Spread the word: Smell is gone

Published 10:52 am Saturday, September 25, 2010

From this columnist’s delightful visit with the Franklin Literary Club a couple of weeks ago emerged a marketing theme that the community should pursue with vigor:

We don’t stink anymore!

Our proud mill town for years bristled when outsiders complained about the odor emitted by the paper mill. “It’s the smell of money,” we retorted, with much validity. An intermittent foul odor, even at its most intense moments, was a small price to pay for the jobs and other economic activity that the mill provided. Besides, improved technology over the years gradually reduced the pervasiveness of the smell.

That’s why we locals were surprised — and rightfully indignant — when the region’s daily newspaper a year or so ago devoted an entire section front to the smell of papermaking and portrayed it as Franklin’s defining characteristic. How dare they?

The reality of marketing and public relations is that perception is more powerful than the truth. The Virginian-Pilot story reinforced decades of first impressions by motorists from points east and west who traveled, with noses curled, on U.S. 58 through Franklin and Southampton County.

Silver linings of the mill closure are hard to find, but here’s one: The smell that defined us in the minds — and noses — of many is gone. Our community should trumpet that fact.

A Franklin Realtor told me the story of a prospective client from metropolitan Hampton Roads who called within weeks of the mill-closure announcement last fall and said: “We’ve been wanting to move to Franklin for years but didn’t because of the smell. We might come now.”

As much media attention as the mill closure has received in the Richmond and Hampton Roads markets, we assume that everyone knows about it. I bet there are hundreds of thousands who don’t — who think we still smell just like we always did.

Therein awaits the marketing opportunity of a lifetime. An advertising copywriter could have a field day if turned loose on a campaign:

* “Breathe easy in Franklin/Southampton”

* “Come to Franklin: Same small-town charm, without the smell”

* Or, more subtly, “The Sweet Spot,” piggybacking on the brand Franklin, Southampton and Isle of Wight crafted a few months ago to market to the warehousing and distribution industry

The possibilities are endless.

The Literary Club invited me recently to share a few observations about Franklin’s future. I learned more from them than they from me, but a point of agreement was the reality that the new Franklin will look and function a lot different from the one we’ve known and loved. It doesn’t have to be an inferior future, but it will be radically different.

For a long time, Western Tidewater scoffed at the notion of becoming a “bedroom community” to more populous areas north and east. We didn’t need commuters. We did just fine as a stand-alone economy.

Times have changed. In a country whose manufacturing economy is in irreversible decline, we need to embrace the value of residents who live here and work elsewhere — or who move here to retire. They — and the retail and service economies they support — can be a bridge to rebuilding our industrial economy.

They won’t come unless we invite them. The air we breathe — for so long a detriment — is now a selling point.

Steve Stewart is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.