Lesson of Lowe’s: Your Competitor Royally Screwed Up. Don’t Just Sit There.

Attention, Head Media Buyer for The Home Depot. Can we talk? You’ve got an opportunity for yourself handed to you on a silver platter if you’re intelligent and I’ll bet you are. So here’s what I want you to do.

I want you to pick up the phone and start placing ads on “All-American Muslim” like no tomorrow.

Don’t overthink. Don’t overanalyze. Just do it. I don’t care what your demographics are. I don’t care what marketing research tells you. I’m as big a fan as anybody of market research but when your competitor shoots themselves in the foot so badly by blowing their nose on an entire race of people, you’ve got to seize the moment and welcome those people with open arms.

For those who haven’t heard,¬†Lowe’s did a royal screw-up by caving to outside pressure and pulling its advertising from TLC’s program featuring the lives of five Muslim families in Michigan. The backlash has been swift and the outrage intense, not just from Muslim groups but many others. Russell Simmons even offered to buy up all the airtime on the program that advertisers voided.

To me, the danger isn’t so much associations like the Florida Family Association, which urged people to engage in an email campaign to pressure brands like Lowe’s that advertised on the program to pull their advertising.

The danger is when brands actually listen to these fringe groups, tuck their tail between their legs and run for the hills instead of acting like intelligent brands that weren’t born yesterday.

Lowe’s justified the move like so: “Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic and this program became a lightning rod for many of those views. As a result, we did pull our advertising.”

Ah. I get it. So the loudest voice in the room wins, no matter how bigoted and divisive their opinion may be. Just making sure that’s how you make your decisions.

Lowe’s acts like this came out of the blue and caught them by surprise. Nice try but I don’t buy it. Running from lightning rods is what big companies tend to do when they want to appeal to everyone under the sun. Ironically, that’s the opposite of what Lowe’s did anyway in the end. But why does controversy have to be a bad thing? I don’t think it has to be and can be a good thing. Lady Gaga is controversial. And massively successful. I doubt she’s hurting from controversy.

Let me replace all of the official public statements from Lowe’s, probably written by their PR firm or internal marketing people with the only two words that people really hear: We’re afraid.

Memo to brands of America: Beyond what you see on marketing analytics, the people who buy your stuff will be gay, Muslim and mixed racial couples.

And last I checked, their money is still as good in this country as a white person’s.

It’s too bad that showing these types of groups in advertising or advertising on programs featuring such groups beyond the white American family is seen as “progressive.” It shouldn’t be. It should be off the table as something advanced for us to talk about as a brand differentiator. It should be common sense that this reflects modern reality, so we can make marketing decisions based on deeper, more important factors.

But I digress from my mountaintop to speak purely on a marketing level so you can apply the lessons learned from this situation to your own:When you have a scenario like the Lowe’s one where a competitor does something stupid, you have two choices:

1) You can be lazy and have a nice laugh at your competitor’s expense. You may say you’re not going anywhere near the situation with a 10-foot pole and believe the customers will naturally trickle over to you.

2) You can get off your butt and move quickly to cater to the disenchanted audience. It’s called being proactive because it’s the right thing to do marketing-wise and in some cases, morally as well.

You buy media where they dropped media. You use social media to target the voices that are angry. You issue releases and blog posts speaking to the pains people are expressing. And it’s not really about the competitor at all as much as heavily amplifying how much stronger YOUR principles are. Don’t waste any time retelling their story – the disenfranchised are already doing that for you. Tell yours in a way that helps the audience connect the dots easily on how you’re different regarding that particular issue.

This window of opportunity can happen at the most basic local level too. Not all that long ago, a auto dealership in the Chicagoland area fired a man for coming into work wearing a Green Bay Packers tie. Now, I bleed Bear blue and orange, but obviously that’s just a dumb move. The media picked up on the story and the auto dealership that formerly employed him got some massive and unwanted attention.

At this point, other dealerships nearby could have just reveled in a competitor screwing up. But one had the initiative to seize the moment while the story was still hot. They hired the Packer-wearing tie salesman almost immediately. Not only was that the right thing to do, but the focus shifted from one stupid dealership to how the new dealership did something heroic. THEY became the new focus of the story.

My point is, when events like this happen to a competitor, don’t run from the chatter. Dive into it. You want to talk about how you can engage a community? You’re looking at it. Put up or shut up time.

There’s one thing Lowe’s got right in separating itself from a program with the words “All American” in it: When brands are this easily swayed by the agendas of extreme groups that they forget their own values, whatever it is they’re building together is anything but All American.

Have you ever capitalized on a competitor’s mistake to acquire new customers and become the hero? If so, how did it happen and what did you do? Share away, hero.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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