What happens when your leader IS your brand?

Most of us have bosses. Some of us have great CEOs. And a very precious few of us have what can only be referred to as a legend – the kind of iconic visionary who is responsible for making the brand what it is today in the eyes of many.

Of course, nobody is immortal. Time ensures we all move on, whether it is due to a new job, retirement or (not to be morbid), expiring. The challenge Apple faces today in the wake of Steve Jobs’ resignation as CEO (but he is staying on as Chairman) is no different than what Chrysler had to face in the post-Iacocca era, Ogilvy had to face without David Ogilvy, Disney without Walt or what Virgin will face when Richard Branson steps away someday. These are imaginative, charismatic, exciting people who not only shaped the foundation of their companies but have had influence far beyond it for managers in all kinds of industries. They are not just people associated with the brand. They ARE the brand.

What do you tell the world when they aren’t around on a daily basis anymore? Do you regret having linked to one person so strongly? Do you pretend it’s business as usual and no big deal?

It’s not a catastrophe as long as you remember a few key fundamentals before, during and after that transition for the good of your brand.

1. You don’t replace genius.
The world knows that. You’re not fooling anyone when you pretend that the person no longer involved in your company is no big deal. “Oh, yeah, he left but we’re humming along.” Give me a break. It’s about saying, “You don’t replace someone like him. He was remarkable. Fortunately, we’re a better positioned company today because of everything he’s done.” You don’t have to say you’re devastated and don’t know how you’re going to go on either. Which leads us to #2.

2. Show what the legacy has brought to your business and culture.
The Chicago Bulls couldn’t replace Michael Jordan. Hockey itself couldn’t replace Wayne Gretzky. But as a testament to their influence, they had disciples and students of their genius and skill. Steve Jobs has had the same and I’m sure Apple will take great steps to show how Jobs’ principles are alive and well even as he pulls back from responsibilities at the company. For example, Jobs was a master of stripping away technical elements that the consumer didn’t necessarily need – I doubt that Apple will suddenly become a company of unwieldy designed products now. They’ll keep this legacy strong if they can continue to show how they produce not just great products but magical feelings that make people salivate over what’s next. Great leaders have great influence and great respect long after they’re gone – how often do we hear architects and city planners in Chicago invoke the name of early 1900’s architect Daniel Burnham in an effort to stay true to his vision of the city today?

But again you ask, “isn’t Steve Jobs the primary person who triggers the emotion behind Apple with every introduction?” Yes. But that leads us to point #3.

3. Terrific leaders don’t leave the skill set cupboard bare when they leave.
If you believe Steve Jobs is a great leader – which I do – you know that he has been preparing his internal team for a moment when he was going to step away for some time now. And if you have ever studied the succession plans of companies that tend to do well in transition, fortune tends to favor those who select leaders from within who have understood the culture for quite some time – not a hard and fast rule, but a trend. In that context, can you imagine anyone better prepared to take on this responsibility than Tim Cook, a man who has been at Apple for over a decade and has already had to step in for Jobs once before? What about the talented people who have an eye not just for technological greatness but artistic beauty in what they create for Apple? Steve Jobs is a great thinker but to say he was the one and only visionary behind the iPad, iPhone or iCloud is doing his team a disservice.

4. Perception is reality. Think about experiences and emotions, not just dollars and cents.
You can talk about dollars, cents and profitability until the cows come home. But there’s an immeasurable quality of captivating customers like the past leader did that should be your goal just as much as earning revenue. People who take their eye off that function of branding and try to say that the company is in an even better place are fooling themselves. And I’m not just speaking externally – what’s the chemistry of your culture post-iconic leader? Is it just as fun of a place to be? If you used to be a magical place to work and have become just a profitable place to work, something is lost. Sure, technology must evolve and ways of doing business must evolve. But the spirit and vision that is the company’s reason for being must be just as inspiring to its people from one leader to the next. If you don’t have that, the promise of what your brand is all about rings a bit more hollow. I don’t think Mr. Cook will make the mistake at the next big Apple event of presenting just about profit and loss instead of trying to excite people for what’s next. I sure hope not.

