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McLean Moves Customers from ‘Have to…’ to ‘Want to…’

If an undergraduate degree in psychology seems an odd foundation for a successful career as entrepreneur and business owner, you only have to meet Steve McLean ‘91 to learn its logic.

McLean is co-founder and partner of Wild Blue Technologies, Inc., based in De Pere, Wis. He describes the company as “a strategic experiential design firm” that helps make the retail shopping experience something customers want to do, rather than have to do. The company’s clients are predominantly international Fortune 500 consumer goods businesses, the companies who make the products we consume or use every day.

“Psychology helps us understand what differentiates an enjoyable experience from a run-of-the-mill experience,” said McLean. “We have a good understanding of the inputs that affect behavior, so we work hard to design the experience we want our clients’ customers to have. And that experience can be in the physical or digital space, so we have to consider everything that goes into that experience.

“Our clients know that retail commerce is changing as shoppers blend online and brick-and-mortar options, and they know they need to adapt, to be on the lookout for ‘what’s next’ in their product category and then be the first to bring that to customers.”

To make that happen, Wild Blue Technologies focuses its eclectic team of employees on the client’s total customer experience. That might start with the typical elements of a brand: a logo or a color palette, selection of a font, design of a product package or signage, and evaluation of the way a product is displayed on a shelf.

And then the team takes it one more step: It creates the entire purchasing experience under the roofs of its sprawling, 50,000-square-foot studios in De Pere. This allows clients to evaluate everything from their customers’ perspective. Often that means building prototypes that can be placed in a retail store, where team members can observe consumer behavior. Sometimes it means creating a virtual-reality store, where shoppers can experience a number of prototypes before time and money are spent on the real-world models.

Creating that experience involves artists, designers, writers, carpenters, model makers, animators, engineers, code writers and virtual-reality experts. Every one of the company’s 60 employees team contributes to every client’s project in some way, which brings diversity of thought, experience and professional perspective to every challenge.

The result gives Wild Blue Technologies’ clients a tangible proof of concept where they can see, hear and feel a potential solution, just as their customers would. That experience brings the strategy to life in a way that even the most effective hard-copy, two-dimensional presentation cannot. As a result, clients feel more comfortable investing in the solution, confident that it will help their customers will feel more engaged while exploring their products.

“One of the most helpful courses at UWGB was Psychology and Human Development,” McLean recalled. “It was fertile ground for questioning the status quo. The thing that probably sticks most, and that I still leverage frequently is the architecture of a research study and fundamental understanding of scientific method. The ability to identify and isolate variables within a study methodology is a very helpful bit of knowledge when we conduct or assess consumer research.”

And there you have it: Human psychology at work in the world of the entrepreneur and businessman.

McLean, who grew up in Marinette, Wis., did not set out to become a business owner, but he wanted to avoid student loan debt while securing his college education, so he worked full-time at a local printing company while he attended UW-Green Bay. He was headed toward graduate studies in Psychology when his employer made him an offer almost any struggling student would take.

“They liked my work and offered me the opportunity to work for them in a project estimating role while I sorted out my graduate school options,” he said. “I wound up staying for several years.

“One day in late 1998, I was talking with a friend of mine who owned a business in downtown Green Bay. He had an idea to bring digital printing technology to the production of large-format imaging, the kind you see in big stores and museums,” McLean continued. “I could see the potential for the idea because it significantly reduced the cost of production and retained a high level of quality. We started Wild Blue Technologies on the third floor above his business to sell that service.”

As those client relationships grew, McLean’s role evolved from purveyor of the product to strategic partner, offering his clients insights into ways their customers’ shopping trips could be transformed from routine, commodity-based transactions to pleasant, personalized shopping experiences. He also began to help them see where digital technology could be applied to their businesses.

His original partner eventually moved on to other interests and McLean connected with Will Van Epern. Today, they share part of the client service responsibilities for major accounts and contribute to other team members’ client challenges and assignments.

“Often our ideas and strategies are intended as future thinking,” McLean said, “providing our clients with a perspective of how retail experiences and shopper behaviors might evolve in the coming years.  While we may not activate these ideas in scale in the near term, we test and learn so we are prepared for what is next.”

McLean advises today’s students to retain that sense of curiosity about the world, no matter where they spend their careers.

“UW-Green Bay initially appealed to me for it’s pragmatic aspects,” he said. “It was local, offered the course of study that interested me and enabled me to work full time. Those were criteria that seemed important to me at that time.”

“The wiser, older me would advise that selecting a college should include a negotiation of your personal balance of natural and unfamiliar. I’ve always felt that there are very few seminal life thresholds where we have the opportunity to re-imagine ourselves and the sense of self we communicate to others. Starting college is probably the most dynamic and abiding threshold opportunity. I’d ask myself if I can envision the next phase of me in this place. Will it be suitably and significantly different from experiences I’ve already had, while not being so foreign that that I’m distracted from my goals?”

“In the long run,” he said, “you have to do what interests you to sustain yourself, and you have to stay curious about the world.”

“Being in business for yourself is as demanding as it is rewarding,” he observed. “I have been fortunate to have a very supportive family and inspiring co-workers. All of us here enjoy using our creativity to impact the experiences of people in our community. To do that, we need to be observant of the world around us, well rounded in our knowledge about things, and to stay interested and curious about almost everything. It’s not enough to just know your discipline; you have to have a toolbox of capabilities in whatever you do.”

Story by freelance writer Jim Streed ’05. Photos submitted by Steve McLean.