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 –

Branding lesson from Mr. Sheen: You can bring them to the table, but they’ve still got to eat.

For all the praise heaped upon Charlie Sheen for his social media prowess, I think there’s an element that seems to be forgotten about – when his popularity skyrocketed thanks to social media, Charlie forgot what to do when his invited guests got to the party. Namely, he forgot to put actual work and structure into the main event of his show. Yes, Charlie, people gladly paid to have a ticket. But once they got in the door, they weren’t going to be satisfied to just hear you ramble about “tiger blood” and “winning.” You had to have some organizational resemblance of, well, a show.

After bombing horribly in Detroit, the best reviews coming out of his Chicago show related to the fact that…he didn’t implode?

I guess that’s a big deal considering who we’re talking about, but that’s not exactly saying he brought the house down either (full disclosure – I didn’t attend but certainly got enough of the picture from others who did and news sources).

The lesson we can take away from this is that social media can be intensely powerful in attracting people to your brand but once they get there, you have to give them a reason to stay. The content and communication has to be continuously worthwhile and rewarding.

To that end, are you merely selling on your website or blog? That’s kind of the equivalent of Sheen’s Detroit show – a gigantic disappointment not long after the fans arrived. Or are you sharing information related to your industry that’s helpful so they’ll look forward to receiving it via an RSS feed? If Sheen had done such a wonderful job in Chicago that fans would be raving about it to others and telling their friends in other cities that they couldn’t miss seeing him on stage in their own town…this would be more of the equivalent result.

Which show would you rather put on for your would-be fans?

Put the work into your website. Your blog. Your customer service. The people who could interface with your customers potentially, which is pretty much everybody. Because once the Facebooks, Twitters and LinkedIns of the world help attract people to your doorstep, that’s not the time to proclaim yourself as a guru.

That’s just the beginning.

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

Revolution Brewing
2323 N. Milwaukee Avenue

Metropolitan Brewing
5121 N. Ravenswood Avenue

Two Brothers Brewing
30 W. 315 Calumet Ave. (Warrenville)

Meatloaf Bakery gets Cooking Channel’s attention

Chicago’s Meatloaf Bakery is getting its due in a couple days on the Cooking Channel’s new series, “Food(ography)” on Feb 12 at 6:00 pm. As a creative concept, you’ve got to give this destination credit for taking the cupcake craze and putting their own unique spin on it, packaging a variety of meatloaf flavors into the appearance of cupcakes, pastries and smaller “loafies.”

Hopefully you were lucky enough to order the El Loafo Del Fuego meatloaf this past Super Bowl Sunday. Yes, that's mashed potato on top to represent the "frosting."

It may sound a little far out, but obviously the people at The Meatloaf Bakery must be doing something right. Instead of opening one more cupcake store. I checked out their site and they do a good job of keeping up their blog, Facebook and Twitter presence to keep their community of meat lovers loyal. And really, where better to launch a unique concept with meat than a meat-loving town like Chicago? It may not be for everybody, but then, I don’t know too many great brands that appeal to everybody anyway.

Taking a cue from this example, how are you seizing on an existing trend within your industry yet making it your own in terms of product/service development?

Besides tuning into the show, check out The Meatloaf Bakery at 2464 N. Clark and visit the site here.

I liked the Groupon ads. There. I said it.

Yes, we saw a lot of ads yesterday around the Super Bowl, but none have touched off a firestorm of controversy quite like Chicago-based Groupon’s ads. I’ve re-posted one of them here for your viewing pleasure.

My pure, unvarnished reaction to them wasn’t shock or horror or an immediate rush to say that I would never use Groupon again. You know what I did? I chuckled. My mouth dropped open not because I was put off but because I admired Groupon for having the guts to run ads like this.

Many don’t agree with this opinion. But here’s my theory – deep down, some people had the exact same reaction but couldn’t admit it to anyone because it would seem like you don’t care about Tibet or whales or deforestation. So you had your inner laugh and then took to blog and tweet about how offended you were and how these ads were going to bring out the end of Groupon. Others were genuinely offended from the get-go and I can respect those folks for their opinions too.

