Phil’s In The Wrong, But The Ducks Don’t Stop Here.

By now, we’ve heard and talked about Phil Robertson’s extremely controversial anti-gay comments in a media interview. Seriously, anyone who has followed this show as well as the programming heads at A&E had to know it was only a matter of time before Phil uttered the kind of hardcore statement that would upset a whole lot of people for good reason.

Do I think Willie Robertson would have said anything along the lines of what his father said? Absolutely not. I think as CEO, Willie will believe whatever he wants but also understands he has an ever-growing brand to protect in front of the media. He’s always understood the massive potential and growth of Duck Commander and its properties, taking the brand to a level that his father never could have dreamed of.

It’s partially for this reason that I believe the Duck Commander brand, along with the show “Duck Dynasty,” will be just fine. Here’s why.

First, remember that Duck Commander and Buck Commander cater to a very specific and loyal audience of people who use their products. Oh, they’re not going to use a duck call because they don’t agree with Phil Robertson’s views? Sorry. Don’t buy it. I don’t agree with Phil, of course, but I don’t buy the brand suffers among outdoor enthusiasts who were very much on board with this brand long before “Duck Dynasty” the show came along. There are legions of supporters who have hunting videos featuring Phil, Willie, Jase and the rest of them. They’re not changing their spending habits now. If anything, some of them will buy even more Duck Commander products – because regardless of whether they actually agree with Phil, they see him as a hunting patriarch. No way they walk away from that. Those roots run deep.

By the way, this includes not only buyers but retailers. I don’t see outdoor retailers or the biggest retailer of all, Walmart, stepping away from Duck Commander either. Sure, there may be protests by those who want to see DC pulled from the shelves but it’s not happening. The franchise is just too lucrative and the following is deep. You may appease one group but will enrage another. And in the end, money is what talks here, even if what Phil Robertson is talking is offensive.

Secondly, the show is going to continue to cater to a loyal audience as well. That audience isn’t going to completely evaporate. In our Kardashian-Teen Mom-Honey Boo Boo culture, there’s a group of people that are going to follow the Robertsons to whatever network they land on next. Book it right now. If the family leaves A&E, there’s going to be an audience for them elsewhere and if it’s any kind of mainstream station, it’s going to be a big one.

So the brand of Duck Commander and Buck Commander will be very much intact. So will “Duck Dynasty.”

What’s interesting to me, however, is that people think the 1st Amendment entitles one to say whatever they like without fear of consequence from an employer. Ah, what a blissful, naive existence such people lead.

I suppose NFL and NBA players never say anything controversial in the way busting out a tweet without getting fined by the people they work for. And most of the time, they’re talking about something that actually applied to their profession. Yeah. When you’re ripping apart a referee or saying how you hate the Commissioner, the whole 1st Amendment argument doesn’t go too far with David Stern or Roger Goodell.

See, what some leaders under a brand don’t understand, whether it’s Phil Robertson or Chick-Fil-A’s Dan Cathy, is that their brand has become so successful that, ironically, it’s actually much bigger than them or any one person. So when they make themselves the story rather than their brand, they’re doing a disservice to what they built. They’re making their negative comments against a group based on sexual orientation, race, religion, etc. the story that is connected to their brand. Even if it’s just for 24-48 hours, is that what you want people to think about first and foremost? Your stance against certain people instead of your product, your program, your brand?

In the end, life moves on, even in temporary crisis. We get over our hatred. We eat a chicken sandwich because we’re hungry, not because we agree with the CEO. We watch Duck Dynasty because those guys look nuts and we care less about the out-of-touch-views of one of their family members. They may be reality stars but they’re about as far removed from our reality as can be, even though they technically live in the same planet.

Because of this, right or wrong, there will be a place for these brands even though there is no place for the hateful commentary produced from one of their people. But let’s be clear about something – there’s such a thing as having media savvy and holding the people who appear in the media accountable for how they act and what they say. When Phil gives an interview in a magazine, he’s representing A&E. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. appears on television, he’s representing Mountain Dew. They’re linked, not independent of each other.

