10: We Sit Down with Independent We Stand at PrimeTime in Houston

Written by Rob Stott

March 2, 2020


See what we did there? Bill Brunelle of Independent We Stand spoke with us about all of the tremendous resources IWS has made available to the independent retail channel.

Rob Stott: All right, and we’re back on the Independent Thinking Podcast. Again live from PrimeTime, Nationwide PrimeTime here in Houston. And right now excited to get the chance to talk with a guy, honestly, I’ve heard a lot about you and seen a lot about you coming to these shows. And even in between the shows, content you guys produce here. Your name’s everywhere, Mr. Bill Brunnell of Independent We Stand co-founder and Executive Director of Independent We Stand. Appreciate your taking the time to invite me into your booth.

Bill Brunnell: Absolutely.

Rob Stott: Sitting here I feel like I’m working with Independent We Stand right now.

Bill Brunnell: Hey, we might put you to work. We’ve been pretty busy. We’ve been pretty busy. Well, I really appreciate the chance to talk with you and your listeners. We’re always excited to come to the Nationwide Marketing Group PrimeTime events because it gives us a chance to meet these small business owners that are living the American Dreams. And when they hear about the partnership between Nationwide Marketing Group and Independent We Stand and all the tools and resources and materials that are available, and then they hear it’s free, they’re just blown away. So we’ve made lots of fans while we’ve been here.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. And for me, as I said, I’ve been familiar with your name just walking by it at PrimeTimes. But a running theme now, a running joke almost to this PrimeTime, is that for as many as I’ve been to, which I think is eight at this point, this is my first as a member of the Nationwide family. So everyone’s telling me I got to reset the clock and that nothing is counted before this. So this is PrimeTime number one.

So tell me the pitch, as a new person, a new part of the Nationwide family, about Independent We Stand.

Bill Brunnell: Sure, sure. So Independent We Stand is really, it started out as a cause marketing campaign 10 years ago for a company called Stihl, the chainsaw company. And essentially they were looking for some way to help their independent dealers stand out from the big-box stores. And a lot of people don’t realize it, but you can’t buy Stihl equipment at a Home Depot or Lowe’s.

And with 9,000 independent home stores, garden centers, outdoor power equipment shops, they became number one in their category, which that’s not the way it’s supposed to happen. A lot of manufacturers think there’s gold at the end of the rainbow when they work with these big-box stores. And there’s more and more research that shows that can actually kill a brand because you might strike a deal with Home Depot for the first year and make a ton of money. But the next year, Home Depot is going to come to say, “You know what.”

Rob Stott: Start saving margins, yeah.

Bill Brunnell: “We’re not crazy about your margin. You need to slim it down.” And then they do it again in the third year.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Bill Brunnell: And then the fourth year. And there’s been several companies that have essentially been put out of business. And sometimes they’ll close factories and jobs will go overseas, and Stihl didn’t want anything to do with it. Stihl is all about quality. And when you start squeezing a company on profits, you start looking at ways to cut costs and Stihl wouldn’t have anything to do with it.

So they decided, “You know what, let’s work with these mom and pop stores and see what they can do.” And they became number one and that set the, like I mentioned earlier, that manufacturing world on fire, but it also caught the attention of Wall Street and other manufacturers and has really just taken off from there. Stihl is such a first-class company that when first launched in September of 2010, we had a bunch of other independent businesses contact us for our resources and materials. And Stihl said, “You know what, as long as they qualify.” And when you apply for membership on Independent We Stand, you have five questions to answer so we can determine whether you are indeed locally-owned. “Let’s let them join. Let’s let them access the materials. Let’s help them build their local brands.” And it has just taken off from there. I mean, I’ve barbershops signing up, bookstores, record stores, every kind of business you can think of. A lot of these folks, and even Nationwide Marketing Group members, don’t have a ton of marketing budget.

Rob Stott: Right.

Bill Brunnell: And they don’t have full marketing stats, where Home Depot might have 30 people and all they do is social media.