But if I was to sit here and say how morally wrong I thought those ads were, I wouldn’t be true to what I felt the first time I watched them. Ads are meant to bring about a reaction on the most emotional level and Groupon achieved that with me in a positive way. It didn’t make me dismiss Tibet as an unworthy cause of my attention. Not one bit. I care about all those causes very much and I think everybody should. If you think an ad that isn’t even trying to detract from worthy causes is going to make want to care less about saving the whales or saving a tree in the rainforest, you’re not giving me much credit to think for myself. Or most people watching the ad for that matter.

Come on. Ads don’t instantly brainwash us from our existing principles. They can offer persuasive arguments that cause us to investigate further and in time they can shape behavior as a result. Sure, part of the immediate response that Groupon did get from some folks was to instantly stop using the service. That was their right to do. But there are also those of us who can actually have it both ways – to understand what Groupon was trying to say in its message and appreciating it while understanding the importance of social causes at the same time. It doesn’t make us bad people to have this dual understanding or stay loyal to Groupon.

Brands have a right to try to be provocative when they have only 30 seconds to do so and are spending $3 million each time. Being offensive should not be on the agenda — but right or wrong, I do not believe this was Groupon’s first and foremost goal.

Political commentators on cable networks can say practically anything they wish over the span of several hours, even drawing parallels that push the boundaries of good taste. They do it almost every day. But a company runs an ad lasting a mere 30 seconds that we don’t agree with, so let’s call for their heads? I don’t think so.

These ads aren’t going to bring about the end of anything. Certainly not Groupon. Groupon has a strong product and if anything, it is possibly the most talked-about ad the morning after the Super Bowl. I realize that some of that talk is very negative. But there are other voices in the crowd saying, “Lighten up. It’s just a commercial.”

Ads on Bathroom Mirrors: The Charm of O’Hare Airport

I wonder if weary travelers delayed at O’Hare during this record snowstorm will want to put their fist through one of these ads in frustration, but I’ve got to hand it to Clear Channel Outdoor and Mirrus for an unusual innovation: Airport Bathroom Advertising.

Coming soon to your favorite public restroom.

It’s actually a cool concept if you don’t feel violated. On your way in or out of the airport restroom, you stop in front of a mirror to check yourself. When you stand directly in front of the mirror, it works like, well, a mirror. But when you’re not standing in front of it, presto! An ad will appear.

I’m sure some will be annoyed by the whole thing in the beginning of this rollout. I expect to hear, “Do we really need ads in here too?” Admittedly, we probably don’t. But truth be told, advertisers have been trying to invade restrooms in creative ways long before this. This method does it rather stylishly and as long as it works quickly rather than becoming a distraction by staying on the ad a second too long, I’m all for it. I also kind of see it as the Billboard 2.0: More environmentally friendly and you don’t have capture the attention of someone going 65mph. Taking it one step further and crafting a message around where the ad is placed (bathroom, the airport) would help it stay in a few more brains too. From the sound of this article, O’Hare might be just the beginning of this test concept.

What do you think? Invasion of privacy or cool way to reach out to people?

Selling to people who couldn’t care less (at first)

“Hi Mr. Decision-Maker at XYZ Company. This is (your name) at (your company). We’ve been in business since (year) and people love us for our (product/service attribute).”

Click. In case you’re wondering that would be the sound of Mr. Decision-Maker stopping and deleting your voicemail message.

Admittedly, for a long time I sounded kind of like this when I approached marketing decision-makers. Until I realized that they have zero time to talk, they view unsolicited voicemails and e-mails as an intrusion and that’s IF you can get past the gatekeeper secretary.

In other words, they are not waiting on pins and needles for what you’re selling. But I’ve come to learn that with careful study of listening for potential customer pains, you can briefly but firmly whet the appetite of a person to continue the conversation with you. How did I learn this? Primarily from a woman named Jill Konrath, author of “Selling to Big Companies” and the new “SNAP Selling.” She taught me that whether it’s writing a letter, leaving a message or crafting an e-mail, you don’t have to tell your entire story to get someone to take interest in you. You shouldn’t. Instead, she shows you how you can convey an understanding of that prospect’s situation here and now, ultimately leading them back to what you have to offer.

In fact, I learned that Jill Konrath will be coming to the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce on February 10th at 7:00am (speaking at 8:00am). If you have a spare couple of hours that morning, I highly recommend you check it out and pick up her books. If you follow her advice, you’re sure to open a few more doors as the economy improves.

To register for the event, visit the Chicagoland Chamber’s website at and click on the Event Calendar for February 10th.