That’s why I think Phil Robertson will come back to the table with an apology so that the show can continue and A&E can keep its #1 money maker because in the end, the network doesn’t want to lose the show.

Strong brands can overcome a misstep or two – and for the Robertsons, this is one of them. But when you’ve built up a lot of goodwill along the way, it stands a good chance of helping you weather the storm of your own error.

As long as, of course, you have the good sense to recognize and acknowledge it sooner rather than later.

Staying Closed On Thanksgiving Provides Brands An Opening

The following retailers were not open on Thanksgiving Day: 

Burlington Coat Factory
Barnes & Noble
Home Depot
Radio Shack
Sam’s Club
TJ Maxx

To me, it’s just common sense. To these brands, it represents an opportunity to show that they actually care about the home life of their people over the almighty dollar (and seriously, shoppers couldn’t wait until Black Friday anyway?). It’s a stand worth continuing for their culture, loyalty and values. Kudos to them.

See, here’s the challenge for any brand that wants to walk the walk and talk the talk – it’s one of brand consistency when you hang a frame in your conference room that says you care about your people (is paying time-and-a-half really caring? Ehhh.) and then you ask them to work on one of the days traditionally reserved for family. Moreover, let’s review who gets to tell a more interesting story as a result of remaining closed – your customer who says, “Good for Nordstrom to do that,” or your CEO who has to give a carefully-worded statement justifying the company’s actions.

Which one sounds more positive to you?

Oh, I know that some cynics will say that money talks and the opportunity to cash in big-time outweighs all. In some companies, maybe that’s just the way it’s going to be.

Yet…in a place like Nordstrom, which already has plenty of great customer service stories to be told, sticking to keeping the doors closed on Thanksgiving might just keep some very valuable people happy, so they can continue to be a part of the team for a long time and contribute to more of those positive customer service stories being told for years to come. Not to mention the good things they may say about their own employer. They could be told verbally, on video, throughout social media channels, etc.

And I’ll bet that has a chance of happening more frequently than when treating Thanksgiving as just another retail day.

There are a lot of people who have their opinions on retailers being open on Thanksgiving – and it’s not entirely one-sided either. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Weigh in, won’t you?

OfficeMax Moves Into Full Solutions Center Concept

When I looked at the invitation from OfficeMax for a store opening, I had to admit wondering what was going to be so different about this occasion versus several hundreds that preceded it. But what I learned from the unveiling of the first OfficeMax Business Solutions Center in the Chicagoland area is that the office supply giant intends to be far more than just the place you turn to when you’re out of paper, toner and pens.

Now, with IT services, cloud storage, print and document services, promotional services and other types of business solutions, OfficeMax aims for spaces like its 3,900-square foot store in Streeterville to be the one-stop shop for a lot of other services too.


It’s part of an evolution in the category overall as retailers aim to convey services outside of the core offering they’ve been known for. In OfficeMax’s case, it’s the store of the future.

“OfficeMax understands that small businesses and entrepreneurs have different needs,” explains Kristin Muntean vice president, Strategic Initiatives and Innovation at OfficeMax. “OfficeMax Business Solutions Centers are committed to serving as a central resource for business needs – from providing print and documents to IT support to setting up your website and cloud storage.” 

There’s also a specialized Business Solutions Adviser onsite to walk the customer through the various services they need. They’ve even partnered with Company.Hire to provide HR recruiting and onboarding services.

Yes, this is OfficeMax we’re talking about.

One thing I’ve appreciated seeing is how OfficeMax is eliciting feedback from local business owners as they roll out the concept here and across the country. As Muntean describes, that’s very much on purpose. “In developing our Business Solutions Centers, we conducted extensive research with small businesses in Chicago and across the country,” she says. “We are building on that research through a dialogue with our neighbors in Streeterville to ensure we evolve with their feedback.” 

