Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Downtown R & D - When Does It Cross The Line?

Yes, we've all done it.  You've heard of a downtown event or promotion that you really liked and pulled the old R & D (Ripoff and Duplicate).  I admit it, I've done it too. But when does R & D cross the line?  I discovered the answer to that delicate question just last week.

I was poking around on Facebook the other night and came across an event that Downtown No-Name (name changed to protect the guilty) was holding called Junk in the Trunk.  Hmmm, I thought to myself.  That's funny because we have an event that we just did last month called Junk in the Trunk.  And even funnier, our logo is the back of a car with the trunk open and the event logo for Downtown No-Name's event is also a back of a car with the trunk open.  Oh, but we described ours a "community-wide resale event".  And I read their description and guess what it said - "community-wide resale event".  Okay, it's not so funny anymore. Did I mention Downtown No-Name is 30 minutes from my downtown?

So after a sleepless night, first thing the next morning, I called the Main Street Manager for Downtown No-Name to get to the bottom of this.  I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, so my first question was, "Hey, where did you come up with that Junk in the Trunk Event?"  Her answer?  "Oh, from you (insert nervous laugh here)."  Wrong answer.  I told her that I would have had no problem if she took the event concept, but did she have to duplicate the name, font, logo and even our description.  Her response?  "Oh, was it too much?"  Yeah, way too much.

As you might imagine I was recounting this experience to many of my friends throughout the day and one of my favorite downtown people suggested I write a blog about my experience so here we are.  I'm not saying that R & D is bad, but it has to be done carefully and thoughtfully.  At the end of the day, these ideas were someone's original thoughts somewhere along the line and that needs to be respected.  Here are some helpful tips to guide you down the R & D path.

Make it your own.  It's fine to take a concept, but you need to put your own spin on it.  This goes for any event or promotion regardless of where you got your inspiration.  The most successful events are ones that resonate with your community.  A great example of my finest R & D moment is The Big, Bright Light Show, Downtown Rochester's signature holiday event.  The inspiration for that event came from Walt Disney World's Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at their Hollywood Studios Theme Park.  I saw an idea (a stunning 5 million light holiday display), took the parts that I liked best (the lights on the buildings) and built an event that fit the size, scale and needs of our downtown.  And I told anyone that would listen where the inspiration came from, so there wouldn't be any confusion.

Proximity.  This should be common sense, but based on my recent experience, maybe not.  Think about your market and trade area.  If there is another downtown in your market that has an idea that you love and that they do a great job with, maybe you need to accept that there isn't any room in the market for another one.  Keep in mind, I'm not talking about Farmers' Markets, Sidewalk Sales or Trick-or-Treat, etc.  Those types of events are must-have events in the "Main Street Handbook". I'm talking about those off-beat events that are unique to each downtown. 

Great ideas are products of great environments.  I've had a lot of people try to create their own version of The Big, Bright Light Show.  They see the dollars and traffic we drive to our downtown businesses and decide right then and there that this is the event for them.  I'm always happy to share our story, helpful tips and some basic dos and don'ts.  But I always caution them to look at their downtown environment to see if this event can work.  Is there an appetite or demand for this type of event?  In my town, we already had a big holiday kick-off event and the largest Christmas Parade in Michigan, so I felt like there would be support for another holiday event.  Logistics are also key.  The "magic" of our show comes from the built environment - the historic buildings, the scale and width of our Main Street and sidewalks all lend themselves to this event.  The bottom line is that great ideas have many moving parts that make them great, so look at all the angles before you decide to make one your own.

Don't misunderstand, I'm not saying that R & D is wrong, but it should be done selectively.  For those who say that every good idea has already been thought of, I say find another line of work because maybe being a Main Street Manager just isn't for you.  We're looking for creative types willing to try new things to better our communities.

Well, I'm off to trademark all of our downtown event logos...

The Downtown Geek