As I started to make my way up Diversey Avenue, I heard the clamor of a jazz band playing near Trader Joe’s grocery store. That couldn’t be coming from State Farm, could it? Surprisingly, it was. And already in that moment, I think that maybe, just maybe, I experienced a small piece of what State Farm is striving to do with its new community-based effort, State Farm Next Door.
State Farm was nice enough to invite me to a pre-launch party for select guests to come experience Next Door for themselves. I’m happy to say it did not disappoint. It honestly exceeded what I thought I would see. Along the way, I got to sit down with the managers, planners and vendors who showed me what people could expect from Next Door when it officially opens on Thursday, August 11th.
Is it OK if we have fun in here? Cool.
If this was some thinly-veiled approach to selling services, I seriously didn’t feel it. Really. The subtle references to finances and planning are there, but you get the sense that State Farm has been extra careful not to come across as heavy-handed in selling. If it was too pushy, it just would not work. Period. And thankfully, they know it.
“We’re really making a conscious effort to let people come in, discover Next Door for themselves and make it their own,” says Stephanie Reynolds, Next Door’s Store Manager. “Our atmosphere here is all about making it the most creative and collaborative experience possible. It’s not our goal to try to sell. But when they do ask, we want to make consumers more educated and confident about their financial future in a very comfortable space.”
Some of the features of Next Door include:
- A cafe area serving gourmet coffee, tea and espresso as well as baked goodies
- A main lounge that features large red, black and grey couches with coffee tables
- A smaller “creative” area featuring little white tables you can draw on and a projection wall that can show TV shows, movies…anything
- A huge community chalkboard calendar that promotes all kinds of monthly events, from classes to pizza parties
- 2 conference rooms with flat-screen TVs and whiteboard wall dividers (which you can rent for free, by the way)
And of course, those Pods.
A lot of these design elements are, dare I say, fun and creative. Still, you might be wondering, “OK. But let’s get real. What if I want to get into some sensitive financial stuff? I can’t just discuss this out in the open in a cafe.” State Farm considered that. A financial planner named Adam showed me one of the “Pods” that a planner can take a guest or two into to get more privacy for financial-related chatter. This is probably my favorite feature of the place – these things look right out of the IKEA catalog and are just as functional. You can roll them to different parts of the store if need be.
“You learn from us. We learn from you. We’re all smarter for it.”
We’re entering a new phase beyond just the “pop-up store” where people can try products for a few days before a temporary store is disassembled. It’s a phase of Store As Audience Research Tool. Maybe you think you’ve seen this before but trust me, you probably haven’t. Very few stores if any have been set up almost exclusively for the purpose of learning and understanding the behaviors of its audience in the way Next Door has.
I’ve heard a lot of questions about ROI and metrics of success for Next Door. So let me just say this – there’s absolutely nothing more important in branding than knowing what your audience is thinking. It’s elusive. It’s shifting. It’s hard to interpret. If it was easy, everyone could do it and I’d have to find another way to make a living. So when you effectively set the stage for that audience to come to you and tell you their thoughts and feelings, you’ve got an invaluable environment worth keeping. Some of us have run focus groups where we’d have to practically bribe people to show up, right? Well, how about someone who voluntarily comes into your environment, has a few questions, winds up signing up for a seminar given by one of your people and returns with 5 of their friends to learn more?
For Brett Myers, a key head at State Farm behind Next Door, this represents months and months of intensive, detailed planning. It’s not a stretch to say every single table lamp, book, piece of glassware and paint color has been obsessively considered prior to entering this space – by the way, do you think about your own environment in reflection of your brand with this kind of detail? Maybe you should.
Strange as it may seem to some marketers in such a research-driven world, it’s not about number of meetings taken in the Pods. It’s not about guests converted into customers. Or number of cups of coffee sold.
It’s about getting consumer feedback and lots of it. It’s about understanding the real fears and questions that a young target has. And it’s about taking all that feedback and reporting it back to State Farm corporate so they can use it for all kinds of initiatives – undoubtedly to ensure that the brand is speaking in a voice these consumers want to hear.
Partnered with Doejo
To get the cafe portion of Next Door off the ground and give it a feel authentic to the neighborhood, State Farm partnered with Doejo, a digital agency whose founder is behind several independent Lincoln Park/Lakeview coffee shops, including Kickstand and Noble Tree. As Darren Marshall of Doejo explains, Next Door will revolve and evolve around those who enter.
“We’re very interested once people start coming in because their feedback will help shape this space,” says Marshall. “When you think about it, a coffee shop looks and feels different one week to the next because of the people inside it more than anything. It’s the same way here. In some respects, this store may look different 30, 60, 90 days from now and if it does, that will come from what the consumers within it tell us.”
While Doejo will concentrate primarily on the cafe portion of Next Door, their team may very well collaborate with State Farm when necessary on ideas involving the overall environment.
Special thanks to Desiree Fuzak, Stephanie Reynolds, Brett Myers, Darren Marshall and many others on the State Farm Next Door/Doejo team who helped provide me with their insightful thoughts for this post.