5. With consistency and focus, you ensure the iconic leader leaves his mark on the brand forever.
None of us may live forever, but the more our successors can use our principles as a guiding force for why they do what they do, the more they honor us. More importantly, they keep the brand strong. If those principles fade because some new CEO from the outside wants to put his own stamp on things and forget all the good things done in the past, well, chances are the company probably loses its shine as well.

Most of us may never know what it’s like to work for a person so iconic that they become synonymous with the brand. But their leaving isn’t the tragedy – forgetting how they made the company great in the first place is.

Can you think of instances of where greatness transpired from one leader to the next? What about stumbles that could have been avoided? Of course, if you have a bold prediction for Apple’s future in the wake of Steve Jobs stepping back, I’d love to hear that too.

Downers Grove Golf Club travels back in time to go forward

There used to be a time when country clubs and golf clubs could mention who their course was designed by, show some great aerial photos of the course and rely on that to do much of the heavy lifting for drawing interest.

Those days are gone and I don’t think they’re going to return. Clubs of all varieties find themselves trying to plant their stake in the ground when it comes to positioning themselves and standing out. Why? People aren’t walking away from playing the game in the midst of economic turmoil (walking away temporarily due to their scores, perhaps), but these people certainly are being given options to explore. And it’s forcing clubs to get creative. Yet, some of the “creativity” I’ve seen from club managers consists of price-driven daily specials to get golfers in the door that may give a short jolt at best for a slow day but rarely results in any long-term loyalty.

When a golf club or country club can build an effort that’s true to who it is as a brand based on its heritage or profile of members, I think it’s got a genuine story to share that’s worth telling. When it’s not genuine (i.e. a country club that pretends to be kid-friendly toward potential new members despite the fact there aren’t any facilities or programs to cater to children), people find out not long after the membership Open House, if not right then and there.

So it was refreshing to witness a tournament that plays so well into the fabric of what a club is all about. Downers Grove Golf Club  is the oldest golf course in America west of the Allegheny mountains, established in 1892. Sure, this is a nice factoid that’s good for bragging rights vs. your typical course, but rather than resting on its laurels, Downers Grove let its past come to life at the All American Hickory Open this weekend.

If you think this is your ordinary corporate golf tournament, think again.

Put away your tees, sir. You'll be making your tee old-school today from a pile of sand.

The beauty and originality of the Hickory Open is that it is played with pre-1900 golf equipment, including golf clubs and golf balls. As a bonus, I was pleased to see nearly all the players in the tournament getting into the act by dressing the part of a turn-of-the-century golfer too. Knickers and ties for men, ladies with parasols. From a real brand perspective, the result I see here when you have an event like this is that it’s not only a nice piece of revenue for the golf course but hopefully an annual event that gets continued and growing coverage – not as a gimmick but as an authentic tie to the club’s roots. It’s about playing with the instruments of the past on a course that’s as steeped in history as any. Close your eyes and you’d think you’re in 1890. Considering how many of us see the golf course as an escape, think about the number of gents I saw taking pictures of one another as they whacked at a ball not off of a tee, but off a mound made of sand – just like the way they used to do it back then.

They had an experience that was unique, memorable and just as important – tied back to the club. A brand can get a lot of mileage out of a memory like that.

On the left, a ball from the old days. On the right, a modern day ball. Different size, different texture. They hit the one on the left a lot better than you'd expect.

In case you’re wondering, even though there’s definitely a difference from yesterday’s clubs and balls to what we use today, most of the shots I saw with the old sticks were pretty darn good.

If you’re a GM, Membership Director or Board Member of a golf or country club, what are some of the creative ways you’re attracting interest with your authentic brand’s story? If you’re stumped and need a framework on where to begin, here’s a good starting place.

Downers Grove Golf Club is located at 2420 Haddow Ave. in Downers Grove. Call 630.963.1306 for more information.

Simplifying your brain even with an additional 37 Signals.

A thought today that inspires me from Chicago-based 37 Signals.

Rather than add on, think about what you can strip away and simplify to make the experience of working with you more enjoyable for your audience.

Innovation via undoing complexities your customers face. What a refreshing concept in this perpetual “add on” world of ours.

When people have come to me over the last several years with an idea that will launch a new product or service, their minds often start to race with product line extensions, offshoots and even selling the company. All before anyone on Earth knows about them.

