Big Cities Don’t Have a Monopoly on Creativity

Posted on June 30, 2015 by Marian Salzman

Alby Headrick

[Originally posted by The Guardian.]

Conventional wisdom says that if you want to make your mark and work with creative and innovative people, a city is the place to be. All those people concentrated in one location means unbeatable potential for finding friends, customers, connections, work opportunities, culture and entertainment. Cities are the places for hatching the hottest developments in fashion, finance, culture, commerce, media, technology and sports. No wonder more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas. City lovers and fortune seekers can take their pick from more than 530 metropolitan areas around the world that have 1 million-plus inhabitants.

Big media and marketers must have a presence in cities. But city slickers risk thinking that it’s only in big cities where important stuff happens. The world’s largest metropolises do generate a lion’s share of the action, but they don’t have a monopoly on creativity. In fact, smaller cities and places off the beaten track can be ideal for innovation.

Take a look at a few examples in the drinks category. Global coffee juggernaut Starbucks started small in Seattle, Washington (population when it was founded in 1971: over 540,000; current population: 652,405), where a cool, moist climate proved an ideal environment for Howard Schultz’s hot drinks. On the other side of the U.S., Revelator Coffee is headquartered in a smaller city: Birmingham, Alabama (population: 212,113). Revelator, a client of my company’s, chose an industrial area of Birmingham to locate its roasting facility and plans to launch an e-commerce site later this year. The fashionable city also has a built-in audience for Revelator’s inviting spaces that are caffeinating the south in style.

Then there’s beer. Microbreweries are popping up everywhere. Just in the western half of my small state in the U.S., the CT Beer Trail in Connecticut (population: 3.6 million) features almost two dozen breweries and beer pubs. Across the pond, BrewDog was born on the windy north-east coast of Scotland. Bored with standard beer offerings, deep-sea fisherman James Watt and distillery worker Martin Dickie decided they would have to make an interesting option themselves. In 2007, they set up BrewDog in a leased building in the tiny town of Fraserburgh (population: 13,140). Barely a year later, their hand-filled craft beers had taken the top four prizes in a Tesco competition; then the pair breezily committed to supplying vastly more than they could brew and lied to snag a bank loan to expand. BrewDog now exports globally and is still growing, thanks to stellar marketing skills.

For those who like their beverage with a little more bite and a delightfully cheesy back story, it’s worth heading down to the west Dorset coast to Beaminster (population: over 3,100). That’s where dairy farmer Jason Barber dreamed up Black Cow vodka, which bills itself as the world’s only vodka made entirely from the milk of grass-fed cows. The curds are used to make artisan cheese.

In yet another drink category, cold-pressed juices are hot in the U.S., with a market estimated at $100 million (£63.5 million) a year; American juice and smoothie bars overall are reportedly bringing in $2 billion in revenue. As I am about to embark on a juice diet in a few weeks (cold-pressed juices are said to be much more nutritious than those made by centrifugal extractors), I love that juices are now being made fresh in so many places, including small towns. Tucked away in Arlington on the downs of East Sussex, U.K., Folkington’s Juices started with a mission to juice specific fruit varieties grown in particular locations—just as with wine. Founder Paul Bendit started with fruit of English origin, but the range now includes fruits sourced from further afield.

Beverages are the new sneakers for trendspotters and marketers like me. I blew it in 2008, when I wanted to be in the coconut water business but lacked the opportunity and spark to leap in headfirst.

Today, what I’m increasingly thirsty for (no pun intended) is locally based innovation that doesn’t depend on crowds. Big cities are where most people look for other people to help them create and innovate. But it’s often in smaller places where original, creative people take the lead.

[photo: Headrick]

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