It’s no doubt a smart move, if not an essential one. When office supply retailers such as FedEx Kinko’s (now FedEx Office) and delivery services such as UPS with its UPS Store opened their stores, it was all about providing you with total access to the supplies you needed when you needed them for convenience. That quickly becomes an apples-to-apples game though, with little to distinguish one from the other. Pens are pens. Paper is paper. And while loyalty programs definitely don’t hurt to hopefully retain more regular shoppers of these items, the stores needed to hang their hats on something more.

So when you provide certain types of services, you give yourself the opportunity to stand out based on the delivery of those services in a customized way – while, of course, providing the other essentials to the office. The key to me is not only in delivering those services on a superb level (easier said than done for many) but also clarifying the audience in a realistic way.

What I mean by that is that there is an underserved niche of Mom N’ Pop local businesses that are challenged by time and expense. Millions of these types of businesses don’t have websites and instead think they can get by with a listing on Yelp. They don’t have marketing guidance because they can’t often afford high-level assistance from a practitioner like yours truly.

In other words, this is the niche that OfficeMax can fulfill services for and if you’re in Web Development, I.T., Marketing, etc. I would see such retailers as less of a competitor unless these types of very small (i.e. 5 employees or less), one location businesses that are extremely budget-challenged are prime members of your clientele. Let’s face it. The business that can’t afford a website upwards of $3,000 isn’t going to be the client of most web developers. For many of them, this is the point where they say, “Well, I’ll just put up a Facebook Page” if they opt to do anything at all. That’s better than nothing, but still mediocre. They’ll still have no real home base for their brand in the way of a site, blog, etc. that’s more easily found by the likes of Google unless someone specifically searches for that business by name. That’s a finite number of customers. Enter the OfficeMax Business Solutions Center to elevate their visibility at a price point they can afford.


The Next Evolution: From One Shop To One Button

From here, the challenge for retailers such as OfficeMax is to provide not just the one-stop-shop but the best one button experience. If I want it, give me the personalized services in-store. However, if I want that same personalized service, give it to me through my phone, tablet and laptop. We’re seeing this already with Amazon’s Mayday service, in which live chat is taken to the next level where customer service interacts with the client’s screen.


The very concept of “the store” is changing as it is right now.

Best Buy once touted its ability to have it all under one roof but its service from store to store is, well, let’s just say inconsistent. Now, it won’t be enough to have a lot of product or even have great service in-store. It will be about who provides the best store experience both in the physical space and on the tablet I hold in my hand. That had better include remembering my favorite purchases and, if I choose the option, recommending new possibilities (again, Amazon rocks in this department).

Think Beyond Pre-Rollout Focus Groups

If you’re considering an extension of your brand on a retail level, don’t confine yourself to the pre-rollout phase. What OfficeMax has done well thus far – and what I hope they will continue to do – is invite in influencers to help hone its focus well after the doors have opened. Full disclosure: If you haven’t been able to tell yet, I’m one of those who has been invited to such discussions.

Whether they’re bloggers or end users (or often both), communicate with decision makers and those who serve those decision makers. Take them to lunch and provide them an opportunity to voice their opinions in person through a roundtable format discussion. Don’t put your executives in some ivory tower – get them in front of these contributors to interact (this is where many corporations miss an important step because the C-level isn’t there and doesn’t see this interactive experience as valuable enough).

Of course you want to do it right beforehand. But trouble occurs if the customer research and feedback tails off after the launch. That’s why it’s so important to maintain the momentum built today, tomorrow and for the life of the brand.

We certainly have enough tools for it.

If you have the opportunity, stop into the OfficeMax Business Solutions Center in Streeterville at 550 N. St. Clair. They’ve recently added a second location, in Evanston on 1612 Sherman Ave.

Then let me know your feedback. Do you think OfficeMax can successfully evolve its brand in this manner? Would you consider these new services? What would you care to see more of that you feel might be lacking from them? This input will be valuable to me – and I’m sure to the folks at OfficeMax too.


McDonald’s golden opportunity in Russia

In Russia, wearing a rainbow flag pin will land you in jail.

In Russia, two men cannot hold hands because they could be beaten to death — not necessarily by neo-Nazi skinheads but by ordinary citizens. You can’t be caught talking about “nontraditional sexual relationships” in Russia for fear of being fined up to the equivalent of $31,000.

