built mansions.

Some residents believe that the outreach to young people has already changed the town.

"This used to be a working man's town," says Tom Knowlton, 66, a carpenter who has always lived in Excelsior.

"It's different now," he says. "You knew everybody in town back then. Now people with money are coming in, inflating prices and changing things."

The town is creating a "revitalization master plan" to be finished this fall. A draft says, "The vibrant downtown is beginning to lose some of its luster."

The first step to revitalize the town was to find a non-traditional advertising agency to hone its image.

"We don't look for the big idea. We look for a buzzy idea," says Chris Birt, a partner in the agency. "We want something that ties into a cultural zeitgeist, something everybody is feeling but nobody is talking about."

After walking along Water Street, "We said, 'Bingo!' This place has soul, and no place else in the vicinity does," Birt says. "They offer soul and uniqueness rather than conformity and sameness."

Birt says he came across the term Starbucks Nation "either in Wired or The Wall Street Journal." No matter its origin, it became the centerpiece of the ad campaign.
Not everybody appreciates the ads.

Bill Mason, whose family has owned a Chrysler car dealership since 1922, is opposed to the ads. "It connotes negativity. It's like we don't want franchises. Hello! I'm a franchise," he says. "I'd just rather say what we've got than what we don't want."

But Ed Zembrycki, owner of Tony's Barbershop, which his father opened 69 years ago, says, "The ad carries a good message. And it spices things up a little."
"If they ran a Barnes & Noble letter, I wouldn't mind," jokes Ann Nye, who seven years ago opened Excelsior Bay Books.

And when Rosemarie Pedersen and Sheri Beck left their jobs in the law department at American Express in Minneapolis a year ago, they opened a coffee shop on Water Street. "We wanted to be in Excelsior," Beck says.

They opened their Dunn Bros. coffee shop in January. Business has been brisk. And while Dunn Bros. is a chain of shops around Minneapolis, Pedersen points out that the shop is locally owned and operated, not part of a corporate behemoth.

"We feel so heartened," Pedersen says. "We brought a business to the community, and they have completely accepted us as one of their own."





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