This chicken sandwich doesn’t reflect my political views OR When Personal Beliefs and Brands Don’t Mix.

Should highly visible C-Level executives state their political and religious opinions freely without fear of repercussion to the brand?

I didn’t ask if they can. I asked if they should. Should we defend what is Constitutionally correct if it is strategically inconsistent with the brand?

“The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.”
– Chick-fil-A Company Statement

“We are very much supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business and we are married to our first wives.”
                                                             – Chick-fil-A President-Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy

A few years ago, I was thrilled to partake of a new restaurant that served Italian beef and was adorned with Chicago sports merchandise throughout. It was heavenly. And I suspect because the owner of the restaurant was looking to those heavens on Sunday rather than keeping his store open to Chicago Bears fans who like football and Italian beef that day most of all, his great store closed down soon thereafter. His beliefs were admirable and what he was freely entitled to, but it also sabotaged the big picture of his brand and what his audience wanted.

I’m disappointed in Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy for this very reason.

Thanks to what he told Baptist Press in an interview, he’s turned where I eat chicken into a statement on whether or not I support gay marriage. If that sounds ridiculous or an overreaction, go to Chick-fil-A’s Facebook page and see the comments for yourself. It’s a full-on discussion of the pros and cons of gay marriage.

Considering the reaction some of my friends had to Mr. Cathy’s public support of traditional marriage, it’s certainly harder for me to a public advocate for that brand on Facebook or elsewhere. Regardless of my stance on the issue.

And that’s too bad. Because from a product standpoint, I love Chick-fil-A. I love their sandwiches, I love their shakes, I love their fries and because I’m 5 lbs. overweight, I probably love it all a little too much.

But now, we can’t have a discussion about a really great product with really great people working there, can we? We have to have a discussion about what eating a damn chicken sandwich means for what we believe politically or religiously.

I’d like a Common Sense Meal, please.

So indulge me enough so we can suspend debate of that political issue for a moment and think about this. Maybe I shouldn’t shop at Whole Foods because I don’t agree with John Mackey’s position on the health care debate. Maybe I shouldn’t be a Cubs fan because a member of Ricketts family wanted to run a vicious anti-Obama ad. Maybe the CEO of Macy’s says something tomorrow in conflict with my beliefs…do I avoid the next 50% Off Sale?

Maybe some actually will and do in these circumstances. That’s their right and I respect that decision.

But also respect that I’m still going to go to Cubs games. I’m still going to shop where I want to shop. I’m still going to eat where I want to eat. And I’m not the one in the wrong for doing so.

When the customer/brand advocate has to be moved from defending the brand’s product or service to an uncomfortable position of defending the CEO’s beliefs, I don’t place blame on the customer. I place blame and full responsibility on the executive for putting them in that potentially difficult position at all.

Yes, they are entitled to their beliefs. It is their American right. Whether or not it actually is right.

BUT just because something is covered by freedom of speech doesn’t make it a good idea for the brand. Not by a longshot.

The conversation shouldn’t be about Christianity or gay marriage or traditional marriage or Southern Baptists.

The conversation should be about the fact that people love to camp out before a Chick-fil-A store’s grand opening. It should be about the fact that people love those cow mascots of theirs so much that they’ll clamor for a cow calendar. It should be about a product that is fantastic in my book, not The Book.

Sometimes the conversation has been about the fact that the chain is closed on Sundays and what that means, but it hasn’t really been a major dividing line.

This is where the “If you don’t like it, don’t eat there” argument is too easy. I love the product. But what if I just think its chief executive has the wrong opinion? Why can’t I have both? Are we really that stupid that we can’t distinguish the difference?

But I’m not going to suggest that Chick-fil-A should be left off the hook either. What I’m talking about is evolution. No, not “Evolution,” but brand evolution. As in taking a hard look and realizing expansion demands adjustment to new demographic audiences and adjustment to new times. When the city of Boston declares it’s not going to allow the company to open franchises there, that should be a signal that a re-evaluation may be in order. Truett Cathy founded Chick-fil-A in a Georgia suburb in 1946. Well, it’s not 1946 and the brand isn’t just in Georgia anymore.

Brands and the values that go with them should be allowed to naturally evolve as they expand, especially as they enter more cosmopolitan and diverse areas rather than rural ones. 12 years ago, the closest Chick-fil-A from me was three hours away in downstate Bloomington, Illinois. Today, it’s steps from Michigan Avenue and less than 3 miles from the most predominantly gay neighborhood in Chicago.

The next move should be an apology from Dan Cathy, but not for the reason you may think. It should be because of the fact that he made himself the story when he’s not and shouldn’t be. He should issue a statement personally that sounds like so:

“My political and religious beliefs are my own and not a reflection of Chick-fil-A’s company policy, which aims to be inclusive to all sexual orientations. I apologize to every employee who serves our brand and every customer who consumes our brand, who may have been offended by my recent statements. I take responsibility for putting you in a potentially difficult and uncomfortable position of defending beliefs you may not share.”  

I don’t want religion and politics brought into where I eat chicken. The guy who makes that chicken should get that too. For the good for the brand, at the very least.

State Farm Shows Off Its Entrepreneurial Side

2 members of IDEO Chicago offer words of wisdom on pushing the boundaries of design and development in between lightning rounds of pitching during Next Door’s “Amplify’d” event.

 

I’m actually leaving my job tomorrow,” one brave entrepreneur announces to the audience.

He doesn’t appear to have any employees, dedicated office space and it’s unclear how much working capital he has.

But make no mistake. He’s making The Leap. Because what he does have is a promising piece of software with slick interface that delivers the most viable job candidates to recruiters.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. Last Thursday, 20 other startups made the cut to join him for “Amplify’d,” a one-day lightning round of pitches at State Farm Next Door. During the event at the part community workspace, part café, each participant had 5 minutes to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges from incubators, retail consultancies and business accelerators.

Think Chicago’s version of “Shark Tank,” but a little kinder and gentler (these are still the people behind the concept of being a Good Neighbor, after all).

As the participants gave their pitches, I could see the judges would have their work cut out for them in selecting one brilliant idea above all or even a few.

How useful would it be to have an app that helped me find everything in the neighborhood for my dog?

What kind of progress could a pair of multisensory gloves with sensors and lights make during interactive therapy for children with Autism?

How many times would I love to have a “Hold-On” button on my phone to tell the caller I would be answering momentarily?

In between the lightening rounds, speakers from IDEO Chicago, BodyShopBids.com and RentStuff.com offered some words of wisdom and war stories about obtaining funding. Like every entrepreneur (myself included), they had made plenty of mistakes between where they began and where they are today – and learned what to do differently. But despite all those miscalculations, false assumptions and disappointments, I’m fairly certain they wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. Even when the alternative was the “sure, safe thing.”

 

And the winner is…

In the end, the winner of “Amplify’d” was a mobile app called FasPark that delivers real-time local information about street parking and provides a driving path for getting there. Which couldn’t be more fitting, considering we were in one of the hardest areas to find parking in the city.

Second place went to eduLaunchPad.com, a “next generation” college search site where families of college students can find the best potential opportunities for financial aid and potentially minimize the student’s loan debt upon graduation significantly.

The third place award was given to a former college professor turned entrepreneur who developed an educational app called Nidaba. Designed to send daily activities to the parents of K-12 students, the app incorporates social gaming, points and badges so that completing learning challenges is a fun experience for parents and their children alike.

In a way, State Farm was on the big stage too.

In my view, “Amplify’d” represented one of the bigger moments for State Farm Next Door in its first year of operation. At its most ideal, it’s a community hub for collaborating and holding business meetings. But events like this are the much-needed extra step to build credibility even further – an excellent opportunity for the company to show its support to the very same entrepreneurs who might be using its space regularly to brainstorm how to get their ideas off the ground. For the good of building Next Door’s brand presence and judging by the participation, I hope they’ll continue with events like it.

Finally, forgive me for briefly getting on the soapbox: “Amplify’d” got me thinking that if more corporations hosted events like this to give aspiring entrepreneurs a greater spotlight for potential funding, we’d further develop and strengthen another needed financial avenue to the small businesses that are often referred to as the lifeblood of the economy. Not to mention it’s good PR for the brand hosting it, other sponsors/judges and of course, the entrepreneurs themselves.

At the very least, it’s the kind of event that’s a lot more exciting than watching entrepreneurs fill out paperwork for a bank loan.

Are Ad People Serious With Appearing This Serious?

An ad agency in San Francisco recently redesigned their site and I enjoyed it, except for the fact that all 33 members of their team for the most part were not smiling, laughing or even mustering a smirk. At all. Many weren’t even looking into the camera.

Are you serious with being this serious?

This is an industry that, at its best, can be a blast. We get to come up with creative ideas and unique strategies for a decent living. We joke, we laugh, we usually find ways to have a beer or two at the end of the day. We don’t have to often wear suits and ties. Many of us can even show up in a t-shirt and flip-flops, for crying out loud.

If you think this is just about how someone takes a photo, remember that impressions mean something. Especially the first ones.

Agency sites are opportunities to show personalities. Showing those personalities with a little more levity doesn’t mean we’re any less serious about furthering a client’s business. It actually is to the advantage of the client’s business because a fun and collaborative environment often increases the likelihood that better ideas will bubble to the surface.

And you know what? A lot of clients, whether they admit or not, are looking for that quality in a partner.  You have to spend every week, if not every day, dealing with someone helping your brand along. You’d like to be able to, well, like that person.

It’s great that people can spit out data and talk about their experiences with the other agencies/brands they’ve worked with and speak to the current clients they’ve helped. And while that’s truly terrific because it can often get them on the short list of businesses to consider in a pitch situation, sealing the deal may depend on showing they are human beings who have the ability to relate well to other human beings.

Like their clients. Like those clients’ target audiences.

Without this ability to form a rapport, the person most impressed with someone so serious will be the one looking back at them in the mirror.

Don’t be that guy or that lady. Loosen up a little. Have a little more fun. Show some personality with that bio photo. But don’t stop there. Inject several personal aspects into your bio that could create talking points and common ground. Put it right into your LinkedIn profile and don’t apologize for it. Show those pictures that capture your culture on your Pinterest page. Share some video of your next mockumentary on your agency’s YouTube channel.

Your ability to win some business may be counting on it.

Chicago Train Stations Flooded by Orange Juice.

If you’re walking around Ogilvie Train Station and Union Station recently, you’ve seen these ads from Tropicana draped literally all over the station.

There are the hanging banners. The overhead billboards. The ads on the steps. And wrapped around a pole. And on the floor.

And it all just feels like way, way too much.

And the stairs too…

I know, the brand development person in me should feel differently. But this is one of those moments we have to step out of our own skin as advertising people and marketers and realize that shoving our product down the consumer’s throat within every 5 steps, up, down and all around is the reason why people can get annoyed by advertising, if not hate the hell out of it.

Of course we in the industry think it’s great because it’s our copy, our design, our brand and oh, isn’t it beautiful the way that yellow pops just how the way we thought it would in that meeting back at the agency when we saw it mocked up on boards? Isn’t it glorious how big it all is and how it’s everywhere the eye can see?

Well…maybe not.

What we love because we’re so close to it may not be as loved by the common folk. The more I see media buying domination to this extreme extent, the more it feels like the ad itself is talking and it’s saying:

“Hey, it’s me! Traditional advertising! Look, I’m still here and I’m everywhere! Remember me? Look up from your smartphone, tablet and laptop! You can’t ignore me!”

Rather than buying up every available piece of ad space in a concentrated area to get their point across, what if Tropicana had taken all that money they invested and used some of it to give away free samples to those very same commuters on their way to work instead? Put the product right in their hands if you’re going to spend that kind of money. They’re picked up by the pleasant surprise of having some extra Tropicana sunshine in their morning. They smile. They say thank you. They talk about it to others on their way to work – “Hey, where’d you get that Tropicana?” It’s instant gratification of the brand.

Isn’t that what we want, really? People to feel good about our brand and tell others? With that sweet and unexpected taste of Tropicana goodness, isn’t it conceivable that they’ll return for another bottle tomorrow?

I guess I’ll just look down at the floor. They couldn’t possibly put it there too…never mind, they did.

Sure, perhaps overloading them with ads just short of tattooing an orange on each person’s forehead would achieve the same result. But I like my chances better with my approach.

This isn’t against traditional ads either or even the creativity of the ads themselves. Far from it. My point is this – if an ad is great and gets people talking, do those people need to be overloaded with its presence to the point of potential turnoff? Who cares if it shares space with other ads if it’s so much better? Even the most gigantic ad possible can be OK because it’s not everywhere.

In a city like ours, with some of the most unique architecture in the world, there’s a balance that we have to maintain between advertising product and infringing on the beauty of what makes a structure great. We can be tasteful and achieve our goals in the same breath. It’s times like these that we have to remember we’re the town of Leo Burnett and Daniel Burnham – if our work would make both of them happy, we’re doing right by their legacies.

We’re in the branding business. Not the architecture wallpaper business.

A well-done shout-out to Chi-Town. Maybe they didn’t need much else.

With some well-placed signs that hit commuters once they exit the train into the station, how much more do we need? Apparently, a gigantic amount more. That feels a little too perky in the morning.

Lesson of Lowe’s: Your Competitor Royally Screwed Up. Don’t Just Sit There.

Attention, Head Media Buyer for The Home Depot. Can we talk? You’ve got an opportunity for yourself handed to you on a silver platter if you’re intelligent and I’ll bet you are. So here’s what I want you to do.

I want you to pick up the phone and start placing ads on “All-American Muslim” like no tomorrow.

Don’t overthink. Don’t overanalyze. Just do it. I don’t care what your demographics are. I don’t care what marketing research tells you. I’m as big a fan as anybody of market research but when your competitor shoots themselves in the foot so badly by blowing their nose on an entire race of people, you’ve got to seize the moment and welcome those people with open arms.

For those who haven’t heard, Lowe’s did a royal screw-up by caving to outside pressure and pulling its advertising from TLC’s program featuring the lives of five Muslim families in Michigan. The backlash has been swift and the outrage intense, not just from Muslim groups but many others. Russell Simmons even offered to buy up all the airtime on the program that advertisers voided.

To me, the danger isn’t so much associations like the Florida Family Association, which urged people to engage in an email campaign to pressure brands like Lowe’s that advertised on the program to pull their advertising.

The danger is when brands actually listen to these fringe groups, tuck their tail between their legs and run for the hills instead of acting like intelligent brands that weren’t born yesterday.

Lowe’s justified the move like so: “Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic and this program became a lightning rod for many of those views. As a result, we did pull our advertising.”

Ah. I get it. So the loudest voice in the room wins, no matter how bigoted and divisive their opinion may be. Just making sure that’s how you make your decisions.

Lowe’s acts like this came out of the blue and caught them by surprise. Nice try but I don’t buy it. Running from lightning rods is what big companies tend to do when they want to appeal to everyone under the sun. Ironically, that’s the opposite of what Lowe’s did anyway in the end. But why does controversy have to be a bad thing? I don’t think it has to be and can be a good thing. Lady Gaga is controversial. And massively successful. I doubt she’s hurting from controversy.

Let me replace all of the official public statements from Lowe’s, probably written by their PR firm or internal marketing people with the only two words that people really hear: We’re afraid.

Memo to brands of America: Beyond what you see on marketing analytics, the people who buy your stuff will be gay, Muslim and mixed racial couples.

And last I checked, their money is still as good in this country as a white person’s.

It’s too bad that showing these types of groups in advertising or advertising on programs featuring such groups beyond the white American family is seen as “progressive.” It shouldn’t be. It should be off the table as something advanced for us to talk about as a brand differentiator. It should be common sense that this reflects modern reality, so we can make marketing decisions based on deeper, more important factors.

But I digress from my mountaintop to speak purely on a marketing level so you can apply the lessons learned from this situation to your own:When you have a scenario like the Lowe’s one where a competitor does something stupid, you have two choices:

1) You can be lazy and have a nice laugh at your competitor’s expense. You may say you’re not going anywhere near the situation with a 10-foot pole and believe the customers will naturally trickle over to you.

