One line from a book written 130 years ago would influence marketing and branding for ages to come. In his novel Five Hundred Dollars, Horatio Alger writes: “I don’t know but I can wait two or three weeks,” he said slowly, “if you are sure we shall play at Peoria.” This line gave the advertising industry “Will it play in Peoria?”, an old adage that is traditionally used to question whether a product, person or theme will appeal to the average person in middle America. It’s a question that answers a product’s potential role in the lives of a broader demographic or psychographic. In today’s digital age, for brand owners, Peoria is worth your time and here is why.
The trope was meant to characterize the Midwest as somewhat of a lesser-than place where uniformity, simplicity, and a resistance to modernity reigned supreme. Don Marine, a professor of theater at Illinois State University once said:
The widespread appeal of this verbal maligning by comics, actors and other performers suggests Peoria as a paramount example of the dull, banal, and provincial theatrical road stop. But the popularity of the “put down” suggests as well that the city possesses a theatrical heritage of considerable longevity.
If you close your eyes, you can imagine Don Draper sitting in his office on Madison Avenue, asking, “Will it play in Peoria?” as he decides between models for a new Dodge ad. Today, the concept of a test city is more likened to Columbus, Ohio – the city where I choose to live despite my deep love for the pace and promise of cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Sometimes, a city can fail to understand its own power. Columbus is affectionately (yet restrictively) known as “Test City, USA” because it accomplished what Peoria only did in America’s 19th and 20th century imagination. A 2012 CBS News report says it well:
With Ohio State and dozens of other colleges, the student population here is massive, and there’s a strong international presence. It all adds up to a near-perfect cross-section of the country’s consumers. It’s Middle America – but that doesn’t mean it’s average.
The perfect mix of consumers and the perfect volume of them has collectively reassured corporate brands that they are ready for market expansion. I grew up believing I needed to be in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco to succeed. If you were a child from the South or the Midwest, unless you were well-traveled, you believed that your success would rely on your proximity to the centers of the world. In reality, you are always at your own center – especially now. This is beginning to reflect in certain circles: technology companies are thriving in Miami, Tampa, Austin, and Atlanta. But for the most part, product brand development still lags behind. There are exceptions of course: Outdoor Voices (Austin), Summersalt (St. Louis), Mizzen + Main (Dallas), and Jeni’s Ice Creams (Columbus).
Line up 10 brands and you will see similar attributes driven, alone, by their geography. There are the internal similarities: design agencies, performance marketing agencies, product development consultants, public relations firms, the same industry events, newsletters, Discord servers read, and degrees had from Wharton or Columbia. And there are the external similarities: product packaging, copywriting styles, typefaces, front-end design, and distribution strategies. In fact, when new ideas come along, they are well-rewarded simply because they are fresh. Snaxshot is like a breath of fresh air because Andrea Hernández is different, Ruby’s marketing strategy woke up the blands, and Parade’s sex-positive marketing strategy broke open a boring underwear industry. But these are mere exceptions.
If you query 1,000 people interested in DTC culture, the majority of them will know several millionaires and Ivy League graduates. It’s a very coastal, affluent club of people with (or nearing) lots of money had. If you ask 100 founders where they will be this weekend, 70 of them will say Los Angeles or New York. As a whole, the disruptors have fallen in line, savoring the laws of best practices and oldened rules of perceived aspiration. If you want a pop-up, why else would you choose a neighborhood away from Soho, Atwater Village, or Fillmore Street? The DTC industry is a club and clubs have rules made to be broken. The first rule to break?
Build for New Yorkers, San Franciscans, and Los Angelenos.
Modern brands must understand that there are consumers outside of major coastal cities. And it is the spaces outside of these comfort zones that may end up determining the long-term viability of the brands themselves. Of course, some of the industry’s pioneers understood just that.
Warby Parker launched one of its earliest DTC brick-and-mortar retail experiments in history. They chose a small corner of the Columbus, Ohio neighborhood known as the “Short North.” Dave Gilboa and Neil Blumenthal of Warby Parker sought to understand whether it “played in Peoria.” The showroom was a success. Today, the official Warby Parker store sits just steps away from its original 20-square-foot Ohio showroom. The company recently filed an S-1 for their IPO.
Observing this early Warby attempt (in addition to co-founding Mizzen+Main with Kevin Lavelle on the same street) was my inspiration for helping Tenfold agency CEO Rachel Friedman with her latest project, Tenspace. It’s the latest retail experiment to cater to the DTC industry, located just down the street from that first Warby Parker showroom and the original Mizzen + Main flagship store.
Tenspace is an ever-changing, brick-and-mortar store in the Short North that will share stories of rising online brands with the public in an interactive, experiential format. Every two months, the space is transformed to immerse customers with new brands. Web Smith, founder of 2PM, a subscription-driven media and e-commerce company, was integral in the Tenspace launch. 