Rob Stott: Yep.

Bill Brunnell: And small business owners, they turn on the lights, they stock the goods, they hire, they fire, they balance the books. And then some marketing expert says, “Oh, by the way, you got to Tweet today. It’s time to Tweet.” And what we do is we come up with those resources that make them look like they’re a big dog. Like they are worth the business. And a lot of the graphics and stuff that we share, directly talk about the economic impact of small business owners.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. And to go back to what you were saying about what a big-box can do to those brands. It takes what is the heart I think … to me personally, the heart of what an independent business is and that’s the trust and loyalty in the handshake, and it just completely undermines it. That’s crazy to hear, it’s just a completely different business model.

Bill Brunnell: Yeah, absolutely. And one of the statistics that we love to promote is the fact that small businesses give twice as much money per employee to charities than the big businesses do.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Bill Brunnell: And I’m not slamming the big-boxes.

Rob Stott: No.

Bill Brunnell: Like Target does a lot in their communities and some others.

Rob Stott: Right, right.

Bill Brunnell: But there’s a little bit, there’s not a little bit, there’s a big disconnect between that Target manager that just came to town to take over that Target store and the guy that’s been on the corner of Main Street and Elm Street now for 50 years.

Rob Stott: Right, that opened the shop… 

Bill Brunnell: And maybe he’s the grandson of the original founder and his boys play on your boys’ baseball team. And by the way, when they needed jerseys for that Little League team, you stepped up. Those are the kinds of emotional connections that you have to make with consumers. And bookstores are a great example. You know what Amazon did to the book-selling world, right?

Rob Stott: Absolutely.

Bill Brunnell: Well, bookstores are actually one of the categories doing extreme … Independent bookstores, doing extremely well right now because they deliver an over-the-top experience. 500 new bookstores in the last five years.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Bill Brunnell: Really. Hardware store, same thing, 33,000 independent hardware stores. Ace Hardware, Do It Best Hardware, they sell more than Home Depot and Lowe’s combined.

Rob Stott: Unreal.

Bill Brunnell: But often they’re tucked away.

Rob Stott: Yeah, absolutely.

Bill Brunnell: They don’t have that big huge box and that strip mall, it looks like every strip mall you’ve ever seen.

Rob Stott: But you even think about it. This is just a personal anecdote is that, my father-in-law is someone that absolutely loathes going into a Home Depot or Lowe’s. If he finds an Ace Hardware, he might not even need anything. He’ll just pull over to the side of the road, because he likes going in, chatting about the home projects that he’s working on with the guys that are in that store. Because they know what they’re talking about, they’re very personable, they’re in the community and that’s just how it is.

Bill Brunnell: Yeah, it is. And I will tell you the big-box stores struggle with good customer service. Everybody knows the labor market is tightened up. A lot of times at those places you’ll get the contractor during the day that works at night, so he’s already tired and grumpy.

And long before I started with Independent We Stand, I was actually shopping at my local, and I hate to keep slamming the big-boxes because that’s not what we’re about. But I was at Home Depot, I had an emergency toilet repair. Water everywhere, got the system water stopped in the house. But then I had to make a repair and I had to make it quick. I made four trips to Home Depot to get the right stuff before I got the right … No. On the fourth trip I did not get the right stuff, because I couldn’t find help to tell me what thingamajig I needed to fix that leak. Hardware store a mile up from my house, I had never stopped by. I stopped by, the owner was there.

Rob Stott: And they have everything.

Bill Brunnell: He had what I needed and that toilet was fixed in three or four seconds. And I’ve been going ever since. Taylor’s Do It Center, Virginia Beach, Virginia. I think the key for retailers, especially competing with the big-box stores, is delivering over-the-top customer service and an experience they won’t find at Home Depot or Lowe’s.

Rob Stott: Yeah. No, that’s awesome. So talk about the relationship with Nationwide, how it came together and, but we’ll get to where it’s blossomed to today because it’s quite awesome. But what are the beginning moments of this relationship?

