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.

The 3 People Who Never Belong In A Brainstorm Room

“OK, everybody. Come on into the brainstorm room/conference room and let’s talk about (Insert Initiative Here). We’re going to need to generate some ideas.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s take that a step back. As it turns out, the process of cultivating ideas isn’t for everybody. It’s not an automatic right based on title. I think what we forget about brainstorms is that we’re so focused on getting to the quality of the idea that we forget that in getting there, there needs to be quantity (this is a separate post in itself). The minute you brainstorm, you’re turning on a faucet at one speed: Fast. When you have these 3 types of people in the room, you’ll slow the pace to a trickle, if not shut it off completely. Let’s meet them, shall we?

Negative Nancy
“No, that’s not going to work.”
“No, they won’t like it because they don’t like the color blue.”
“No, we tried something like that before and they didn’t like it.”

The problem with Negative Nancy is that her presence is like tossing a grenade into the room. Her motivation for saying “no” is in all likelihood the fact that she has no or very few original ideas of her own but she wants to appear relevant to others. It’s not about her title, it’s about a deeper issue. “No” is her insecurity talking. It’s not that she isn’t necessarily a valuable employee, it’s just that brainstorming isn’t her forte. So all you’re doing by having her in the room is inviting the rejection of ideas like Dwight Howard swatting away a basketball. Ideas? Not in your house. Negative Nancy will not only shut down the idea presented but the ensuing effect of her presence will be to shut down a steady stream of ideas.

The “we tried that before” is a particular feature of this person I take issue with because there are many variables that may have worked poorly before that can be corrected now. Maybe it wasn’t the right time or place before. Maybe the idea before didn’t have the right audience to accept it. Maybe the idea before just wasn’t that creative compared to its better looking sibling idea now.

Overthinking Oscar
“Well, if we were to do that, how exactly would that work?”
That’s not important right now. Really. You’re putting the brakes on a phase that is geared to be purely conceptual. And when you do that, the brainstorming process goes from 120 mph to 20 mph and declining fast. It’s amazing how quickly the wind changes in the room. Dwelling on the “how’s it going to actually work” is important at a later point. When? When the brainstorm is pretty much over and you have a collection of concepts, scribbles, ideas, seeds, etc. to study more closely for deeper evaluation.

“Me First” Mel
“Well, I can’t relate to that idea in my own life so it must not be relevant.”
Mel probably isn’t trying to appear this self-centered, he just doesn’t know how to step outside of his own skin to identify what the true audience is facing in their lives. It’s not about YOU. The chances of someone in the brainstorming room actually matching the profile of the audience you’re trying to target is rare. So if you’re a 40-something female in middle management who lives in the western suburbs of Chicago who drives a Mercedes, you need to have more of an open mind if your audience is a 20-something who graduated a couple years ago, unmarried and lives in L.A. The behaviors, tastes and preferences are not going to be the same. And even if you are, no offense, but you’re just one person.

“Oh, horse crud. I think I’m one of these 3 people. Should I not be brainstorming?”
Not yet and don’t despair. There’s an easy way to right the ship. It just requires some self-discipline on your part. When someone comes up with an idea, let it get out there without immediate judgment. Yes, the idea may be stupid, but everyone has them. Stupid ideas can be great springboards to better ideas. You don’t know what small seed of something good may lie within that thought. And if it’s truly that awful, trust the judgment of others in the room to let it pass like a ship in the night. Remember, you still have the phase after the brainstorming is over to reserve judgment on ideas – just not right there in the moment. If you can train yourself to think positively and concentrate on keeping the flow of concepts going without shutting them down, overthinking or asking yourself What Would I Do, I think you’ll be on the path to being a valuable asset that others will enjoy inviting into the brainstorm room every time.

