Time for bank brands to get comfortable with The S-Word.

“I’m pulling my money out of the market. I can’t take it any more. I’m content to put it in the bank and get my 1-2% back. At least I know what I’m dealing with.” 
– Father of two, interviewed on ABC7 News, Chicago

There, in that brief snippet of man-on-the-street insight, I realized that the most of intelligent of banks need to embrace what they do best (usually): Provide a relatively safe investment that don’t have wild swings up and down.

That’s right. I’m talking about The S Word: Stability. 

I hate safe things when it comes to branding. I don’t mean taking stupid risks for shock value but playing it so safe that the brand has no emotional meaning to anyone. That’s not what I’m suggesting here either. What I am suggesting is that, regardless of size, there is an opportunity to convey a safe haven of comfort, ease, peacefulness, clarity…a knowing what you’ve got where you’ve got it. A contentment with not necessarily being rich but being comfortable – and the confidence that goes with that knowing.

Banks that convey percentages and rates aren’t capturing that message at all. But there is plenty of room for the bank that essentially says, “we hear you and know you want a safe place to park some assets for the next 6 months, 1 year, 2 years. And here’s why we’re the place you should do it, beyond just what you might have with us in checking.”

Free checking? Eh. Banks that talk in terms of “free” aren’t digging deep enough either. Think beyond the products themselves and remember the real reason someone might come to your institution for emotional purposes. There is emotion in wanting to be stable, is there not? In times like this, don’t you have customers who just want the goal of being able to pay their bills and keep their heads above water? Of course you have those people. Don’t pretend that you don’t. Instead, embrace them. Let them know you understand they’re getting their rear ends handed to them and you want to provide pieces that slowly let them put their money in safer places where they won’t get burned. Forgive my bluntness, but really, when was the last time you stepped out from behind the teller window and lived in your audience’s shoes?

“We’re lending” promises? Come on. You and I both know that a bank can say they’re lending until the cows come home but there’s a boatload of people who can’t qualify for loans like they used to. So why offer something that more likely than not is going to end in rejection? That won’t do wonders for your brand.

Banks have even more of an opportunity with the “stability” message not only in contrast to the market but in terms of other institutions that perhaps aren’t playing nice with the consumer, jacking up rates on them without their knowledge. The World’s First Honest Bank. There’s something to shoot for.

I’m not talking about the tools to convey this just yet. So don’t put the cart before the horse and send your mind racing into potential TV spots or social media efforts. We’re just talking strategic positioning. But this is so important to nail down first.

Money market accounts and CDs aren’t the types of things that immediately cause investors to salivate with glee. But that’s OK. I’m not talking about the fellow in the nice suit who drives a Jaguar and lives in the penthouse in Streeterville. The audience I’m talking about is different.

I’m talking about a redefinition of the American Dream according to your Average Joe Customer, who over the last couple years has been hit where the sun doesn’t shine. I want you to give some serious thought to what the American Dream means to that person.

To that person, the American Dream isn’t about owning their own business. It’s isn’t about “owning a vineyard” (as Schwab pokes fun of and is seemingly one of the few financial brands to grasp the voice of the “real” customer). It isn’t about taking a vacation to some far off country. Or buying a boat.

You want to know what The American Dream for them entails? Wrap your head around this:
Paying the bills on time.
Building the savings account slowly back up.
Being able to make repairs on the car today vs. tomorrow.
Buying groceries for the family without having to trim the list heavily.
Making the mortgage payments.
Being able to go out to dinner with a friend without making up an excuse.
Not even being debt-free, because that may not be realistic, but simply carrying less debt.

REAL stuff. Stuff that makes people feel like people again. It’s a large segment of our population that needs to be addressed but really isn’t. Because the message can’t come in the form of rates, percentages and products. It’s got to be a message that shows you’ve been listening and aren’t oblivious to their challenges.

That’s not as glamorous as the standard retirement images of the couple sunning themselves on Hilton Head, I know. But it’s real. With what our economy is giving us (or should I say isn’t giving us), people are yearning more than ever to just be on an even keel with life. And the bank brand that shows how the path is paved through their road of Stability is the one that wins.

Is yours ready to be one of them?

10 Keys To Maintaining Your Brand’s Soul

The idea of greater sales sounds, well, great. But when you think about expansion, have you considered what the consequences of what the move is going to be on your brand, your culture, your people? Many companies don’t. There’s no reason why sales should be on the opposite side of these considerations, especially when it doesn’t have to be.

With this in mind, I created a checklist that can help you decide if a company sale, increase in hiring, large investment in equipment, new distribution channels and ramping up of production will come at the expense of your brand.

10 Keys To Maintaining Your Brand’s Soul

  1. Does a move in the name of greater sales feel at odds with our brand and what we believe?
  2. What does our mission statement look like? Is it iron-clad with character and personality with little room for interpretation by future generations on what we stand for or is it like most mission statements – an ambiguous note of blandness that anyone could own?
  3. Will a move in the name of greater sales anger, irritate or even mildly annoy our most loyal customers (in other words, are we biting the hands that fed us)?
  4. Is our location (physical location, branches, 800 number, website, blog) a “mecca” that people enjoy coming to over and over again, whether they are our customers or our employees or both?
  5. Will a move in the name of greater production risk compromising our quality, customer service and reputation?
  6.  Do we refer to the “good old days” of this company or do we refer to how great it is now?
  7.  Does a technological upgrade feel easier and more efficient but less warm, friendly and true to who we are in terms of a human approach?
  8. Will we still be an organization that likes to have fun?
  9. Will our success be measured primarily in sales volume or will we hold up shining examples to the public of  goodwill we’ve gained?
  10.  What about us will never, ever change no matter how much money someone waves in our face?
Let’s see what we can add to these 10, shall we?

First look inside State Farm Next Door : An environment in an innovative State.

As I started to make my way up Diversey Avenue, I heard the clamor of a jazz band playing near Trader Joe’s grocery store.  That couldn’t be coming from State Farm, could it? Surprisingly, it was. And already in that moment, I think that maybe, just maybe, I experienced a small piece of what State Farm is striving to do with its new community-based effort, State Farm Next Door.

The "teaser" wall is down. We're going in.

State Farm was nice enough to invite me to a pre-launch party for select guests to come experience Next Door for themselves. I’m happy to say it did not disappoint. It honestly exceeded what I thought I would see. Along the way, I got to sit down with the managers, planners and vendors who showed me what people could expect from Next Door when it officially opens on Thursday, August 11th.

Is it OK if we have fun in here? Cool.
If this was some thinly-veiled approach to selling services, I seriously didn’t feel it. Really. The subtle references to finances and planning are there, but you get the sense that State Farm has been extra careful not to come across as heavy-handed in selling. If it was too pushy, it just would not work. Period. And thankfully, they know it.

We’re really making a conscious effort to let people come in, discover Next Door for themselves and make it their own,” says Stephanie Reynolds, Next Door’s Store Manager. “Our atmosphere here is all about making it the most creative and collaborative experience possible. It’s not our goal to try to sell. But when they do ask, we want to make consumers more educated and confident about their financial future in a very comfortable space.

Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm is There. With a cool lounge area.

Wander over to the cafe for a gourmet espresso.

Some of the features of Next Door include:

  • A cafe area serving gourmet coffee, tea and espresso as well as baked goodies
  • A main lounge that features large red, black and grey couches with coffee tables
  • A smaller “creative” area featuring little white tables you can draw on and a projection wall that can show TV shows, movies…anything
  • A huge community chalkboard calendar that promotes all kinds of monthly events, from classes to pizza parties
  • 2 conference rooms with flat-screen TVs and whiteboard wall dividers (which you can rent for free, by the way)

And of course, those Pods.
A lot of these design elements are, dare I say, fun and creative. Still, you might be wondering, “OK. But let’s get real. What if I want to get into some sensitive financial stuff? I can’t just discuss this out in the open in a cafe.” State Farm considered that. A financial planner named Adam showed me one of the “Pods” that a planner can take a guest or two into to get more privacy for financial-related chatter. This is probably my favorite feature of the place – these things look right out of the IKEA catalog and are just as functional. You can roll them to different parts of the store if need be.

When you want to chat about finances, step into a Pod with a planner.


“You learn from us. We learn from you. We’re all smarter for it.”

We’re entering a new phase beyond just the “pop-up store” where people can try products for a few days before a temporary store is disassembled. It’s a phase of Store As Audience Research Tool. Maybe you think you’ve seen this before but trust me, you probably haven’t. Very few stores if any have been set up almost exclusively for the purpose of learning and understanding the behaviors of its audience in the way Next Door has.

I’ve heard a lot of questions about ROI and metrics of success for Next Door. So let me just say this – there’s absolutely nothing more important in branding than knowing what your audience is thinking. It’s elusive. It’s shifting. It’s hard to interpret. If it was easy, everyone could do it and I’d have to find another way to make a living. So when you effectively set the stage for that audience to come to you and tell you their thoughts and feelings, you’ve got an invaluable environment worth keeping. Some of us have run focus groups where we’d have to practically bribe people to show up, right? Well, how about someone who voluntarily comes into your environment, has a few questions, winds up signing up for a seminar given by one of your people and returns with 5 of their friends to learn more?

For Brett Myers, a key head at State Farm behind Next Door, this represents months and months of intensive, detailed planning. It’s not a stretch to say every single table lamp, book, piece of glassware and paint color has been obsessively considered prior to entering this space – by the way, do you think about your own environment in reflection of your brand with this kind of detail? Maybe you should.

Strange as it may seem to some marketers in such a research-driven world, it’s not about number of meetings taken in the Pods. It’s not about guests converted into customers. Or number of cups of coffee sold.

It’s about getting consumer feedback and lots of it. It’s about understanding the real fears and questions that a young target has. And it’s about taking all that feedback and reporting it back to State Farm corporate so they can use it for all kinds of initiatives – undoubtedly to ensure that the brand is speaking in a voice these consumers want to hear.

Anybody can rent one of these conference rooms for free. Really.


Partnered with Doejo

To get the cafe portion of Next Door off the ground and give it a feel authentic to the neighborhood, State Farm partnered with Doejo, a digital agency whose founder is behind several independent Lincoln Park/Lakeview coffee shops, including Kickstand and Noble Tree. As Darren Marshall of Doejo explains, Next Door will revolve and evolve around those who enter.

We’re very interested once people start coming in because their feedback will help shape this space,” says Marshall. “When you think about it, a coffee shop looks and feels different one week to the next because of the people inside it more than anything. It’s the same way here. In some respects, this store may look different 30, 60, 90 days from now and if it does, that will come from what the consumers within it tell us.”

While Doejo will concentrate primarily on the cafe portion of Next Door, their team may very well collaborate with State Farm when necessary on ideas involving the overall environment.

Special thanks to Desiree Fuzak, Stephanie Reynolds, Brett Myers, Darren Marshall and many others on the State Farm Next Door/Doejo team who helped provide me with their insightful thoughts for this post. 

Memo to a Mayor: Make Chicago the most socially connected city government

A couple months ago, I heard Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce President Jerry Roper tell a story of how Mayor Richard J. Daley (that would be Chicago’s first Mayor Daley for history buffs) used to instruct staff members closest to him to always carry a pad of paper with them. That way, when they saw something in their daily lives such as a pothole in need of fixing, they would jot that down and give it to the Mayor. I’d like to think the pothole in question then got promptly fixed.

I can also remember Newark Mayor Cory Booker speaking on Piers Morgan’s program on CNN about how he successfully used Twitter this past Winter to quicken emergency response times toward those residents trapped by a snowstorm.

Some say these examples are from long ago or apply to a smaller city than our own. But really – is the notion that Chicago be the most socially connected city be a pipe dream? No. I don’t think so. In fact, I believe we have the tools and resources to make this possible. And I think a relatively new Mayor in Rahm Emanuel is the perfect opportunity for renewed advocacy and accessibility with governmental leaders.

Let’s start with the ground level.
If someone sees a pothole, we may complain about it and say, “somebody should fix that.” Or we could snap a picture of it and tweet it to an alderman or City Hall with the location of where it is. At the end of this post, I’ll give you their Twitter handle if they have one. Easy enough? You know it is. You have time to use your phone for good in between games of Angry Birds.

Getting City Council More Social
Every Chicago Alderman should set up with a Twitter handle so they can be sent questions in the form of tweets from their constituents and respond in kind. Or use it to listen to relevant conversations going on among Chicago’s most passionate citizens. Currently, only about 1/2 of the 50 Wards have Twitter accounts and several of those are poorly updated (but glad to see my neighborhood’s Alderman, Tom Tunney, doing a good job with the tweets – @AldTomTunney). For more in-depth postings that incorporate pictures and video, having a Facebook page is not the worst idea, particularly since most constituents are likely on Facebook if they are not on Twitter. All you need once you’re set up with an account is to be responsive to the people who most likely live in your designated area – which is, after all, what you were elected to do, right?

Town Hall meetings
What works for President Obama can work at the very localized level too – broadcast Town Hall meetings or other types of monthly discussion meetings on YouTube to bring together roundtables of citizens with their Alderman to discuss topics that need to be raised. Now, I understand that the content at times may be no more thrilling than C-Span, but I didn’t say this has to be recorded in its entirety either. Taking the most useful snippets that are then posted on the Alderman’s site can help convey quick answers to questions that are very top-of-mind for the neighborhood.

Civic Investment
As funding from the private sector is important to help grow our city, each of our Aldermen should also be set up with a page from the leading B2B website, LinkedIn. I’m not merely talking about creating a page, however. I’m talking about creating an outlet for connections between the politician and corresponding C-level executives as well as associations can occur. It takes no time to create this and establish connections. Besides, LinkedIn also has a Polls application and no matter how much they say they don’t look at them, politicians can gain some significant insight and goodwill from polling their constituents on a variety of local issues.

“How do I do this?”
For the politicians: It’s incredibly simple to be set up with the right tools to engage your electorate on a daily basis, including all the ones I’ve outlined above and then some. It’s smart for your visibility, accessibility and yes, your election or re-election efforts. The main point is that what I’m suggesting is a small but important opportunity to improve communication between City Hall and its citizens just a little bit better. The upside is worth the investment of time.

For the people: Courtesy of the people at Progress Illinois, here’s a Chicago Aldermanic Twitter Directory. If your Alderman is on this list, connect to him or her and make the link to government in Chicago just a little bit closer. Don’t forget to follow our Mayor while you’re at it – @RahmEmanuel.

For those who may question the effectiveness of being the most socially connected city…do you really find the traditional way of getting things done in politics marvelously efficient?

That’s what I thought. Let’s give this way a try now.

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.