This is where taking your eye off the prize can lead you into trouble. I’m paraphrasing, but I can recall reading 37 Signals founder Jason Fried saying to the effect of, “We don’t need to offer training for our products because they’re so intuitive, you just get them.”

He’s right. Just to be on the safe side, they supply 1-2 minute bite-sized videos of each feature of his products, but you never need to watch it more than one time. His project management tools like Basecamp, Highrise and Backpack are that intuitive and easy to grasp. Basecamp essentially allows your team to collaborate and communicate with clients in a way that’s both advanced and very simple (posting thoughts in streams of communication not unlike what you see on Facebook but easier than e-mail).

Let’s look at another company – Yammer takes the concept of e-mail communication and speeds it up internally for greater group communication and input. Sending e-mail back and forth: Clunky. Yammer: Crazy simple.

Think about this notion for a moment as it applies to you. Is your product something that is so simple that nobody would have to sit down with one of your people to understand how it works? That they could just watch a 2-minute video? If not, where do the complications occur?  If you offer a service in the B2B realm that requires a face-to-face, can you structure yourself in such a way that people get exactly the advantage of working with you (“Just go to our website and you’ll see what we do.”)?

This is not an easy challenge as we all have varying things of complexity we sell to the world, whether it be bobbleheads or I.T. solutions. Yet, I believe we hurt our own cause when we try think about one-upping competitors by adding on rather than taking away. It goes back to focusing on what you are absolutely best at, not what you are mildly good at.

By now, this is where I get a reply sort of like the following:

“We’re a full-service accounting firm. We can’t strip away our services. That wouldn’t be realistic.”
Perhaps, but you’re not making it easy on someone to say you can do it all. Really. A more likely and natural scenario is that they’re looking for one service at this moment. Then, in time, you may be able to expand the relationship into other areas as they become more trusting. In other words, are there areas of your communication that could be simplified to focus more on ONE area of service that you are particularly known for or a partner has gained a reputation for that you can play up more than ALL of your parts?

Similarly, if you’re a Realtor, why say you’re the Realtor who has been around for 25 years? No offense, but that’s what a lot of people say. How do you make the process easier on first-time homebuyers in the western suburbs of Chicago?

What I’m getting at is a combination of de-cluttering your brand and clarifying your focus from an operations/technological/process/people perspective.

Simplification of Audience
Be honest with yourself. Who represents the audience you have related best to? If they’re not profitable enough, you can add on another audience to go after, but just remember how that will affect the communication strategy you need to present. I’m a bigger fan of “Here’s how we understand your audience” messaging that’s tailored to a specific group vs. “Here’s what we do at our firm” messaging that aims to appeal to all.

Simplification of Process
It’s not merely about some fancy name and putting a “tm” next to it. Is your process marketable by its simplification or does it follow the same path that any other competitor would expect to follow? From a customer service standpoint, if other companies have a maze of an automated phone system, do you have texting, Skype and other methods that streamline the way to get a hold of you faster? Can you use a product like Square to let them pay for services then and there?

By the way, this has applications to internal processes too. I once worked at an agency that had 8 pages on workflow process, complete with flowcharts for all scenarios. Impractical? You could say that. Talk about a glaring need to do away with extras for the benefit of the end user: the client.

Simplification of Product/Service
What can you “undo” in complexity that is atypical of your industry? This doesn’t even have to mean entirely new products or services – you can start with aspects of your business. For example, if the client expects a mountain of paperwork in order to engage you, what can you do to go paperless or provide just one invoice (there’s a nice environmental angle in this as well)?

Listing all your services is fine, but how do you make it easier on someone to find a wealth of information on exactly the service they know they need? And please, give them more than “We have X employees in the ____ division” when they get there. You’re not making it more complex by adding content here – you’re making it easier for them to make a decision because they’re finding more about you than the other firm and it’s raising your credibility in their eyes.

Simplification of Rewards
Think about the mechanism you can implement that make it easy as pie for a client to understand what they need to do in order to get rewarded from you. Maybe it’s nothing more than giving you their business – so what reward do they get? Maybe it’s a certain number of times visiting your restaurant and checking in on Foursquare. Maybe it’s an Amazon gift card for every qualified referral they make. If they sign up to try your software and forward a link to 5 friends who also sign up, does that original person get an upgrade? In any event, the complexity here isn’t that there’s too many rewards…it’s that there’s usually none. You can take advantage of this empty space others don’t always inhabit by communicating what clients will clearly get for a desired response.

