Choose Chicago – But What Brand Do We Want Them To Choose?

Here, go craft a brand that speaks for an entire city.

It’s a gigantic challenge for the Choose Chicago team that CEO of Johnson Publishing Desiree Rogers heads. Chicago needs a fresh tourism campaign that captures the imagination of potential travelers abroad who can spend a pretty penny on their destination of choice. Why? There’s a new set of questions. There’s crime. There’s teacher layoffs. There’s a pension crisis. There’s an inordinate amount of debate over Wrigley Field Jumbotrons. And we’re still feeling a bit of a sting over not getting the Olympics and what that means in terms of how the world views our city.

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A view from the quieter, more family-friendly Ohio Street Beach. Just one of the many pleasant surprises you can find in Chicago that you don’t have to look too hard for.

Well, let’s start by not relying on tired old cliches to describe ourselves if we want to brand differently. Yet, in a recent interview with Chicago Magazine, Rogers described some ads that frankly, sound like the kind of tourism ad messages that anybody could come up with in their sleep.

Chicago Magazine: What are the U.K. ads like?
Desiree Rogers: Tongue in cheek. From “Over the pond, we have a lake” to “You have Big Ben, we have a big Bean” to “Put down your shepherd’s pie,” with an image of a deep-dish pizza. It’s on double-decker buses, taxicabs, even the receipts in the taxis.

That’s a little too cutesie. The kind of expected stuff that everybody thinks about. Yes, we have a lake. And pizza. And hot dogs. And the Cubs. And the immortal Frank Sinatra singing about us. But please, let’s stop going to that well. We just can’t keep going there if we’re going to change perceptions. People know all that about our city without coming here – right down to the tagline of “Chicago: Second To None.” We get it. We’re the Second City. Never heard that one before.

Can we get real here and step into the minds of potential tourists?

You don’t invest thousands of dollars on an overseas trip to Chicago because you want to compare bodies of water and try some pizza – even if the pie is fabulous. That’s Cliche Chicago. Not why you Choose Chicago.

If we dig deeper, we know that Chicago is so much more. We have to raise the profile of the hidden gems that make our city so worth discovering.

Let’s take music. If I see one more reference to the Blues Brothers, I’m going to puke. We know the movie. It was also done about 35 years ago (ignoring anything attempted by Jim Belushi to channel his brother). We’ve got a lot more going for us in the present day we can talk about.

People want great quality blues and jazz? They can have a fabulous experience at Buddy Guy’s Legends. The Green Mill. Kingston Mines. They know the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s world-class reputation, but have they taken in the experience of listening to live classical music (CSO or Grant Park Symphony Orchestra) under the stars in Millennium Park?

Or let’s take restaurants. Look, I love a cheezeborger, cheezeborger from Billy Goat Tavern as much as anyone. Ditto the pizza from Gino’s. But let’s throw a little more into the mix. A lot more. We’ve got hundreds of options populating every possible ethnicity known to mankind. Let’s showcase those too. I’m not imagining the fact that there are 300 options or so highlighted every month in Chicago Magazine. It’s a foodie’s paradise.

My thought? Take everything that the average person would know or guess about Chicago without coming here and wipe it right off the table as an option. Yes, they know Oprah and Michael and Da Coach hung their hats here. That’s over and done. They know about Al Capone – that’s really, really over and done. And don’t get me started on the tourist trap also known as Navy Pier.

This town’s charm – for someone who has spent the majority of his life in it – is that there is always a new restaurant, new bar, new concert experience, new shopping destination, new sporting event, new architectural marvel to tour, new museum exhibit to absorb and more.

Chicago is an ever changing-experience. It is never boring. And so much of it is wonderfully accessible without overwhelming its guests in a bad way. It is the easiest big city to customize your experience around with a myriad of options and still not feel as though you left so much more on the table unfulfilled.

From those experiences, you tell your friends upon your return of the things you never thought you’d partake in in Chicago. It whets their appetite to learn more. And they do.

In so many ways, our brand can be a best kept secret and some would say almost too secret for their tastes. But if we’re going to raise the profile and convert event opportunities from a short list of bids to a victorious outcome, we have to share the stories of our city that nobody could hope to read in a standard Wikipedia entry about Chicago. There’s thousands of those stories being told by visitors who are single, married, have kids, retired and more.

That’s why traditional advertising isn’t the best way to share that story unless it drives the reader to a place where they can read more online. We need lots and lots and lots of positive Chicago experiences shared. I’m very skeptical you can get there in a 3-5 ad campaign series. You can get there in a series of social media posts, however. So if we’re going to plaster London and other European cities with our advertising, let’s make sure it’s only the beginning of the conversation, not cute throwaway headlines that go nowhere.

