Tons of Fail… Values, Branding, and Sheep

I was at Brian Schwartz‘s Entrepreneurship event at UNC in Greeley – in my book, Brian can do no wrong. It was an amazing event and Brian and his guests had a lot of cool insight to share.  Allow me to digress for a moment about something that wasn’t so cool.

FacepalmJake Jabbs was a guest being interviewed, so I asked him about his branding.  No disrespect intended, but American Furniture Warehouse, I said, didn’t have too much American-made furniture last time I was in.

I should preface this by saying that good furniture can come from anywhere – Americans aren’t the end-all-be-all producers of everything amazing.  The question was never about furniture.  It was about branding and values.

Jake responded by informing us that 60% of what he buys is American furniture and he prefers American when he can get it.  

To brand yourself as American when you really mean only 60% is dishonest. So I followed up.

You set the values of your brand yourself – everything is stars and stripes, wouldn’t it make sense to advertise those valuesIsn’t it your responsibility as the leading American furniture spokesperson to educate your marketplace that if you want American, it will cost more than if you import it?

Doctor FoxJake answered by rehashing the old, “That’s a question of politics.  Customers choose the price points of the market…” and “Americans can’t compete on certain things”.  At which point I lost the floor for asking questions.

Jake Jabbs answered honestly and professionally – and I have no quarrel with a guy who’s employed (and retained) so many people over so many years.  I even went and shook his hand afterward and thanked him for answering (and he thanked me for asking). I can’t fault Jake Jabbs for doing what he thought was right – because at the end of the day, he’s true to his values and still buys American when he can – but American and Affordable (the market he’s developed) are sometimes mutually exclusive in his business.  Fair enough.

Polarbear FacepalmAfterward, though – after a series of increasingly painful “duh”-level questions from the University of Northern Colorado business student audience, one UNC student in particular came up to me and expressed his embarrassment that I’d asked the question – implying I’d embarrassed everyone with my bigoted “pro-American attitude”.

First of all – this was a question about branding and values.  Being embarrassed is the purview of a brainwashed sheep.  It’s like looking at Star Wars and thinking, “Oh, I don’t support War, so I won’t watch the movie.” Frankly, I expected more out of the UNC students.  What kind of college student are you if you can’t ask -potentially- red flag questions at the risk of looking like a total ass?  That’s what college is for.  That’s how you learn.  Take risks – that’s what entrepreneurship is about.

If you’re an entrepreneur, a business student, and afraid to ask the question, “Hey, uh… when you say American, what exactly do you mean?” then you shouldn’t be at college.  If you’re embarrassed by the implications of a question like that, you’ve become a blind, politically correct sheep.  You do not deserve the privilege of the hard-working professors’ time.

Headache FacepalmSecond – when did patriotism become uncooth?  Remember that we’re talking about a business that shortens its name in advertisements to “American Furniture”.  That implies that you sell American furniture.  American furniture should, by nature of the name, come from America – there’s nothing bigoted about it, that’s the fucking name of the business.  Moreover, what about local artisans – like the chair-makers of Parker or the table-makers of Fort Collins?  Do they have a place at American furniture?

Why did nobody else ask these sorts of questions? What the fuck?

Only three people in that audience could look me in the eye after I’d asked a simple question about branding.  No wonder we don’t praise Entrepreneurs in this country.  If the best entrepreneur candidates in the room have a “don’t ask questions, be a sheep” mentality we don’t deserve praise.