Innovation through simplification. I’d love to hear examples of it you’ve come across, whether in your own company or other brands you’ve encountered.

6 ways your personal brand can inject a Darren Clarke-ness to it

I can recall viewing Darren Clarke on the cover of a now-defunct golf magazine a few years back, with a stogie in his mouth, smiling and speaking inside the interior of the mag of his love of Guinness. And when Clarke won the British Open today, it got me thinking about why this man is so beloved, certainly in Europe and really much further than those boundaries. We can learn a lot about personal branding in his triumph and journey to this point.

#1: He is relatable to the people who are his Fans, who see bits of themselves in him.
More than once, commentators over the last few days asked that very question to Clarke himself and his reply was essentially that he was the “Everyman.” Clarke drinks. He smokes. He drives fast cars. He loves his family and is intensely loyal to them.

So many of us who smack sticks at a tiny little white ball on the weekend aren’t going to join the Tour anytime soon. We’re doing the best we can but we’re not always in the perfect shape. We like to partake of a beer or two on the course or at least in the clubhouse. Some of us curse at the stupid ball. Some of us puff away at a cigar. We’re Darren Clarke but our scores are much worse.

Why are we afraid to show this side of our personal brands? Because it wouldn’t be “professional?” Give me a break. That’s fear talking. Fear of what other people will think of us. Fear that we can’t command respect.

One professional just went out into the world today with his personal brand on full display, against the best players in the world…and won. Don’t tell me you can’t do the same. I’m not telling you to wear t-shirts into a meeting – that’s silly. I’m telling you that authenticity and success are same page material, not polar opposites.

#2: He is not afraid to show emotion. 
When Clarke’s first wife passed away from breast cancer, he did what any human with a pulse would do. He grieved, he stepped away from the game for a little while, he allowed himself to mentally regroup and in time, he got back into playing with the support of others around him. But when he triumphed on the course upon his return, he broke down and let us in to show us he was not a robot but a human being with feelings.

When he was in the thick of competition on the last day of the most important tournament of his life, he allowed himself to smile a little more than everyone else around him. How many times do we say that branding is an “emotional connection?”

#3: You are not defined by what you “do.”
You are not your title.
You are not your department.
You are not your function or area of expertise.
You are not who you work for.

If you think this is your personal brand, you aren’t digging hard enough.

Because someday, someone else will have your title, your job and your function. That’s all replaceable stuff. What else have you got? Plenty, I assure you. What pieces of you come together to form an identifiable, admirable, talked-about personal brand?

It’s about beliefs and choices that stir emotions deep within you that you will proudly wear and go to battle for.
Do not mistake the “personal” aspects for being “private” aspects that aren’t worth expressing.

Richard Branson’s appeal is not that he is the CEO of Virgin. That’s boring. You know it and I know it. Richard Branson’s appeal is that he’s a risk-taker and adventurer who does certain things in business that cause people to watch with anticipation on what he’s doing now and what he will do next. He could fall on his face doing it, but so what? He can do it because that’s HIM. It comes naturally to him.

Among other things, you are defined by what you believe, how you treat others, how others view you and the relationships that matter in your life, both personally and professionally. We’re talking the things in life you don’t apologize for because, for better or worse, that’s YOU.

#4: Define your personal brand more by what you are and enjoy –  rather than what you aren’t and hate.
I just don’t think there’s a lot of appeal in being the “anti-” person because you’re only saying what you aren’t. Not what you stand for. It may clarify a bit but it doesn’t cause people to gravitate to you in itself. When you begin thinking about your personal brand development, it’s OK if you have thoughts of people, companies and ideas that don’t mesh with your belief system. But don’t stop there. Think about why that is. Why you think and feel that way.

#5: Embrace the “work in progress” of your personal brand.
Having it all figured out is dull. Life is about adding aspects of your development, figuring out the context of how they fit into your personal brand, deciding to accept them or not, then understanding how to express them. Your personal brand will evolve over time and that’s quite natural. In fact, it’s fun. Just make sure to keep it evolving.

#6: Never apologize.
If it feels like something that you’re going to be so passionate about that you’re going to wear it on your sleeve, consequences be damned, you’re on the right track. Winners never have to. Sharing what you love can be to the benefit of you personally if not professionally. It is not about the quantity of people who follow you on Twitter. It is about the quality of relationships and commanded respect as a result of that personal brand. Someone who is a “social media expert” who blathers on 100% about social media is boring. When that person injects a little personality in his or her communication, even if it’s 10% or less of his content, the spectrum of who you connect with expands. This can come from mixing it up with pictures shared on Flickr, funny videos on YouTube, sports opinions, you get the idea.

Again, it’s not merely about your job. It’s about putting your passions on display – some of that may involve what you do for a living, but it won’t be ALL of it.

Gary Vaynerchuck is a guy who, if he only talked about wine reviews, would be a boring guy. His personal brand would blend in. But this guy is someone who is an unabashed Jets fan who curses liberally as he gives reviews on Cabernet through online videos. He’s not your typical sommelier at a fancy restaurant or a food critic with your typical newspaper column. He swishes the liquid around and spits into a football helmet for all the world to see. And that’s what is great about him. He is qualified and credible to be sure, but he also injects personality into the message without apology. A guy you’d like to hang out with and listen to who also happens to know a lot about wine.

Just like Darren Clarke is a guy you’d like to hang out with who also happened to win one of the toughest tournaments in the world.

State Farm becoming a better neighbor with Next Door concept

As someone who worked on the State Farm account for a few years, I view the company’s latest concept with more than a casual interest. The company with the familiar “Like a good neighbor…” jingle is about to launch an entirely new retail idea smack dab in the middle of my neighborhood in Lakeview. And at least at a first glance, I think they’re on to something good that more in the insurance industry might want to take a closer look at doing themselves.

State Farm Next Door opens August 1st and the concept is a more open, casual community space that offers free Wi-Fi and coffee (via its Next Door Cafe) as well as personalized coaching/small group classes on financial matters that range from paying off student loans to learning how to budget your finances.

The "Good Neighbor" with a new look.

This may not seem like a huge departure from the typical agent office, but it is. Here’s why. For a long time, State Farm talked about the fact that their agents live in the same community as their customers. Which is normal. But even though you can continuously say, “We live where you live,” there’s nothing quite like actually demonstrating it visibly by being more of a central hub.

Plus, there will be no actual insurance sold at State Farm Next Door so they aren’t cannibalizing their own agents’ efforts by selling policies here. There will be financial consultants and all the services at Next Door are free. Personally, I think the latter part of that sentence is important for bringing down some barriers among younger people who would normally walk on by because they don’t see the point in planning when they don’t even have the funds to pay for ongoing classes.

Stepping out of the “Auto/Home/Life” rate rut.

Let’s be honest. You first walk into or call State Farm, Allstate, Farmer’s, etc. because you have a need for auto, home or life insurance. You need to get covered, you compare rates,  you buy. You don’t like your rate after a while? You look around, you compare again, you buy.

Fighting a branding battle based on rates doesn’t benefit State Farm. I never thought it has. It’s territory that Geico and Progressive have owned quite well for years. Even when State Farm talks about the dangers of “cut-rate car insurance,” they’re still planting the seed of shopping based on rates and playing into the hands of their competitors.

That’s why, even though the newest ad work for State Farm is entertaining, that’s not necessarily what I see pulling people in. I see the Next Door concept having real upside by broadening out from buckets of insurance sold from an agent behind a desk into more generalized classes on finance and budgeting for 20-somethings and 30-somethings in the neighborhood who needed that guidance but couldn’t find it up to this point. You don’t have to walk into Next Door with an intent to buy. You walk in with an intent to learn (sorry, I don’t think I’ll walk in with an intent to just have a cup of coffee when there’s Starbucks and Caribou close by, but I appreciate the offer).

No hard selling, new look

In a way, State Farm’s Next Door feels a lot like smart social media itself – not a hard sell but a place to inform a community. And possibly learn from it along the way. I also like the fact that State Farm has the guts to do a true departure design-wise (different logo, wood background) for this sub-brand of Next Door, because in this case anything that looks too close to the familiar auto/home/life color palette would be a bit of a turn-off. A bright red building would scream “State Farm,” but it wouldn’t say “come in with your financial questions or just to hang out.” The location doesn’t hurt being steps away from Trader Joe’s and the Diversey/Clark/Broadway intersection.

Some may think the idea is a stretch, but I disagree. I think for a brand that’s been around for as long as State Farm, it’s a stretch within their brand that makes sense and might even be overdue. Even more so than insurance and agents, State Farm is supposed to be about, well, being a Good Neighbor with warm, friendly guidance. I think the Next Door concept is authentic and true to that ideal. Will that translate into a steady flow of interested customers? Well, we don’t have to wait until the doors open. Let’s hear from you:

Does this type of cafe concept with free classes, coffee, Wi-Fi and “no strings attached” appeal to you from a financial services and insurance company? 

The Google Gap: Useful? Yes. Emotional Pull? Well…

A rather stunning irony occurred to me as I was thinking about the latest tool Google is introducing, Google Plus.

For all the tools I use from Google, I don’t believe I ever got extraordinarily excited about using them before or during the time I’ve actually used them.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of certain tools and highly recommend them. In particular, I regularly use Google Calendar, Gmail, Google Reader and Google Alerts. I’d even describe them to others as “great.”

So what’s the problem? The problem is despite the fact that Google delivers a highly efficient, highly productive group of tools for me, none of these tools have stirred the senses with a “got to have it now” factor. And this wouldn’t be such a big deal if Google weren’t aiming to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Facebook to be our all-everything place for connections, searching and relationships.

Say what you want about privacy issues, but Facebook owns a great deal of emotional investment from people. It’s the place where their family and friends commonly are when it comes to online community interaction, if not their business associates too. The technology to keep and enhance those connections is important, but technology is almost secondary to why people are there and stay there. This emotion is not to be underestimated.

Take another company, like Apple. Apple has the “got to have it now” factor in spades. It’s safe to say that for a large number of people like you, there’s been at least one Apple product released in the last 10 years that you really, really wanted….NOW. It’s why people had to have the iPod, stood in line for the iPhone and they’re salivating over the iCloud. And if you didn’t have it, you felt left behind. Even with the one product that met a bit more skepticism at first, the iPad, there’s little question now that people who bought into it love what it can do on a personal or business level.

And there it is – the “L” word. Love. There are many companies that produce useful, efficient, productive products that people buy and even keep buying…but don’t love them. This is coveted territory that not everybody can own. Dare I say that Google has never produced anything that’s, well, FUN. It’s never ENTERTAINED. Absolutely, it’s helped me get the job done, find what I’m looking for and keep me organized. But it’s never brought a lasting smile to my face.

Love isn’t always attained by adding more to an existing solution but actually stripping away what isn’t needed. One of my favorite examples here is 37 Signals with their Basecamp product for project management. There’s more emotional pull here not because it’s complicated but because it’s more simple than other tools with just enough to give me everything I need, nothing that I don’t. It doesn’t hurt that 37 Signals is great at customer service and exceedingly quick to inform its customers of enhancements or technical difficulties they’re working on.

And by the way, I didn’t have to wait for an invite to use their software.

Therefore, the Google Gap has nothing to do with technology but an emotional pull. A legion of fans that are passionate about spreading the word to others unsolicited because that product enhances their life just SO MUCH that they want the people they care about to experience that feeling too.

Never had that situation with Google. Never had a “Oh wow, you’ve got to try Gmail” moment. Instead, the exchange goes like this:

Them: “What’s your favorite calendar program?”
Me: “Google Calendar. It’s great.”

That’s not love – it may sound like it at first glance, but it’s not. That’s a positive recommendation that wouldn’t have come unless it was initiated by someone else. To close the Google Gap and be seen in a different light, Google Plus and future products from Google need to be more than just useful and efficient. We also don’t need versions that seem better in appearance but in practicality are more complicated to use.  They have to bring remarkable new categories of technology we haven’t used yet or dramatically strip away the complications of technology we’re using to the point of where it almost feels like a brand new category.

