Retail Success: Delivering Core Brand Values Experientially

11.26.12 / David Lemley

Customers don’t care about the products you’re selling. They don’t care about your promotions. Your advertising doesn’t cut it, either. Stores must get out of the 20th century mind-set that they’re places of commerce. Forget about focusing on selling stuff. Consumers are moving away from “mindless to mindful consumption”. They’re spending their money with organizations who’s core brand values align with their own. And what resonates is when those values are embedded in a 360 degree experiential design strategy that’s fully implemented and adhered to.

Compelling research by John Gerzema in his book “Spend Shift” points out that a paradigm shift is well underway. What customers are interested in; what they’re craving is a great experience. The promise of one doesn’t mean much; fulfillment is all that matters. It’s no accident that consumers are going online and into brick and mortar store that offer tangible value and deliver on their promises of great experiences.

Shoe Fetish

Everybody knows how strong the retail shoe business is. Energized by growing customer interest and gross margins of up to 50%, Macy’s, Saks and Barney’s among other notable retailers are adding significant square footage to their shoe departments. Besides delivering more designer footwear, how do retailers plan on wooing customers to their stores versus the competition? Macy’s Herald Square flagship store plans on adding a champagne and chocolate bar, designer shops-within-shops and are you ready for this: shoe closets similar to those found among the well-heeled (pun intended) in SoHo. Really?

Here’s the thing: Macy’s efforts to create memorable experiences among shoe shoppers should be applauded. But what values are they based on? Wooing customers with champagne is a cool idea, but where’s the core value of at Macy’s in every department? Is this enough for the retailer to convince customers that its brands fit their lifestyles, meet their expectations and are extraordinary from top to bottom?

Want proof of a retailer that gets it? Zappos.

Zappos leveraged its uber-successful footwear business for women, expanded to men’s and children’s offerings and now the online retailer has moved into apparel and accessories. All without having a physical retail presence. How did they do it? Core brand values. All spelled out and lived by every day in every way by every employee to each customer. That’s how an e-tail business took well-established, long-time retailers back to school. Zappos openly talks about the WOW factor. Delivering for the customer in an unconventional way. Above and beyond expectation. Every time. Being a little quirky and making it fun. Getting to know the customer and making their experiences the best in the business. Making sure the culture is on board and clued in. Zappos totally focused on its core values from the very beginning—and sticking to them.

No one should be amazed at Zappos’ success. Their passionate, creative approach that’s flexible and open to change while remaining grounded in a well-designed retail strategy ensures their continuing success—unless they stray from their winning formula. And here’s the kicker that other retailers need to take note of as they expand their shoe departments: Zappo’s will continue to take significant share all because of the way they live and breathe their core brand values. It all translates into great experiences for the customers who have formed a tribe around their favorite retail brand.

Drill down to those values.

Many brands start off well but through the years they lose sight of their core values. They don’t stand for anything. They make promises that they simply don’t keep. Customers become disenfranchised and disenchanted. The magic is lost and the customers begin to leave, searching for retail experiences that deliver values aligned with their own and those elusive great experiences. But here’s the good news: retailers can make magic again. By drilling down to the values they’ve lost and realigning them to every aspect of their business: employee-facing, customer-facing and stakeholder-facing, they can regain trust and confidence. They can leverage that to become the cool place to shop again. But none of this can be left to chance. To be successful, an experiential strategy has to be ingrained into every aspect of the operation by design.

Drilling down to the core enables brand owners to get to the very soul of their businesses. When core values are delivered with clarity, simplicity, a compelling brand story–with maniacal focus and consistency. These values become enshrined as a sacred brand promise; a promise that is always kept. For retailers, for any business, this concept is a game changer because a commitment to delivering brand value always leads to great experiences for the customer. And great experiences turn customers into brand zealots.

It’s hard work to deliver a simple, compelling message but it’s essential for success.

There are too many marketing messages and too much noise—all unrelated to core brand values these days. Consumers are tuning it all out. Unique selling propositions come from alignment to simply articulated core values that are highly differentiated and unique. The USP comes from that one thing that the retailer delivers better than any other in a superlative, memorable and tangible manner. The one thing that puts them into a category all by themselves: that makes them the “one and only” for a targeted group of consumers. All advertising and marketing should be rooted in that and nothing else. When these values are delivered to the customer via a well-planned, well-executed experiential strategy it brings retail brands to life. 

Mojo hides in the basics.

As previously stated even the best can get away from their roots and have to get back to basics. But the magic can be recaptured with insights, hard work and a plan. Foot Locker was a retailer that had lost its mojo when Ken Hicks took the helm in 2009. Sales are up nearly 19% since 2010 with nine quarters of growth. Foot Locker is on track to realize $6 billion in sales in 2013 which would be its best year since the company took in $5.7 billion in 2006 before plummeting to $4.8 billion during the recession.

How did Hicks do it? In an interview with Footwear News in March 2010, Hicks basically outlined the new strategy for Foot Locker. He spoke about transitioning the brand to make it more relevant to the athletic consumer (getting back to its core value proposition) versus sneaker boutiques, department stores and e-tailers: “Our goal is to be the leading global retailer of athletically inspired shoes and apparel. . . making sure we’re taking care of our customers by converting higher, taking care of our associates so they’re inspired to engage the customer and give them an exciting experience. Having been in general merchandise for a bit of my life, it’s like a decathlete: you can shot-put, you can run a sprint, you can high-jump, but you’re never as good as the shot-putter, the sprinter or the high-jumper. We’re the specialty store here, and we’re going to beat them all on shoes.”

Ken Hick’s plan: 

  • Refocus on the retailer’s top customers: young males between the ages of 12-20 and running joint events with the likes of Nike like “House of Hoops” to push high-end, very profitable sneakers.
  • Up the number of employees in the stores to offer expert advice, fit and service.
  • Merchandise highly profitable sports apparel in the front of the stores with footwear.
  • Respond to trends and focusing on running shoes more than its former mainstay basketball shoes due to shifting consumer demand.
  • Seamlessly integrate Foot Locker retail stores and website.
  • Offer the best assortment and value to the customer for athletic shoes and apparel.

Ken Hicks: “We’re going to be the place to go. If you need a sneaker, you’re going to think of Foot Locker.

Translation: We’re going to be the one and only. We’re going to own the business. Hmmm. . .if they stick to their core, they might even take some sneaker share away from Zappos.

This is a challenge to retailers in every category: are you ready to change the world? Get to the heart and core value of your brands. Live them so that you can deliver game changing experiences to your customers day in and day out. Create your own cult of brand zealots.

What will you do to disrupt your entire market’s scene?

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