For example, can we follow each day of an English couple’s first stay in Chicago? Can we follow them to their romantic stops? See their pictures and videos? Learn more about why they chose to come Chicago and to ramp up the interactivity, even recommend places for them via social media in the moment while they’re here? And when they return home, can we encourage these travelers to be tour guides for future travelers considering Chicago?

There is massive opportunity to share multiple stories simultaneously via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, Google Plus and more – and in fairness, Choose Chicago is doing a solid job of that storytelling online, particularly on Facebook. The concern I have is that I wonder what’s taking the lead in telling the story media-wise (traditional or social) and message-wise (here’s an idea – let’s use images of real people who are actually still alive and, if we’re going to use real residents, let’s choose ones that live here throughout the year rather than celebrities who call it home among their multiple other homes. Deal?).

It’s time to step away from the comfort zone of what everybody assumes about Chicago and share the unexpected, unplanned and remarkably surprising it can and does so often give.

After all, that’s what the best vacations are made of.

Northwestern ups the ante for football brand

A couple of years ago, Northwestern unveiled a brand campaign for its football program that touted it as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” Whether or not Northwestern has truly claimed that title is debatable – especially as area bars proudly fly flags from Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State and more – but what isn’t as much in question is evidence that the program is on the verge of transforming its gridiron brand into a much higher state of awareness with some strong offline and online milestones.


“A game changer in every regard”

To be competitive in The Big 10 Conference for recruits, it’s imperative that the program have a state-of-the-art practice facility. And from the way it’s been described by University President Morton Schapiro, it’s clear now Northwestern intends to have one.

This past weekend, the University announced its Board of Trustees had approved a plan to build a new $220 million sports complex on the north end of campus which will feature a practice facility that seats 2,500, a swimming pool, an outdoor practice field, locker rooms, weight rooms, sports medicine facilities and a parking structure with 1,200 spaces.

While the lakefront complex will benefit a variety of sports across the university, there’s little doubt what sport it appears designed for most.

 “Football is the engine that drives this department,” explained Northwestern AD Jim Phillips at the press conference announcing plans for the facility. “It’s the emotional engine. It’s the financial engine. We have to invest not only in all sports, but certainly football. This will allow our football program to be in the heart of campus.”

Marketing bringing home results

In drawing 31,644 against Vanderbilt, Northwestern boasted its largest opening crowd at Ryan Field for an opening home game since 2001. Sure, those numbers may not seem like much compared to other Big 10 Conference giants like Michigan or Ohio State, but it’s little coincidence in my mind that the average home attendance increased significantly around the same time that Northwestern rolled out its first marketing campaign in 2010. So while there’s work to do to live up to the “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” message, the results of the campaign are encouraging so far.


New Social Media Hub

Just two weeks ago, the football program launched the Northwestern Football Social Media Network, which brings together a multitude of platforms in one page: YouTube clips, Facebook updates, Twitter feeds, images from Instagram and Pinterest and more. More than an aggregator that mashes content together, however, the site from interactive studio Uncommon Thinking cleanly connects fans to their favorite channels for ongoing browsing and content sharing.

By the way, there’s one channel on the site that you probably won’t immediately recognize but should keep your eye on. It’s called Tout, a networking outlet that allows you to create 15-second status updates on your smartphone you can share in real-time and automatically on your social media networks.

The real brand message? Value.

In an economic time where fan dollars become even more precious, the brand positioning of Northwestern shouldn’t necessarily be “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” but to hammer home a reality they have consistently lived up to – win or lose, their down-to-the-wire games are hardly ever boring. It is an electrifying college football experience, whether you went to school to Evanston or happen to be rooting for the visiting team from, say, Ann Arbor or East Lansing. And because of that experience week in and week out, the “Cardiac Cats” provide a product that is absolutely an excellent value.

In fact, it might be the best sports value in town for the money.

That’s right. You heard me. Consider what it costs a family of four to attend a sporting event that includes parking, concessions and tickets.

Now calculate that over six home games. How easily can your family swing that?

While that’s unthinkable for many of us to afford, it becomes more palatable when tickets can be had in the $20-30 range, parking nearby is free and you don’t have to pay a fortune for beer, which keeps the overall cost low and the overall atmosphere more, well, family-friendly.

The “Transformation”

With a team that believes it can play in a BCS bowl – and it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds – investments in new marketing campaigns, practice facilities and long-term coaching contracts aren’t just refreshing but reflecting a new era of greater expectations that truly began when Gary Barnett took the team to the Rose Bowl in 1995.

Going to bowl games are the new norm. Winning them with consistency must come next. And once that new ground is reached? Better bowls. Bigger recruiting results. Hopefully greater enhancements to Ryan Field, complete with luxury boxes.

Let’s just say things could get really interesting in Evanston.

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, and 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, 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.