Near my home in Austin, Texas, there is a great, old refurbished motel that I recommend to people when they come to visit our fair city. It not only is right on the famed Congress Avenue but also has a keep-it-real attitude that is expressed right on its iconic marquee: “No additives, no preservatives, corporate-free since 1938.”
The good news is that more and more businesses across the country are adopting this attitude, providing a buy-local, un-corporate, anti-chain alternative for customers. Food shoppers and restaurant goers, for example, have made a huge shift in recent years away from the likes of McDonald’s, Pepsi and Taco Bell, preferring upstart, independent outfits with names like “The Corner,” “Caleb’s Kola,” and “US Taco Co.”
But uh-oh, guess who owns those little local alternatives. Right – McDonald’s, PepsiCo and Taco Bell. Leave it to ethically challenged, profiteering monopolists to grab such value-laden terms as “genuine,” “local” and “honest,” empty them of any authenticity, then hurl them back at consumers as shamefully deceptive marketing scams.
In Huntington Beach, Calif., US Taco Co. poses as a hip surfer haunt, with a colorful “Day of the Dead” Mexican skull as its logo. The airy place peddles lobster tacos and other fare at $3 or $4 each – very un-fast-foody. Nowhere is it whispered that this is a big-chain outlet, created by a group of Taco Bell insiders. They even usurped the enterprising word “entrepreneur,” stripped it of its outsider connotation, and twisted it into an ugly corporate vanity, calling themselves “intrapreneurs.”
Fast-food restaurants are not the only ones that play this profitable imitation game. As everyone who travels a lot soon learns, when you stay in the hotels of the big chains, it’s easy to forget where you are, since they are all so alike, offering all the charm of Noplace, USA.
This disorienting sameness has become even more dizzying in recent years as the chains have merged and conglomerated. Weary travelers might choose to stay overnight in one of the Residence Inn hotels, a Courtyard, the TownePlace Suites or even splurge for a night in a ritzy Ritz-Carlton. In fact, though, whichever one you choose, you’re in a Marriott – the $14 billion-a-year combine that owns all of the above chains, along with 15 others. Marriott is among the world’s 10 largest hoteliers that have a combined 113 different chains in their crowded stable of brand names.
Naturally, as uniformity and conglomeration have taken over the industry, a consumer rebellion has erupted, with more and more travelers – especially younger ones – seeking out independent hotels, unique inns and local B&Bs. They prefer the un-corporate places that have cool names like the Moxy, Canopy and Vib. But oh, crud, guess what. All three of those are chains of “hip” hotels that opened in the past year, and are owned respectively by Marriott, Hilton and Best Western.
Known in the industry as “lifestyle hotels,” these fake-independent lodgings are the hot new niche for mega-conglomerates trying to nab travelers in search of authenticity. “The big hotel chains are in the business of pretending they aren’t big chains,” says Pauline Frommer, editor of the well-regarded Frommer’s travel guides. “They want you to think they are boutiques.”
Sneaky, sneaky! But the real problem with these fabricators of corporatized authenticity is that reality will win out in the end. Small and local has a genuine feel and flavor that the imitators can’t sustain as they sprawl out into 1,000 and then 10,000 stores. And as they do that, it becomes obvious to customers that they’ve been duped – and that’s not a good marketing strategy. We dupes will not only quickly see that we’re being sold plastic “authenticity” but also be ticked off about it.
Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.