2) You can get off your butt and move quickly to cater to the disenchanted audience. It’s called being proactive because it’s the right thing to do marketing-wise and in some cases, morally as well.

You buy media where they dropped media. You use social media to target the voices that are angry. You issue releases and blog posts speaking to the pains people are expressing. And it’s not really about the competitor at all as much as heavily amplifying how much stronger YOUR principles are. Don’t waste any time retelling their story – the disenfranchised are already doing that for you. Tell yours in a way that helps the audience connect the dots easily on how you’re different regarding that particular issue.

This window of opportunity can happen at the most basic local level too. Not all that long ago, a auto dealership in the Chicagoland area fired a man for coming into work wearing a Green Bay Packers tie. Now, I bleed Bear blue and orange, but obviously that’s just a dumb move. The media picked up on the story and the auto dealership that formerly employed him got some massive and unwanted attention.

At this point, other dealerships nearby could have just reveled in a competitor screwing up. But one had the initiative to seize the moment while the story was still hot. They hired the Packer-wearing tie salesman almost immediately. Not only was that the right thing to do, but the focus shifted from one stupid dealership to how the new dealership did something heroic. THEY became the new focus of the story.

My point is, when events like this happen to a competitor, don’t run from the chatter. Dive into it. You want to talk about how you can engage a community? You’re looking at it. Put up or shut up time.

There’s one thing Lowe’s got right in separating itself from a program with the words “All American” in it: When brands are this easily swayed by the agendas of extreme groups that they forget their own values, whatever it is they’re building together is anything but All American.

Have you ever capitalized on a competitor’s mistake to acquire new customers and become the hero? If so, how did it happen and what did you do? Share away, hero.

Babies and Knives Make For Interesting Bedfellows in Milwaukee

You’re an agency Creative Director and you’re charged with the following agenda from the Milwaukee Health Department: Show how sleeping with your baby in the same bed is dangerous. 

Go.

SERVE Marketing came up with this to get the point across. I know. Some of you might be outraged. Go ahead. Call it extreme. Maybe you’re offended by it enough to show it to other people. Or comment on blogs. The Today Show sure did – some medical talking head they bring in regularly named Nancy Snyderman said it was wrong.

Golly. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say a whole lot more people are suddenly talking about the dangers of sleeping with an infant in the same bed.

I say Mission Accomplished. Whether you agree with it or not, it got people in Milwaukee conversing about an important subject. Think about all the stupid irrelevant garbage we’re obsessed about on a daily basis, from the poor plight of Kim Kardashian to anything that passes as “Breaking News” that really isn’t.

The fact is, cause advertising has to do something extreme to get us out of our comfort zone and actually do something on behalf of that organization. Yes, sometimes we have to change the channel when we see those ads of abused animals set to Sarah McLachlan music, but we know exactly what it’s for and we know the importance of the message. Note that when I talk about doing something extreme, I don’t necessarily mean it has to be extremely depressing. There are actually fun ways to convey a message too – for example, an animal shelter filmed a music video recently consisting of one continuous shot throughout the shelter of staff singing with the animals to be adopted (even though the music’s been removed for some reason, you can see it here to get the idea – thanks to D Zorea of DDZ Accounting for supplying it).

So perhaps not everything in its tone has to be doom and gloom to get people’s attention. But doing so doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong. Think about it. When you depend on private donations and you’re a financially challenged organization, you have not one, not two but three major hurdles: 1) Getting people to feel anything about you to the point of picking up the phone, attending an event, going to your site/Facebook page, etc., 2) consequently donating time, money or both requires a really big conversation piece and 3) getting #1 and #2 done on a small budget.

What you have is a result big enough to save a few more infants from an awful accident that could be avoided. Big enough to at least get parents to consider where they stand on the issue and talk about it amongst themselves.

If it makes you uncomfortable, that’s not always a bad thing. We have issues in our daily lives that are not comfortable – so are we going to pretend we all live in Disneyland or are we going to discuss them like human beings who have things that give us very real, negative emotions?

