Monday, March 1, 2010

Revisiting the Nativist Stance: Lessons From History for Brand Recognition

As I have discussed before, this is a city that's constantly in flux. The City That Never Sleeps, The Crossroads of the World, The Information City, The Port of Many Ports, The Media City—these nicknames that imply fluidity. New Yorkers are adaptable. Sure they may grumble at subway delays, but they rarely ever bat an eye at the reasons for delays. New construction happening on the street? It quickly becomes part of the background, part of the social fabric of the city. So it's surprising when change causes a flutter.

Recently, Walgreens announced that it would be buying the Duane Reade drugstore chain. Duane Reade is deeply integrated into the city. Taking its name from two city blocks, the pharmacy has been around since 1960. Originally just a few stores, it's now hard to walk three blocks in either direction without seeing its familiar sign. While Walgreens has more stores throughout the country, Duane Reade has thee times more stores in New York City than the other chain, according to a NYT article. The drugstore just launched a new promotional campaign that emphasized its connection to the city: The slogan, "Everywhere you go, Duane Reade," spins the chain's ubiquity as positive. And even while some New Yorkers comment on commercialization, there are others who are wondering what will become of the brand. Will Walgreens replace Duane Reades? What will become of those former rival stores strategically located across the street from each other? And what does it mean for New Yorkers who have come to recognize at least this one element as a mainstay of their New York existence. Duane Reades are like the hotdog vendors, the yellow cabs, the breakfast carts, and the umbrella vendors who come creeping out when it rains to hawk their wares—what does the social landscape look like if these familiar store fronts come down.

I just finished reading Five Points by Tyler Anbinder, and the stories of this neighborhood remind me in some ways of the feelings associated with this particular transition. Each wave of immigration brought to New York City a group that would fight to be settled here, to ultimately be called natives. Each group would look down with contempt at successive immigrant groups and magnify their faults. These newcomers didn't know the ways of the social order, they didn't understand what it meant to earn a living here, they didn't get the character of the place. According to some historians, this sentiment underlies on the most violent gang encounters in New York City history—that between the Bowery Boys and the Mulberry Boys/Roche Guard, which has come to be known as a conflict between so-called nativists (those born in New York) and the new Irish Catholic immigrants. Of course, the story is not as simply as this disagreement, but there appears to be some truth in this origin of animosity, and it's one that has been played out again and again with each new group.

This conflict echoes in the Duane Reade buyout. Walgreens is simply a new interloper, trying to inject itself in the social landscape. Who are these new comers? And will they understand the character of the city? They're not natives though they have a chance to manipulate such an identity for themselves. The Duane Reade brand may have actually been damaged in the sale. After all, touting yourself as an integral element of the city and then selling to an out-of-state rival hardly inspires home team backing. (Look what happened with the Brooklyn Dodgers—there are still broken and bruised hearts all throughout Brooklyn.) Still, Walgreens has a reputation it can capitalize on and an opportunity to introduce change slowly, secure its hold, and negotiate its presence as integral. They just have to play their cards right: by embracing the New York brand, they have the opportunity to seed the market here, while first making structural changes to the store (e.g., layout) before migrating to the Walgreens signage. And New Yorkers will follow, and we'll accept it. Because we are a city of change.

Tell me about changes you're seeing in your neighborhood. Has a rival chain moved in? What has it does to the character of your neighborhood? To the people who frequent the stores? And what do you think Duane Reade's chances of survival are?

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