This is the very real climate of persecution in Russia as a result of President Vladimir Putin’s sweeping — and dangerous — anti-gay propaganda law.

Good thing there isn’t anything important happening there soon, like a worldwide convergence of athletic talent in Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympics. It’s safe to say that some of those athletes will be gays or lesbians. I can practically guarantee that several of them will not be silent about their orientation, either — nor should they.

It’s a toxic mixture of intolerance with extremely high visibility that must be hugely unsettling for a major sponsor of the Olympics, such as Oak Brook-based McDonald’s Corp. If that weren’t enough, McDonald’s will get a reminder of this challenge right outside its headquarters tomorrow afternoon, when an LGBT rights group protests the company’s involvement in the Olympics and urges it to pull its sponsorship.

Don’t tell me it’s business as usual at the Golden Arches. There’s no way it can be.

Yet, I see an enormous opportunity for McDonald’s: Tighten the screws on the Russian government to repeal a law that, in turn, might prevent a catastrophic incident at the Olympics. In doing so, McDonald’s takes a true leadership position that extends far beyond billions of hamburgers sold.

We’re talking about an iconic brand going on the offensive and using the platform of the Olympics to cause a bullying, oppressive government to back down. It makes a worldwide statement. And I don’t mean the kind of carefully worded statement put out by its company spokesperson.

A stretch, you say? McDonald’s may be the only company in the world with the leverage to make this happen. First, it’s sponsoring Sochi to the tune of $100 million. With that kind of backing, it could be called the McOlympics. Second, let’s remember how much money McDonald’s is spending in Russia to establish and maintain its restaurants, as well as the 150 stores it’s going to build in the country over the next few years.

Dealing with rights violations head-on with Mr. Putin isn’t just a moral imperative for McDonald’s — it’s a business imperative to protect its investments, and a brand imperative to protect its corporate image at an Olympics spinning out of control.

Nobody else is ramping up the intensity of conversation. Certainly not the International Olympic Committee, which seems perfectly happy to accept statements from the Russian government that the anti-LGBT law will not affect athletes or attendees in Sochi.

Oh. Well, as long as they said they’d be good, we should believe them. Look, Russians are not going to suddenly play nice. According to a recent survey by Pew Research Center, almost 75 percent of respondents in Russia believe homosexuality should not be accepted.

It doesn’t appear likely that the Olympics would move to Vancouver, British Columbia, as a replacement host city. A U.S. boycott of the Olympics feels even less likely.

So at the end of the day, they’ll probably be in Sochi. But here again is the opportunity for McDonald’s to tell international audiences that it fully supports equality and tolerance. Loud and clear, through traditional and electronic media. It should be educational, bold and inspiring.

In other words, go big or go home.

Will the Russian government tear down ads or block electronic activity from the Olympics’ biggest sponsor and one of its country’s larger investors? Will the IOC oppose this effort (and the very spirit of the Olympics) and ignore the fact that more states and countries are legalizing gay marriage?

They might. It’s still a risk worth taking. And if it does happen, Russia and the IOC look like the bad guys, not McDonald’s.

More than ever, corporations are influencing government policies and — if some have enough of a say about it — who gets elected. But there’s another side of influence, in which the brand does something important to improve the way of life of its community beyond the product or service it manufactures and sells.

For some brands, that community is right around the corner. For McDonald’s, that community is unquestionably global.

It’s easy for brands to slap a logo on everything, issue a statement expressing support for everyone and say how they’re going to stay out of politics. But in the age of social media, when the event you are sponsoring invites deep international scrutiny, you are a part of that uncomfortable conversation whether you like it or not. It lives and grows by your audience on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and more.

Anyone can run the standard marketing playbook by issuing a company press release or reciting a mission statement that hangs in the conference room as proof of its core values.

But a global giant flexing its muscle to enact positive social change that gets talked about for years to come after the Olympics is over and its brand consequently seen in a brave new light?

I’m lovin’ it.

Original post by Dan Gershenson in Crain’s Chicago Business: