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.

Recognizing ideas made to stick vs. ideas made to stink

As a bookend to my other post this week on who doesn’t belong in the brainstorm room, your mission isn’t done when you have a collection of people who could generate great ideas. You also need to be able to recognize a great idea. I wouldn’t begin to suggest that this is easy nor would I suggest every idea I ever had was great. But I can say that by now, I’ve found there are a certain factors at play that help enhance the chances of building a better idea as well as factors that almost doom ideas from the start.

So let’s talk how to better understand what it is when it’s an idea made to stick and an idea made to stink.

Idea made to stick:
It’s got a whole lot of brother-and-sister concepts in a giant concept family. 

In another agency life, a truly great former (and sometimes current) mentor of mine would have me pump out one concept after another to hang on the wall of his office. The ideas would begin to pile up until what was under the wall faded. It became concept wallpaper. And that was a very good thing. If he only had one idea to look at at the end of the day, I imagine John wouldn’t have been too pleased at all. But because he pushed us to deliver higher quantity in order to discover and unearth those nuggets of higher quality, our collective work as a team was considerable. I’m still proud of that work today.

Idea made to stink:
The “let’s throw it against the wall and see what they say” idea. 

Sometimes really talented people on paper don’t have the stamina to push themselves beyond something they’re satisfied with. Or they fall in love with their own idea and put the brakes on any more thinking. “Can we just show them this and see what they say?” No. We can’t. Because deep down, you’re not sold on this idea. It’s good but you know it isn’t great. But you don’t want to push for great and that’s too bad. Great involves digging deeper beyond what was easy to come up with. As a college professor once told me about generating better ideas beyond the first ones, “You never worked so hard to tell them something so simple.” You have one or two ideas that you think are good? Maybe they are. Now let’s see more. A lot more. The concept that high quantity and high quality can’t live on the same page is a total bunch of BS. You show me a high quantity of ideas and I’ll bet there are some winners I get pumped about in that mix.

Idea made to stick:
You feel nervous about it. And that’s a good thing.

There’s something about it that gives you at least a little twinge of nervousness – perhaps not on the level of drinking Maalox, but it definitely feels less certain than something that feels safe and comfortable. Why? Because if you’re going to present an idea that someone feels no emotion for, it’s probably a fairly lousy idea. Wait – let me get this straight – you want people to buy into your goods or services with an emotional response but you don’t expect the person in the room approving the work to have an emotional response? Of course you do. Some people aren’t comfortable presenting the one idea that makes them the most nervous by itself and surround it with others that might be “safer.” I understand that thinking because nobody wants to be shot down and have nothing left in reserves. But maybe, just maybe, that idea that makes you nervous yet excitable can be the first one out of the bag to be presented – and if the response is so good, the others might not even need to come out. Personally, I go one step further. My opinion is if I’m rooting against one of my ideas to not be chosen because it doesn’t get me as excited, I shouldn’t be presenting it in the first place.

Idea made to stink:
Crafted primarily for the person approving the work instead of the person buying the end product or service.
You do a preliminary presentation to someone underneath the top person approving the work, because they requested it. They see the idea, their eyes get big and they say, “I just know Carl doesn’t like the font Lucida Grande or feminine colors or shots of people smiling directly into the camera, so we can’t have ideas that involve that.”

Oh boy. Ideas that are created for Carl instead of the 300,000 people buying Carl’s product are not starting off on the right foot. Look, I get politics. I really do. I get that certain things have to be sold persuasively and at times delicately to those approving parties. But I have found in my experience this is where audience research can be solid ammo. It’s not smoke-and-mirrors to get your way. It’s factual stuff that shows you’ve done your homework on the customer. “We know the new brand we’re talking about appears more feminine in design than where we’ve been in the past but our research shows that 86% of our audience are young women between the ages of 18 and 24 years old, so it makes sense to ween ourselves away from those dark greens and greys.”

Think farther than the person putting the rubber stamp of approval on the idea. Their opinion matters, of course. But even beyond any ego involved, most marketers would have to reasonably agree that their customer’s opinion matters even more.

How else can you give your ideas a better chance of rising to the top as an idea made to stick? Try reading The Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy by Tom Monahan. A former agency owner who has crafted many a great idea, I’ve heard this gentleman speak on creative idea generation and his “100mph” way of thinking might be of great benefit for your next brainstorm.

More praise for State Farm Next Door before the doors open

As the State Farm Next Door launch here in Chicago nears, I’ll post other thoughts from around the web here that are relevant. In fact, I thought I’d share this recent blog post from Brains On Fire, a South Carolina-based agency, on Next Door (they were also nice enough to throw some kudos our way here at Chicago Brander in the process). From a strategical standpoint, their post gives some reinforcement to what I’ve heard in many of your comments on my earlier post that the “selling without selling” approach is not just a feel-good method but a sensible and realistic one for this audience when it comes to planning their futures. Enjoy.

Every social media cocktail needs a beer chaser.

By now you’ve probably been bombarded with enough posts elsewhere on Google Plus, so you’ll be glad to know this isn’t one more of them. Because what I’m writing about has wider implications than just one tool. It has to do where your entire brand lives in the social media realm.

I’ve come to the conclusion that clearly in terms of social media we should all be on TumblrGoogTwitBookTube.

Sorry for the confusion, but I think others with their behaviors and proclamations of late are just as confusing.

I’ve had it with those who feel another social media tool has to die so that another may live. Maybe it’s the rush to be proclaimed as a prophet of some sort, but it’s bogus. Actually, to be more accurate, it’s dangerous brand strategy and it risks burning the relationships you’ve cultivated.

I really have to marvel at people who are writing about how they are leaving their current outposts because something else has come along that’s far superior.

“We were on Facebook but we’re moving everything to Tumblr.”
“We were on WordPress but we’re going over to GooglePlus. Follow us there!”

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

They’re missing the point of how their own fans and followers use social media, which is to say that we almost never put all our energy toward one channel.

We have a hub and then, many times, we have at least a secondary channel. The most common example I’ve witnessed of this is Facebook for personal relationships, LinkedIn for business relationships. Or LinkedIn/Facebook as primary hub, Twitter as a 2nd, lesser visited destination.

It’s kind of like a favorite of restaurant of mine that serves a Bloody Mary with a beer chaser of Miller Lite during Sunday brunch – every good primary hub deserves a secondary accompaniment. Much like the primary and secondary ways we consume social media. Or “Hubs” and “Outposts.”

It’s downright rare for us to spend 100% of our time in one place and that’s more than OK. Yet, every single time a new tool comes along like Google Plus, it has to be the Killer of something else. It was the Facebook Killer, the Twitter Killer and the LinkedIn Killer.

Nope. I’m not buying it.

Why can’t we research, experiment and explore? I spend the majority of my time on WordPress, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Not only because it’s what I’m comfortable with at the moment but more importantly, it’s where the people I have relationships with and potential clients are spending their time online. With Google Plus being new, I’ve done my due diligence to check it out because like many other people, I was curious. If enough of my audience is there – and stays there – I’ll deepen my commitment (I wouldn’t get hung up on the 10 million people who signed up for it until we see the staying power months from now).

I remember a much simpler time when we only debated in absolutes between “digital” media and “traditional” media. 

Which was seriously only a couple years ago.

Now, just as social media is gaining credibility in the boardroom as a viable option for marketing budgets – yes, I believe we’re moving past that point – we’re going to complicate matters and confuse them by saying, “No, don’t go here anymore, you want to put all your energy over here.”

“But I thought you said Facebook was equivalent to the 3rd or 4th largest country in the world.”

“Yeah, I did, but it’s on its way out. You want to be on Tumblr. You can do so much more with it.”

“But our audience is in their 40’s. Isn’t that a tool more popular with Gen Y right now?”

“It’s OK. They’ll come around to it.”

Sure. But they’re not all there right now. So it’s more sensible to dip my toes in that water before jumping in with reckless abandon.

This may sound like you shouldn’t be flexible, but I’m actually championing for greater mobility.

Far before this thing called the Internet and social media came along, advertising agencies who had intelligent planners knew that their audience probably watched TV, listened to the radio and read certain magazines. They didn’t tell companies to put 100% of their marketing budgets in one medium.

We shouldn’t be telling people that now.

What I’m hearing is the equivalent of someone not only telling a marketer to put all their money in TV, but all their money in one channel like ABC. That doesn’t sound like good advice, right?

Well, telling a brand to go “all in” on one social media channel is probably along the same lines of competence.

We should be telling people to diversify and plan based on what we have gathered about the way their audience has, is and will behave. If social media is a component of their brand strategy – which it is – we should be treating it as such by diversifying our percentages of time spent on various channels rather than flipping off the light switch while people are still in the room talking.

I’m not suggesting that you should spend time on a dying channel or a channel that’s not reflective of your audience. That would be silly. What I am suggesting is that you should add social media channels rather than burn bridges. We can still be pioneers and sherpas of social media while being true to how our brand’s followers are living today. Then, if and when it appears that either the channel is on its way down for the count or that your audience is steadily trickling away from that channel, you make a move to change your commitment to it. From “primary” to “secondary” to “non-existent” if you have to.

So it’s OK to suggest when appropriate that we should take a hard look at spending time on a new channel because that’s where we believe based on research and conversations that this is where our audience will be headed. We’d be doing a disservice not to communicate this.

It’s just that when you build up a following on any medium, it’s something that’s not only taken time on your part but is a serious investment made on the people who have chosen to follow you that should never be taken for granted.

Sometimes I wonder if brands and gurus remember that before they torch the old place.

Goose Island sells for $38 million or There’s A Tear In My Beer.

I can’t lie. The news that Goose Island is selling to Anheuser-Busch InBev for $38.8 million left me feeling as if we Chicagoans had lost a little piece of our own.

I believe my initial reaction was along the lines of “Great. Nice going, you sellouts.” And while I could never pretend to be immune if a giant corporation was to throw millions of dollars in my own face, accepting $38 million felt extremely low for a flagship of craft brewing in Chicago.

The problem with mergers and acquisitions like this is that they make all the financial sense in the world on paper but there is also part of the equation that always gets lost – what the end user feels.

With that in mind, here’s a sampling of the sentiment that was produced at the news of Goose Island’s sale:

“This is a very sad day in Chicago! Goose Island was a great supporter of the community and produced a well liked LOCAL Chicago product!”

“I won’t buy and sample another Goose Island product or step into their bar or brewery. They are sellouts to a billion pound gorilla!”

“Boycott Goose Island!”

“Boost production” means cheaper made beer. I won’t be drinking your version of Bud.”

Some of these might be beer purists, but many of them also express a deep love to retain all that is homegrown.

My problem isn’t just because the brewer is being sold but also because part of its heritage is inevitably going to change from here. And in a way that might not be for the better.

With Anheuser-Busch’s mammoth distribution channels, there’s every reason to expect that Goose Island will become less Chicago’s and more everybody else’s. I think there’s something to be said for a brand that plays hard to get. You shouldn’t be able to get great beer everywhere. You should have to work for it. And that’s not just the purist in me talking. It’s the person who believes that great brands in this day and age need to remember their core audience. Their heart and soul. Their home base.

Years from now, I don’t want Goose Island to be like Sam Adams, trying to prove how small it is even though I can get it on any supermarket shelf or in any bar. Sam Adams is good beer, but now that it’s available at every turn, do I think of it as Boston’s beer? Not really.

In a statement, Dave Peacock, the President of AB, said all the right things about preserving the hometown pride associated with Goose. But he also spoke about expansion of the AB portfolio and accelerated growth.

Portfolios and accelerated growth don’t feel very craft brew-ish to me.

Oh, it’s not like I can’t completely understand where this deal is coming from. It has a common predicament of craft brewers all over it.

The challenge for craft brewers is not merely in maintaining great quality of the product and innovating on a consistent basis but also successful distribution. If all brewers had to do was beat Bud, Miller and Coors on taste, it wouldn’t be as challenging for the little guy to do. At all. But when someone from the Big 3 can come into a grocery store and have the first say on where their product is going to be located on the shelf, craft brewers have a goliath to contend with, even if it’s not considered true head-to-head competition in terms of taste or price.

In other words, a grocery store manager booting a flagship A-B brand to the non-cold area of the beer section in favor of a newly launched craft beer might as well start looking for a new job.

Still, I hope the Busch clan will remember three important things beyond profit and distribution to try to achieve brand preservation:


1. Keep the people at Goose Island heavily involved in the manufacturing of the product and direction of the brand on a local level.

Chicago is what built Goose Island, no matter how big it gets. It’s built into the very fabric of the brand. So if the beer can be found far outside the vicinity of Chicago, show us that people like John Hall, Goose Island’s founder, will remain as CEO for the long haul and be able to keep surrounding himself with people who have been responsible for Goose Island’s success up to this point. With all due respect to macrobrewers, you would hope that AB does the sensible thing and lets the craft beer people stay near the craft beer.

To this same end, keep Goose Island more visibly connected to community events in Chicago than in any other market. This is part of the tradition that built the brand as well.

The Brewmaster at Goose is changing too. Greg Hall, the founder’s son, resigned from this role, but I’ll reserve judgment on that for now because it’s not exactly a hack we’re talking about to replace him. The new Brewmaster who takes over on May 1, Brett Porter, is from Deschutes Brewery in Oregon. Deschutes is a quality brewer that knows plenty about how to craft a good pint. So that’s encouraging.

2. Keep the innovation of strong Goose Island varieties coming.

At the end of the day, a brand can only be as strong as the product or service it sells, which includes the talent within. So let’s hope that Mr. Porter knows how to maintain the tradition of new and exciting beers produced by Goose Island, with pleasant surprises to satisfy purists and the everyday drinker alike.

3. Remember that these are beers with a fan base, not mere line items on a budget.

What’s going to happen with a beloved brand within the brand if it isn’t meeting its quarterly numbers? Are we going to see less 312 Wheat suddenly as a result, no matter how award-winning it is? Nobody around here wants to be talking about the good old days when we could get that wonderful Bourbon County that Goose Island used to brew.

If there’s a silver lining in what is otherwise tough news to swallow, it’s not like Goose brews the only great beer around these parts. In fact, there are a variety of local brewers in the area who, if you haven’t tried them, you definitely should. Not to mention the nearby brewers close to us in the Midwest who brew something that resembles more magical nectar than mere beer: Three Floyds, Bell’s Brewery, Summit Brewing, just to name a few.

Craft beer in Chicago is on the rise and perhaps we have Goose Island’s legacy of the last 20+ years to thank for it. So support and embrace your local craft brewer now, because you never know when big changes may alter them one way or another.

Here’s a few to hit on your list:

Piece Brewery & Pizzeria
1927 W. North Avenue
http://www.piecechicago.com/flash/index.html

Revolution Brewing
2323 N. Milwaukee Avenue
http://revbrew.com/

Metropolitan Brewing
5121 N. Ravenswood Avenue
http://www.metrobrewing.com/

Two Brothers Brewing
30 W. 315 Calumet Ave. (Warrenville)
http://www.twobrosbrew.com/