Bill Brunnell: Well, actually about probably two years into it, Nationwide West reached out to me and they loved what we were doing. So we exchanged social media graphics, and I think we actually did some content to promote the whole business model because, I mean, obviously we think alike. We drink the same Kool-Aid. And so we basically kept in touch and a few years ago I reached out to Tom Hickman and-

Rob Stott: A guy who certainly has a jug of that Kool-Aid in his corner office.

Bill Brunnell: Oh, you’re not kidding. You’re not kidding. I’ve got a Tom story here in a second about a contest that we have going on. But it just made sense. Everything felt right and I think that what we really can bring to the table, is giving members the ability to build their local brands. Because a mentor of mine once told me, “If you’re going to run with the big dogs, you need to get off the porch.” And that’s actually the clean version of what he taught me.

But the point there being is, if you’re going to compete with the big-box stores and the national chains, you need to act and look like a big-box store.

Rob Stott: Act as if.

Bill Brunnell: And as members will find, with all the resources for Independent We Stand, they are topnotch graphics. For example, Facebook changed their algorithm two, three years ago. Actually they change it every two or three months.

Rob Stott: Right, I was going to say that. Yep.

Bill Brunnell: But they were getting a lot of complaints that page content was appearing higher than friends and family, so they switched everything around. So if you’re a small business owner-

Rob Stott: You got shifted to the bottom.

Bill Brunnell: … you’ve got to have really good engaging content and it’s got to be shared by your fans, so it appears higher in the feed. Well, I’ve got a staff of designers that just blow me away with their stuff. Probably to-date 150, 200 different Facebook, Twitter and Instagram optimized graphics, everything … Right now we’re in the middle of our Valentine’s push, so buy local for Valentine’s Day. We’ve got Mother’s Day coming up. We actually have St. Patrick’s Day, July 4th, every major retail holiday, including Halloween and Christmas.

Rob Stott: It’s an opportunity to get the name out there and-

Bill Brunnell: Yep, yep. And it’s also important for members that are doing social, not just to sell, sell, sell, sell, sell.

Rob Stott: Right, right.

Bill Brunnell: So this is an opportunity to actually put out a feelgood graphic that will get shared and so forth and so on.

So we are so excited about now that this former relationship with Nationwide Marketing Group and Tom was instrumental in that. A quick story about Tom.

Rob Stott: Yeah, absolutely. We always got time for Tom stories.

Bill Brunnell: Yeah. On Monday, February 24th we start our fifth annual America’s Main Street Contest. And that is a contest where we really want to bring awareness to the 12 to 1300 Main Street groups across the US that are doing wonderful work to help their Main Streets or Elm Avenues or Pacific Avenues, whatever it is, really succeed. And a big part of that success is small locally-owned businesses that help them thrive.

And we started in 2016 in a small town in Washington, State of Washington, 10 miles from the border one, and that’s Lynden, Washington. And in Lynden, Washington, they grow 85% of the red raspberries in the country. So if you get red raspberries, chances are they came from Lynden.

Rob Stott: Wow, that’s crazy.

Bill Brunnell: The following year, a town called DeLand, Florida, which is halfway between Orlando and Daytona.

Rob Stott: Okay.

Bill Brunnell: They won, it’s a $25,000 cash prize, by the way.

Rob Stott: Yeah, absolutely.

Bill Brunnell: And guess what hometown Tom Hickman is from? DeLand, Florida, So I know he drinks the Kool-Aid. I know he drinks the Kool-Aid.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome.

Bill Brunnell: And this is before we had a formal relationship, so I did nothing to help DeLand win, they won all on their own.

Rob Stott: It was organic. They did it themselves.

Bill Brunnell: Organic.

Rob Stott: They worked it out. It all, it was meant to be, maybe perhaps.

Bill Brunnell: It was. And you know what? I think it is. And I’m still very close with the whole organization. They used the $25,000 to redo some lighting and signage on their main street.

