Toronto

Real Street Marketing

The weather has been unseasonably warm here, culminating in a record 25.5°C on March 22. It’s like Christmas in July for one of Toronto’s much maligned and marginalized groups; the panhandlers are back out in force.

These other boys of summer may be underrepresented, but they are highly vocal.

On my 10 minute stroll to and from work through the Annex, one of the city’s prosperous but still gritty hoods, I get a snapshot of marketing at its rawest.

Panhandlers don’t have MBAs or Clios; they have a split second to engage you.

Selling yourself is never easy and as with any trade there’s a knack to it, maybe they can even teach us marketing sophisticates a thing or two.

A Sherlock Holmes story, The Man with the Twisted Lip tells of a protagonist leading the double life of a London beggar while making enough income to also be a respectable country gentleman.

He accomplishes this by virtue of, “A facility of repartee, which improved by practice and made me quite a recognised character in the City.”

The Holmes story chronicles a practitioner at the pinnacle of his trade.

Unlike the first guy I usually pass.

A 20 something, who gruffly demands “Spare change?” and whether you give him any or not, follows up with “Nice day” making both phrases sound like a proposition.

He certainly lacks the silver-tongued delivery of the man with the oversize white cane.

 “Can you spare a nickel a quarter a dime or a dollar?” delivered in the breakneck rhythmic sing-song, if not the accent of a Kentucky horse auctioneer.

I appreciate his attention to syntax, in putting quarter before dime to improve the flow, almost enough to overlook his breaking one of salesmanship’s fundamental rules, by asking a yes - no question.

Then there’s the nondescript guy although that’s not entirely accurate, because I can describe him as the guy with the best tagline.

“Something is better than nothing.”

A line I appreciate enormously for being both optimistic and philosophically unassailable.

I usually pass the 40 cent guy on the way home.

His strategy is one of deceptive simplicity.

“Do you have 40 cents?”

I admire the cleverness of this, because first, by asking for a specific amount he legitimizes his request to some degree.

(A specific amount surely infers a specific purpose.)

Second 40 cents cunningly requires a minimum of 3 coins, greatly upping the probability of getting more, because who is going to search for exact change?

Do I give them money?

Sometimes yes sometimes no.

I side with the character in Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink, who asserts:

“Begging is a profession, like dentistry, like shining shoes. It’s a service. Every so often you need to get a tooth filled or your shoes shined or to give alms. So when a beggar presents himself to you, you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I need a beggar today?’ If you do, give him alms. If you don’t, don’t.”

Put another way, if I’m not in the market for what you’re selling, it doesn’t matter how good your presentation is, I won’t be buying.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t appreciate a good one.

And I can think of a few brands that don't handle their messaging with such smarts.

Opportunity Knocks, Just Say No Toronto

Toronto doesn’t make your jaw drop like New York, Paris or Sydney can. It lacks that killer architectural app like the Statue of Liberty or the Sydney Opera House or the Eiffel Tower.

Instead, it creeps up on you the way Melbourne or Amsterdam or Singapore might, subtly in layers.

I like this low key cutting edge approach.

I live here.

In February 2011 the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Toronto 4th of the world’s most liveable cities.

Helsinki came in 6th so I’m guessing weather wasn’t a criterion.

OK I can just about buy it; liveability being kind of a loosey goosey concept.

This month the accolades continued.

A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers named Toronto a city of opportunity.

Amazingly, according to the 10 indicators used, Toronto is the number 2 city of opportunity in the world, second only to New York.

Wow!

Really?

More opportunities than San Francisco with its proximity to Silicon Valley and access to all that venture capital?

Or Singapore, with their explosive 14.5% GDP growth in 2010?

What about Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai, major players in the world’s biggest marketplace -- ever?

Hey, I’m as susceptible to flattery as anybody, but for flattery to effectively massage the ego it has to be vaguely grounded in reality.

And I’m not convinced this is.

At any rate here are some opportunity indicators the report evidently missed.

The opportunity to cheer for really bad sports teams and pay some of the highest ticket prices in North America.

The Leafs make the playoffs so rarely that even a last-minute charge ending in heroic failure will send the city delirious.

The hockey religion is strong here.

How else do you explain legions of fans that have given up on excellence but won’t give up their season tickets?

The opportunity to experience really bad gridlock, at least you can enjoy a nice view of the city while you’re stuck on the Gardiner Expressway.

If you’re stuck on the Don Valley Parkway, better get in touch with your inner Zen.

And don’t worry, with a commute time that averages 24 minutes longer than Los Angeles, you’ll have plenty of time to cultivate it.

Not only are the highways jammed, but the condition of roads in and around the city is the worst it’s been since I moved here from London in the early 1990s.

As another summer of re-surfacing delays looms, take it from me, they have better roads in the Yucatan than we have in Toronto.

Agreed, the climate is kinder on infrastructure but it’s Mexico; in the middle of a drug war.

The opportunity of paying large electricity bills while enjoying frequent power outages.

The ageing delivery system frequently fails to deliver, plunging areas of the city into darkness on an almost weekly basis.

And not only have rates increased by maybe 40% over 5 years, but the Supreme Court of Canada found Toronto Hydro guilty of gouging on late payment charges.

The solution -- a rate increase to pay off the $7.7 million in legal fees gets rubber stamped by the Ontario Energy Board.

No I’m not kidding.

Kafka must be pissing himself laughing.

The opportunity to travel on North America’s most expensive public transit, the only major transit system in the world to receive absolutely no central government funding.

Clearly successive Federal Governments know something about transit that’s escaped the rest of the world.

And let's not forget the opportunity to subsidise the rest of Canada to the tune of $8 billion a year.

While the city’s infrastructure crumbles around us the taxes we pay get spent somewhere else.

Predictably certain sections of the media are cranking up the hype wagon.

The Grid, a re-launch of a free listings magazine formally known as Eye Weekly, ran a story on the PWC study saying we won.

Actually what they said was, “The good news: We won! We won!”

The basis for this pronouncement being that NYC is unbeatable, so coming 2nd is in fact winning.

Note to Leafs.

For reasons known only to them, The Toronto Star ran a story headlined, Forget Paris.

I’m not sure if they have a beef with Paris or are randomly referencing a 1995 Billy Crystal movie that three people saw.

Did I mention I’m as susceptible to flattery as anybody, but for flattery to effectively massage the ego it has to be vaguely grounded in reality?

I just don’t think this is.

And if you live in Toronto I hope you don’t either because what this city needs is less, not more complacency.