By virtue of his product line, Steve Jobs enjoys this emotional capital. By virtue of the relationships he has ownership over, so does Mark Zuckerberg. If Larry Page wants to stand on the platform with these gentlemen, this is the challenge before him to shape a new chapter of the Google era.

Does Wal-Mart belong in any city neighborhood, really?

As I write this post, I’m looking outside a window staring at the main battlefront of the Lakeview neighborhood. You see, if Wal-Mart is able to open its proposed Wal-Mart Marketplace grocery store here, I will literally be its neighbor. So as you can imagine, from a personal standpoint, I am not in favor of the potential increase in traffic that could be brought to my doorstep.

However, strategically speaking from a brand standpoint, Wal-Mart doesn’t really belong here either. By virtue of the ground it has already tilled and the kind of customers it has already catered to, it doesn’t belong in Lakeview, Lincoln Park or any city neighborhood. Even a little boutique offshoot of Wal-Mart is still essentially Wal-Mart too. Let’s be real.

To be clear, I don’t have anything against Wal-Mart as a business (although many others do). But you can’t say you’re a wolf and pretend to walk among the lambs. Wal-Mart as a brand has been, is and will always be first and foremost a big box retailer made for suburbanites.

Some will say, “Yes, but what’s the harm? Lakeview already has big name brands like The Gap, Marshall’s, T.J. Maxx…”

Yes, they do. But there is a difference between name brands that occupy a suitable space within a neighborhood cleanly and big box retailers that threaten to alter the landscape in such a way that its impact for the better is questioned. I hardly think there was a big uproar over The Gap coming into the neighborhood. It is not a big box retailer.

Landlords aren’t without blame too.
Some are painting a picture of an already thriving neighborhood but that’s only partially true. Independent businesses have left the neighborhood long before the current debate. Adding Wal-Mart may not help the climate of the small business, but when businesses are shutting down on main streets such as Broadway or Clark without being replaced, you have to take a harder look at the role of property landlords in changing a neighborhood. Could commercial real estate rents be contributing to a skew toward larger businesses coming into the neighborhood – because those are the ones who can actually pay those higher rents?

If that’s the case, perhaps Wal-Mart is not the only “enemy” Lakeview needs to be concerned with.

Two brands can solve everything. If they dare.
Dominick’s and Jewel are local brands that have been in our mindset since we were born. They’re from here. We know them. They know us. They belong locally in both the burbs and the city neighborhoods. They are Chicago. And they fulfill an “everyday” grocery store need that is sorely lacking among a wonderland of expensive gourmet food stores and dingy, limited markets. Dominick’s could’ve plugged this gaping hole by rebuilding its burned down store on Broadway, but that saga has dragged out longer than one can possibly believe. So perhaps it’s left to our friends at Jewel. But they would have less of an incentive to occupy the space since many are driving north now to their location because…the Dominick’s burned down.

All of this is not without precedent. We’ve had big boxes come in before. And I questioned how much they belong too. For example, I’m not sure a Home Depot was the best fit for Lincoln Park not merely because of logistics but because I don’t think their brand needed to be here. Revenue could be had in many a thriving Chicagoland suburb. And we’d keep going to our friendly Ace Hardware man (which we do).

But we’ve never had a big box retailer potentially come in at a place with such visibility. So while I wish Wal-Mart the best, as the brand strategist it’s never hired I would advise it to steer clear of the firestorm of attention in Lakeview it doesn’t need. It’s actually done too good of a job in establishing an identity for itself with a proven concept – it’s just that that concept needs to match the right location to thrive to the fullest.

So remember: Don’t underestimate the importance of location in establishing your brand. What match does the neighborhood have in terms of your target audience’s profile and spending habits? Can many of your true competitors be found here? Do you see potential for a demographic shift to occur that may change that landscape one way or another in the next few years?

If you’re not careful, you may find your own version of trying to fit your Wal-Mart into a Lakeview. And having a Wal-Mart in Lakeview makes about as much sense as a Costco in the middle of Michigan Avenue.

Last note: If you’d like to oppose Wal-Mart coming into Lakeview, there’s a Facebook Group set up for it here nearing 800 members – https://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_159449284099168&notif_t=group_r2j