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Take this test!

Think about your own city or region and name the business that first comes to mind in the following categories:

  • Heating and air specialists
  • Lawn service
  • Dry cleaner
  • Auto repair/maintenance shop
  • Locally owned bank
  • Termite company/pest control
  • Accounting firm
  • Hair salon
  • Tree service
  • Internet service provider

Did any particular business come to mind? 

When one did come to mind, did that business have a crisp image in your mind? 

Do you know what it stands for? 

What experience and result can you expect when you do business there? 

How is it different from all of the other businesses elbowing each other in the category?

I’ve asked this question of audiences and individuals. Here’s a typical response from the HVAC-repair category: “Well, it was the first one that bubbled up, but I can’t say anything special about it. One company’s about the same as the next.” What would you expect from them in terms of service? “I suppose if I called them, I’d get somebody out today or tomorrow; they’d get my A/C working again; I’d write them a check and it would be over.” 

America’s small businesses tend to lack personality. They fail to project a strong, unique character; perhaps it’s because they don’t even know themselves. What single woman or man, dressing for a night out, would fail to bathe, choose a drab, uncoordinated outfit and put on worn-out shoes? Businesses by the hundreds of thousands commit such marketing faux pas every day. The difference between humans and businesses is that people come by their personalities naturally; businesses rarely do. People have an innate drive to express themselves; businesses don’t. Businesses tend to think that if they create a product or service and just show up at the dance, they’ve done all they need—that “if you build it, they will come.”

People and businesses are very much alike in one critically important way: they both thrive by attracting people. The desired transaction is (in most cases) different—but as Peter Drucker pointed out, the fundamental object of a business is to create and keep customers. In other words, to attract people like bees to honey.

So, how does a business signal that it’s open, available and attractive?

Until 2005, I knew very little about the Geek Squad other than what I read in an article in the mid-’90s about a funky computer-help service with a big personality and a clever name. Its technicians dressed in white shirts with pocket protectors, wore thin black ties and made computer-support house calls in a surplus AMC postal van. I never saw or heard another thing about the Geek Squad until ten years later, when I saw a spot on network TV for the company. Suddenly, the Geek Squad was the computer support division of national big-box electronics retailer Best Buy, with outposts in more than eight hundred stores nationwide. What happened?

There are thousands—if not millions—of small computer repair businesses in the United States. The explosion of the PC, the Internet, broadband access, digital cameras, digital video and an army of angry “malware” writers have created a whole new economy for people who actually know how to operate the tools of technology. The guy that fixes my firm’s computers is a one-man band. As far as I can tell, always has been, always will be.

So what made one Minneapolis computer repair business grow up, become a national franchise advertised on network TV and sell to Best Buy? What made this happen for the owners of Geek Squad? What made it happen is the power of the brand.

Robert Stephens—the founder of Geek Squad—was not a bit smarter at fixing computers than thousands of other Microsoft Certified Engineers dotted across the digital landscape. The Squad’s rate structures weren’t the cheapest in town, its service wasn’t better than every other technology vendor— “better” in computer repair is about as subjective as “better” in treating the flu. 

What the Geek Squad had that none of its competitors had was a very clever brand proposition. The first time I came across it, “Geek Squad ” gave me a little belly chuckle. It was fun; it was funny. It was self-effacing. The name also turned on the mixed connotations of geek—we all know they’re the brainy ones at the head of the class, smarter and techier than the rest of us. These were pleasant, slightly entertaining associations. Moreover, they were memorable—I clearly remembered the business ten years later without a single interim exposure.

The Geek Squad delivered an experience with its anti-virals, not just a service. It elicited an emotional connection between the company and its customers—in this case, a little laugh (which by the way, is especially good medicine when a worm has just eaten your hard drive).

And that experience—that emotional kick—didn’t cost an extra cent. It was simply part of the package. All of this packaging was by design—the result of a flash of insight that struck Robert Stephens as he pedaled his bicycle around Minneapolis making tech-support house calls. “The world is dominated by plumbers and drywall contractors — the boring businesses,” he notes. “What if a creative person went into a boring business?”

What if? What a great question for the budding brander! Stephens started the company with two hundred dollars. “The best thing that happened to me was that I had no money,” he comments. He compensated with creativity—developing a cultish focus on the metaphor of the business: the uniform, the “Geekmobile,” the nomenclature. For instance, he gives us this tongue-in-cheek definition of the company: “Geek Squad is made up of an elite tactical unit of highly trained and highly mobile individuals, or Agents, who seek out and destroy villainous computer activity. These individuals have banded together and sworn to rid the earth of inferior computer behavior.” 

In six years, the Squad grew from one tech pedaling a bike to a staff of sixty Agents; “precincts” in major cities such as Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles; and the $3 million sale to one of the country’s largest electronics retailers. And even though Best Buy has swallowed it, the Geek Squad retains its unique identity. It maintains freestanding stores and built Geek Squad City, a national repair facility, near Louisville, Kentucky. 

Author Martin Thoma

Began his agency career as a copywriter before co-founding Thoma Thoma more than 30 years ago. Now Martin focuses on helping brands grow by discerning, defining and articulating their unique strengths.

More posts by Martin Thoma

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