Can a global brand have a local identity in the community where it operates? What does “local” mean anymore, in our increasingly globalized, interconnected world? What is local, when communities are increasingly being formed online, virtually, where common issues and interests trump geography and physicality? And what are the responsibilities of global brands to local communities?
As someone who has spent the last 20 years as a correspondent in some of the farthest flung corners of the globe, I can tell you these are complex issues, with no easy answers.
For example, as a Detroiter, I always considered General Motors our hometown company, the source of good-paying jobs for generations of Michiganders and a committed partner to the city, its blue and white GM emblem adorning the top of the Renaissance Center which years ago was meant to signal the downtrodden city’s rebirth. But what does it mean when General Motors now sells more cars in China than the U.S., and when the booming China sales kept the company afloat during bankruptcy at home? Is it still a local Detroit car company? Or a Chinese car company that makes cars in China for export to Thailand and India?
Likewise, we are seeing Chinese companies make bids for U.S. firms, increasing numbers of movie co-productions between Hollywood and Beijing, and Apple iPhones grabbing a larger share of the market in Asia’s booming economies.
I’ve seen many countries, from Thailand and Cambodia in Southeast Asia to Kenya and Tanzania in Africa, turn to tourism as an economic engine of growth. But what does it mean in an age of instant travel, when now millions of visitors are wearing down the steps of Angkor Wat or crowding the Masai Mara in safari jeeps?
Even Communist-run China has recognized the value of tourism, with new rules this year allowing tourists from 45 countries short, 72-hour visa-free trips to Beijing and Shanghai — just enough time to visit the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Vietnam, another authoritarian Communist-run country, long ago started allowing for “visas on arrival” for tourists.
As New York Times reporter Elizabeth Becker relates in her new book “Overbooked,” the global tourism business now employes one out of every twelve people and contributes $6.5 trillion to the world economy. And those numbers are only likely to grow as China becomes richer and more middle class Chinese begin traveling the world as tourists. But can the world manage this tourism onslaught? Can local communities be sustained?
And another question that has long intrigued me. I recall traveling to the Great Pyramids of Egypt, taking a boat down the Nile, then riding a bus across the Sinai from Egypt to Israel. I climbed the steps of Borabudur temple in Central Java and visited the Taj Mahal. And no one among my family or friends knew where I was until a post card arrived many weeks later. Now, in the age of instant communication — Facebook and Twitter and Instagram — how has the traveling experience changed? Are we really “in the place” when we travel, immersing ourselves in local experiences? Does taking our virtual community along with us every step of the way enhance the local experience, diminish it, or simply force us to rethink old definitions?
These questions will be at the heart of what promises to be a fascinating panel discussion this Thursday, June 20, at the InterCon Hotel at Times Square in New York, in a partnership between the InterCon Hotels Group and TED, the global ideas online conference series. I’ll be moderating the panel, and you can find the details here: http://www.thefutureoflocal.com/events
You can also join the conversation at TED.com, and offer your views, and follow the conference onTwitter at #futureoflocal.
It should be a fascinating and lively discussion!
Send me your thoughts — the comments section awaits.