The process was not kind to Friedman. Over the course of months, several New York and San Francisco-based retailers inched towards the finish line before cancelling or stalling their decisions to engage altogether. A few, worried about stepping outside of the DTC playbook, cited things like, “…Not New York…” or “…I am so busy….” or “…we have another pop-up in Santa Monica….” But the irony is that in no way was any labor expectation placed on any of the brand partners. In a way, they said no out of underestimation of Friedman. I began to take it personally, for her sake! The premise was simple: take a brand and editorialize it through physical expression, retail installment, and a multi-media depiction of the brand’s roots. In this way, she is using real estate as media, not as the retail format that we are accustomed to. And I am comfortable suggesting that there are few if any operators in modern retail who are as talented as she.
Friedman, a forum mate of mine in Entrepreneur’s Organization, committed a reported hundreds of thousands of her own capital to bring the first show to life. I stood by as a late-night ear at times while she coped with her investment. I’ve been there. Her two-pronged strategy was failproof, in my opinion. The comfort that I provided, if any, was grounded in my confidence in: the idea, her execution, and market timing. Her strategy for recouping that investment is two-pronged:
- Show brands her storytelling capability and they will flock to her for the experience.
- Provide data around visibility to potential sponsors like Shopify, BigCommerce, Yotpo, Loop, Klarna, Lumi, or Lightspeed Venture Partners and await their interest.
They are flocking and they are interested. By all accounts, this strategy is playing out just as anticipated. She has outside interest and a growing book of potential sponsors and brands. But to get to this stage, she needed her first brand partner. And heading into the early months of summer, I was short on DTC contacts who understood retail markets outside of Los Angeles and New York. Five well known DTC brands turned down the opportunity to work with Friedman and each were based in New York, the Bay Area, or Los Angeles.
As I stood watching our daughters play in a tense soccer match, I recalled that there was a brand that may have the appropriate context to understand the opportunity after all. I didn’t have to call, tweet, or text anyone. I looked over to my left at Ohio State wrestling legend and former National Team wrestler Tommy Rowlands, and told him: “I have an idea for you and I need you to say yes.” Tommy, a stoic and imposing friend of mine listened intently and quipped, “Sure, let me talk to her.” The her was Friedman.
Rowlands and his partner Jesse Leng are co-founders of Rudis, a brand that is on the precipice of leaving behind the niche of wrestling apparel thanks to savvy sponsorship of high-profile Olympic athletes like Kyle Snyder and Tamyra Mensah-Stock, the first African-American woman to win a wrestling gold, plus a timely partnership with Authentic Brands Group to market products with the licenses of Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, “Rocky” Balboa, and Vince Lombardi. With these forces working in its favor, Rudis launched as the first Tenspace partner just eight weeks after the sideline soccer match presented the opportunity. Over those weeks, Friedman and team developed, fabricated, and stocked the brand’s show. The reception has been extraordinary, quantifiably and qualitatively. The retailer’s social channels have grown, sales have reflected new interest, and the media from within the walls of the Tenspace installation have amplified the brand to the far ends of the internet.
I’d never suggest that a retail exhibit of Tenspace’s caliber is superior because it is located in Columbus, Ohio. But what I will say is that we live in a digital-first society now. Drake’s Certified Lover Boy album release featured billboards in places all over the world. They each made their way to Twitter, Reddit, and Instagram. Physical billboards became digital fodder. Such retail opportunities should no longer be looked at merely through the lens of geography. Part of the reason why the social shareability of Tenspace is such a sure bet is precisely because the project isn’t based in a place like Los Angeles or New York, where art and retail are so common that they become background noise.
For the retailers with the courage to think outside of the box, opportunities to breakthrough can be found far outside the cities and strategies of the status quo. Of them, Tenspace has raced to the top of those options. Friedman and her team did an extraordinary job of meeting media and brands at its point of linear commerce, and she did so in a way that has to be seen for one’s self. There are no comparisons. And as for Rudis, the wrestling brand for hardened athletes and the warrior minded, it has begun to show that it has the crossover appeal required by any sporting brand who may want to change the world.
Last week, Jeni Britton Bauer was hosted at Tenspace for a virtual and in-person hybrid talk with a number of executives in the 2PM ecosystem, including Loop founder Jonathan Poma, Kat Cole, Nugget co-founder Ryan Cocca, Tenspace founder Rachel Friedman, Kelly Vaughn, myself, and a few dozen others. She left with a Rudis “Ali” jacket and a new appreciation for the wrestling brand and its retail partner. A wrestling brand turned a DTC ice cream pioneer into a fan. Her appreciation for the product was later noted before her Instagram following of 150,000.
Cities like Columbus can seem secondary to the coastal retail ecosystem, it’s time to reassess the opportunities beyond the borders of America’s top metropolitan areas. To avoid doing so is limiting. It’s early days for the level of execution seen within the walls of Tenspace so the first actors will still earn the greatest return on investment. Don’t worry, your brand will play in Peoria.
By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes | Art: Alex Remy and Christina Williams