Rob Stott: Wow, okay.

Bill Brunnell: And so yeah, we’re all excited about it. Last year, a member in Rutland, Vermont, Rutland Appliances, they help Downtown Rutland reach the top 10. They came really close to winning the whole thing, but, and it doesn’t have to be a mainstream organization. It can be a small business organization. It can be a buy-local organization. There’s about 160 of them nationwide, and $25,000 is a nice little marketing campaign.

Rob Stott: Yeah, that’s not a tiny chunk of change for these guys.

Bill Brunnell: Not at all.

Rob Stott: But awesome program and, and something that, by the time this runs, we may have already helped push and promote that. I know we have plans to, but on the flip side of that, we were talking about the 25,000 there. The other price point that I want to touch on is something that you’ve been hitting on this week during your sessions, and that’s zero dollars.

Bill Brunnell: Yes, yes.

Rob Stott: So somewhere you found a $0 million bill.

Bill Brunnell: Yep, thanks-

Rob Stott: You love to talk about it.

Bill Brunnell: Again, thanks to the generosity of our partnership with Nationwide Marketing Group. And I got to tell you in these presentations I do, I have to emphasize it as free because they don’t believe it’s free. So I actually have a slide that comes flying in with a Nationwide Marketing Group logo with a zero dollar bill and a cash register ring goes off. And I’m like, “Folks, this is absolutely no cost. Three easy payments of zero.”

Rob Stott: Zero dollars plus zero shipping and handling.

Bill Brunnell: Exactly. Zero handling fee.

Rob Stott: So what does that actually entail? For the member listening, what is included in that zero dollar fee to work with Independent We Stand?

Bill Brunnell: Sure, a full suite of marketing materials, available both on our website as well as MemberNet. And that includes everything from point of sale materials to social media graphics. Some are retail holiday-specific, like I mentioned with Valentine’s Day. Back To School seems to be really popular with the appliance guys.

Rob Stott: Oh, yeah. Yep.

Bill Brunnell: And every major holiday. Plus we have generic stuff, Think Outside the Big Box. For some reason, it’s one of the most popular we have, and it’s all free of charge available both on our website again and MemberNet. And we will even if somebody wants to customize something, like the Think Outside the Big Box graphic seems to be the most popular with you guys, or with your members, excuse me. And I will give you the vector-based artwork-

Rob Stott: Wow.

Bill Brunnell: … that you can load and then add a logo, and you’ll get printed locally on a tee shirt. All I ask is you try and do it locally. Okay, so if you-

Rob Stott: Hey, that’s fair. That’s a fair ask.

Bill Brunnell: Yeah. That’s actually a part of my presentation of, I’m asking you that … You’re locally-owned and now you’re going to preach to other people, they should buy local. You need to think about sourcing.

Rob Stott: You know what say, you may or may not be familiar with the name, but an earlier episode of this podcast we went to Mrs. G’s in Lawrence Township.

Bill Brunnell: Oh, are you kidding? She’s one of my favorite people in the entire world.

Rob Stott: Okay.

Bill Brunnell: Debbie comes by here all the time.

Rob Stott: Debbie is, if you want to talk about someone that practices what she preaches as far as being locally-owned and leaning in on that local business, she is an absolute rock star in that space.

Bill Brunnell: And she actually joined Independent We Stand in the fall of 2010.

Rob Stott: That’s right. We did-

Bill Brunnell: We’ve been up to her store several times. You might even see her come up on the videos we’re showing.

Rob Stott: Yeah, yeah. We actually, during that podcast, you guys came up, she had some piece of paper. It might’ve been something that you guys did together, is in her staff office and she’s proud of it and she’s so proud of it.

Bill Brunnell: Oh, yeah, we did that. That’s right, I remember doing that now.

Rob Stott: So, just seeing that type of commitment from some of these guys, from some of our members, as to how they lean in on being local and how important it is to them. It’s inspiring.

