When it comes to marketing a new cola or a new line of sunglasses, or even changing attitudes about the monolithic pharmaceutical industry, the opinions of Baltimoreans are being used to gauge the thinking of the nation.
The reason is simple: More than any other city, the values and attitudes of people in Baltimore mirror those of the rest of the nation, according to research by SRI International, a consulting company based in Menlo Park, Calif.
"Our opinions do count," said Barbara Gassaway, president and chief executive officer of Observation Baltimore, a division of the Family Research Group, a marketing research firm. "And a lot of money is spent on getting the opinions of Baltimore consumers. If Baltimore is chosen as a place to test a product, they're going to influence whether it gets on a shelf in another city -- absolutely."
The ability of Baltimore residents to speak for the nation is one reason that the city is a proving ground for products like Virgin Cola, Polaroid's [X]OOR sunglasses and Disney's ESPN Zone, which opens here this summer.
John Garrett, a consultant and director of marketing for SRI International, says the company's research is based on eight categories of attitudes and values -- a psychographic profile -- which show that the mind-set of Baltimoreans parallels that of the nation.
"If you plan to take your product nationally, you better get a read on what people in Baltimore like and don't like," Garrett said. "The people in Baltimore can teach you a lot."
Baltimore is an extremely logical choice for the first ESPN Zone sports entertainment complex, before it opens in Chicago next summer and in 15 or 20 markets across the country within five years, Garrett said.
"If I'm going to try to attract a wide cross section of people, such as Disney would want to do with this ESPN Zone, it would be to my advantage to test in a place most representative of the mind-set of the U.S.," he said. "They're going to get a better and faster read here than in another city."
Even smaller companies can find the opinions of the people of Baltimore valuable.
"When a client wants to get a good representation of the nation, and they have a limited budget, Baltimore is a great market to choose," said Karen House Sapp, vice president of House Market Research, which has offices in Baltimore and Washington.
Baltimore also closely parallels national numbers for demographics, said Ken Yednock, executive vice president, director of client services for Gray Kirk/VanSant in Baltimore. For instance, 58 percent of Americans are married, compared with 56 percent in Baltimore.
In Baltimore and in the nation, 19 percent of the population is in the $50,000 to $75,000 income range, and 6 percent is in the $100,000 to $150,000 range, Yednock said.
Local advertising agencies know Baltimore's profile and use that information to sell themselves and their services.
"The fact that we live in a marketplace that is more representative of the U.S. than the New Yorks, Los Angeles and Chicagos, it gives us a better feel for the national customer," said Yednock. "We tell our clients, 'We understand your customer because we live with them.' "
Employees at Eisner & Associates Inc. used conversations with people in Baltimore to help formulate a campaign to improve the image of the National Association of Homebuilders.
"When we went to talk to people in Baltimore County about how they feel about homebuilders, they said, "Homebuilders come in and build, and I'm left with longer lines at Giant and more crowded schools,' " said Joseph Bruce, executive vice president of strategic planning.
Based on that information, the agency told the association that its members needed to be perceived as community builders, not homebuilders. A campaign was launched to spotlight the homebuilders' role in building not only physical structures, but the life and spirit of communities across the country.
When Polaroid hired Eisner to help research and test-market its new line of [X]OOR sunglasses, Baltimore was included to get a read on the nation, along with San Diego and Miami with their specialized markets.
"The success in Baltimore is going to decide whether this is a national brand or just a brand that goes into a fashion-forward market or a market that's sunny year-round," said David Blum, Eisner's vice president of strategic planning.
And when health care reform threatened to impose price controls on drugs in 1993-1994, another client of Eisner's, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, asked for help.
From conversations with people in Baltimore, the advertising firm learned something that it believes played a significant role in the defeat of health care reform. "What we learned in Baltimore, told us that people didn't know that pharmaceutical companies do the research to discover new drugs, not just sell them," Blum said.