Final thought – if the person who meets one of these criteria above is a manager that you can’t tell to sit it out, all is not lost. What I like to do in these situations is have a designated person announce some brief ground rules (“no bad ideas”) of no more than 2 minutes long EVERY time you brainstorm just to reinforce what should and shouldn’t be said. You’ll better your chances of ensuring the faucet of ideas flows mightily rather than trickles to a few drips.

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.

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.

Why Trader Joe’s beats your grocery store brand

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As many of us in Chicagoland who grew up in primarily a Jewel and Dominick’s world, it’s easy for me to have comfort with both of these grocery store brand names. Yet, I’m ready to step outside of that comfort zone thanks to what Trader Joe’s has brought to the table. And I’m not just talking about food.

I’m a big proponent of building the brand from within – not with only terrific products/services, but a culture that is aligned with that brand and in turn results in better customer experiences.

Joe’s nails this.

The store oozes an unparalleled happiness from the moment you walk through the door. Here are people over a wide range of ages who seem to be genuinely enjoying working in their environment and helping people. The walls are bright and painted with several mantras (“Great wine shouldn’t mean expensive wine”) as if they were coming from the founder himself. As part of a promotion, we walked out with a brightly colored Trader Joe’s bag that we’ll not only be able to re-use over and over again, but a walking advertisement to be seen all over the neighborhood (further building credibility). Some employees have Hawaiian print shirts, others have colorful and fun t-shirts. At least 3 of them asked me if I needed help finding what I was looking for. The kicker for me is an extensively written newsletter that goes into rich detail about the featured products – contrast this with the typical flyer that just shows pictures of food and pricing.

Yes, perhaps you could get something close to this kind of experience at another store. But do you? Every time you walk through the door? Is it even clean half the time?

I realize some of the elements of service described above are the “sizzle.” The “steak” is the product itself – you fully expect the stuff to be overpriced across the board as gourmet items often are. But surprisingly, these items are reasonably priced and a good value for the quality in return. Heck, I don’t mind saying that sometimes you don’t mind putting a $3 bottle of Charles Shaw in your bag – in times like these, you just feel smarter for getting decent quality. And where it seems most stores are almost embarrassed to have a wine like that on the shelf, Joe’s puts it out in the open, in the center of the aisle, with the price boldly seen.

I know, I know. I sound like a paid spokesperson – trust me, I’m not on the payroll. My point is this: Think about how the Trader Joe’s culture template can be adapted to work for your company. And just because this is a business-to-consumer audience, don’t mistake this for thinking that you can’t make it work for professional services either.

Start with your product/service – is it of exceptional quality? Let’s say that it is. Think about what you believe in relation to what you’re delivering and why you do it better than anyone else. Knowing this: How do you wrap that identity around your environment? Are there colors on the wall that speak to your creativity or brand identity? How do your people answer the phone? Are there mantras that everybody can say by heart? If I talked to 10 of your clients, would they say the same kind of praise about you – and are you absolutely certain of that? Are you giving them outlets to provide feedback to you in multiple ways? If there were/are more than one location of your business, how easy is this to replicate?

Some dismiss these other elements beyond the product or service itself as just “nice to haves” rather than something being so essential to the brand. Maybe that’s why they provide a good service, but there’s still something missing that keeps them from being a great culture and as a result, a great brand.

For example, do you feel a disconnect between departments? Are there people who think their department is the heart and soul of the company rather than part of the team? This is akin to people in one department of the grocery store dressing differently than the others and providing a different level of service that’s inconsistent with the other departments. That’s not a different department – that’s pretty much a different company within the company. And that you don’t need when you’re trying to convey a united front.

An environment like Trader Joe’s doesn’t happen overnight. But when you start with a vision and brand strategy that operations later aligns with, you begin to have the makings of a brand that feels real. Genuine. With loyal employees who don’t need special incentives to be great ambassadors on your behalf.

This isn’t a mere theory. There’s a whole lot of people living and breathing it – see for yourself. On Diversey and probably just about every other Trader Joe’s location in the country.