Big Business Hugs Small to Help Themselves

CHICAGO ( MainStreet) -- There's nothing like an election season -- combined with challenging economic times -- to get folks sentimental about the American Dream. The entrepreneurs and small-business owners who have toughed it out over the past few years have become powerful symbols of that dream.

Presidential candidates praise "Main Street" as the source of the country's greatness, while government officials cite entrepreneurs as a key to lowering unemployment rates. As large corporations lay off thousands of workers, small start-ups are lauded for their job-creation potential.
By demonstrating their support for the little guys, as Chipotle does with family farms, the big guys hope some of the virtues associated with independent businesses will rub off on them.

So perhaps it's no surprise big businesses have started to see the PR benefits to allying themselves with small businesses. By demonstrating their support for the little guys, the big guys hope some of the virtues associated with independent businesses will rub off on them, too.

The symbiotic relationship between large and small businesses is nothing new, of course. Almost every large company has some sort of partnership with independent suppliers that provide specialty parts or services. While suppliers might boast of their work for Ford ( F) or Boeing ( BA), the corporations usually had nothing to gain from publicizing such arrangements.

But now, with buy-local movements showing the connections between a town's economy and its citizens' buying habits, there are very real benefits to showing a large corporation has local roots. That's why we're starting to see more and more companies tout their work with small suppliers.

Take Chipotle ( CMG). Since its founding, the Mexican fast-food chain has differentiated itself from competitors by emphasizing that its ingredients were produced in a sustainable manner; one of the company's taglines is "Food with Integrity." Forming partnerships with farmers around the country ensures that the company's sourcing lives up to that promise.

To emphasize that message, Chipotle recently commissioned a stop-animation video, Back to the Start, to dramatize the process by which a family farm devolves into an automated factory churning out products that bear little resemblance to food. (The soundtrack featured Willie Nelson covering a Coldplay song, a clever appeal to different demographics.)

The idea was to get social-media play by drawing attention to the issue of factory farming in a creative, unexpected way, rather than produce a traditional advertising spot. The video, which has gotten almost 6 million views on YouTube, succeeded in allying the Chipotle brand with the image of an independent farmer who reclaims his farm and brings it back to the old, traditional methods of food production.

Could that positive attention be part of the reason McDonald's ( MCD) has discovered the appeal of sourcing as a marketing angle? The company recently rolled out an advertising campaign that highlights farmers whose products are bought by McDonald's, including California lettuce farmer Dirk Giannini. The ad touts Giannini's farm as a fourth-generation family business, just the sort of operation Americans get sentimental about and want to support. The hope for McDonald's is that suppliers such as Giannini will put a sympathetic human face on an enormous, multinational corporation.

Piggybacking on a larger company's marketing can be a huge break for a small business. The warehouse giant Costco ( COST) regularly highlights small, independent suppliers in its monthly magazine that goes out to its members in the United States and Canada. By telling the personal stories of these business owners, Costco associates itself with their perseverance and creativity. The underlying message? Shop at Costco, and you support this entrepreneur's dream.

Whether this trend toward supplier recognition will expand beyond the food and restaurant industries remains to be seen. But big businesses looking to avoid the bad rep of "Big Business" could take a few lessons from Chipotle and Costco. Share the credit for what you've accomplished, and reap the public-relations rewards.

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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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