I’ve written more than a few ads over the last decade and I’d be lying if I haven’t been asked on several occasions, “Can we make this copy sound a little less negative?”

Sorry. Not this time.

I’m sure you have a thought or two on this approach, so what’s your take? I’d love to hear. Shocking? Provocative? Effective? Offensive? 

Metra’s brand would fly higher with tech upgrades

Blessed to be in a city with solid public transportation, not a week goes by that I don’t use a bus, El and Metra train to get me from Point A to Point B. And while you have to put up with the usual annoyances (Exhibit A: Man talking on cell phone at ridiculous decibels), I’ve found that the CTA is doing a good job of meeting expectations in forecasting the arrival/departure times on buses and El trains – in fact, technology has made it about as smooth an experience as you can expect in a city as big as ours. We can tap a Chicago Card to a designated payment area and we’re on our way. We can look down on our mobile devices and see thanks to apps like Buster, the 156 really will be here in 4 minutes. Things are indeed getting better. Not perfect, but better.

But when Metra asked for a 30% rate hike, I had to give pause. The mode of transportation that has billed itself as the “Way to Really Fly,” for as long as I can remember needs to justify the hike by making improvements that not only make the transportation experience more enjoyable but still enables Metra to live by that tagline. I’m getting a little tired in this economy of people saying that they need more money or else without clearly explaining what they intend to do with it. After all, Metra’s passengers aren’t made of money either. So just being able to continue service isn’t good enough.

First, unless you get a special express train with fewer stops, you’re not flying on Metra. It makes a stop every few minutes and many of them at that. The advantage of Metra is not dealing with sitting in traffic on the Eisenhower. But it’s not like we’re talking about a bullet train here. Only so much that can be done about that logistically speaking, which brings us to point #2, something that can be implemented.

Metra is losing money partially due to its own inefficiencies. In other words, if Metra is going to come to a Board saying, “we need to hike rates 30%,” they’d better have some upgrades too in order to make boarding and ticket processing “The Way to Really Fly.” For example, when 15,000 Millennials descended on Grant Park earlier this summer from the suburbs to see an outdoor concert, Metra had to take their tickets manually. This meant the old standby of asking each passenger where they were going, taking their money, giving them change and giving them their ticket. On to the next person. On a completely packed train of people that don’t have simple monthly/weekly passes, that means you’re going to miss getting the tickets of some people by the time it gets to the station in Chicago. That can be 5, 6, 7 dollars or more with each person missed. 

I have literally watched conductors try to remember whose ticket fare they collected and whose they didn’t. The system just doesn’t work well. Apparently Metra has taken to hiring “observers” to discreetly ride trains to ensure fares are being collected when conductors happen to miss them, but is this really the most cost-efficient way to monitor the situation? No.

On the other hand, if the conductors had an electronic swiping device that enabled people to not only pay by credit card but also pay by Chicago Card by tapping it to a conductor’s device, I’d say you cut the transaction time by 5-10 seconds per person. That may not sound like a lot until you calculate multiple train cars on a Saturday, when half of Chicagoland is heading to museums, sporting events, concerts and more.

I may not know all the details of I.T. needed to bring this into reality, but I have to believe that if it can be this easy on a bus or El train, Metra needs to bring itself in line with those modes of transportation too. Because the whole providing a paper ticket and punching it thing is more than a little dated, if not wasteful environmentally-speaking. With card processing technologies like Square, it becomes all the more easier. Or here’s a not-so-radical thought – take a page from airline boarding procedures and have an electronic processing terminal(s) at each station with one agent per terminal who takes a ticket, scans it and lets the person on board. No conductor has to rack his brains remembering whose ticket fare he collected and didn’t collect.

One more note to Metra CEO Alex Clifford, who said recently that details of the rate hike were still being ironed out – I’m sure the hike is a necessarily evil in these times and although people won’t like it (who does?), transparency of how you’re spending these new dollars is critical. So remember the places online where you can communicate that message clearly and often – i.e., your website, Facebook Page and Twitter account for starters.

Fewer missed fares, more in Metra’s pocket, easier experience for conductor and passenger alike. Now your brand has got a way to genuinely and really, fly.