Bill Brunnell: Yeah. I absolutely love coming to these things because I get to interact with folks like Debbie. And I still get chills just thinking about her story and how she’s run that business, or any other small business.

One of the things that we preach as part of our resource training is celebrate your main street story. Every business has a main street story. Maybe you’ve been around for many generations like Mrs. G’s. Or maybe you’re a corporate guy that you just got sick of the corporate life and you decide, “You know what, I’m going to open up a furniture store.” That’s your main street story, and you need to figure out what that is and then go tell it. Social media, newspapers, radio, whatever. Tell your main street story, that’ll really resonate.

Rob Stott: Yeah. One thing I wanted to ask you, I mentioned it at the top that I’ve seen your name a lot of places. You’re a content machine, sir. Mr. Brunnell.

Bill Brunnell: I was hoping it was on the FBI wall. Top 10.

Rob Stott: But I mean, you are a regular content producer and out there preaching about what you guys are doing, the mission of IWS and everything that you’re about. And sharing advice too, a lot of great advice articles. So, it’s clear that this is important to you. So is that easy for you to just … Does content roll off the tongue for you or how important is that as far as everything else that you’re doing?

Bill Brunnell: I have to give credit to my staff. I have some incredible designers and writers and folks that I work with. And now that we’ve been doing it for 10 years, they really know small businesses. They are super excited to work with small businesses because many of them as graphic artists, have worked with bigger businesses before. And I actually allow a lot of creative freedom.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’ve got a really Americana thing going there with broken type and brick and mortar and all that stuff. And that’s because I don’t overthink the creative, and I know that on Facebook it’s got to be cool and creative. So I’d love to take credit for all of that. But no, it’s the talented staff I get to work with.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. So when you think about the work you’re doing, it’s the constantly beating that drum and getting independent businesses involved. But what’s the next step, as you’re thinking ahead, what’s the next innovation or next step for an organization like IWS and where you’re heading and what you’re doing?

Bill Brunnell: Well, we’re just getting started. I know I told you we’ve been around for 10 years, but this is a movement that is still growing exponentially. And I think when I started, for example, there were maybe 20 buy-local groups around the nation, there now is 160 plus.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Bill Brunnell: And as you saw, American Express jumped on board.

Rob Stott: Yep.

Bill Brunnell: And the research actually that American Express did just a couple of years ago, showed that almost nine out of 10 consumers understand how important it is to support independent businesses. But the challenge there is they need to know you’re independent. So I really feel like we still have lots of work to do, and the more we can get out there and attend events like this, more tools that we can give to independent business owners, I really think that’s the new thing. Old is new, we’re not done.

Rob Stott: Right, right.

Bill Brunnell: It’s only been 10 years and there’s still a lot of people that still go to the big-box stores. And we understand that that’s not going to change-

Rob Stott: Right, sure.

Bill Brunnell: … but if we can get consumers to shift maybe 10 or 20% of what they buy and make them think about that furniture store that’s been on the corner now for 50 years, and the grandson’s taken over. That’s a connection that can be a longterm connection.

Rob Stott: Absolutely.

Bill Brunnell: So I got a lot of work to do. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

Rob Stott: Me and you both, my friend.

Bill Brunnell: Yep, yep.

Rob Stott: No, but it’s been awesome to sit and chat with you here, and again, I appreciate you taking some time to invite me into the booth. And great learning a little bit about the organization and the partnership is phenomenal. So I look forward to continuing … On the communication side of things, continuing to support what you guys are doing and hope to help you in that fight.

Bill Brunnell: Absolutely. And we couldn’t be more grateful for this partnership with Nationwide Marketing Group. But I think more important is I get to hang out with your members because-

Rob Stott: They are a blast.

Bill Brunnell: The coolest people on the planet, living the American Dream. I’m very jealous, and anything we can do to help them sell more product and build brand loyalty, we’re going to do. So thank you for your support.

Rob Stott: Awesome. You got it, and thank you.



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