What’s Needed: A Retail Refresh or Total Rebrand?

11.12.12 / David Lemley

So many retailers are at a standstill. They often blame it on a sluggish economy. But is that the problem? Consumers are spending. Maybe they’re more judicious about it, but they are buying. If they’re buying less in some retail stores than they used to, there’s a problem. And it usually boils down to a number of maladies: a brand set adrift, a loss of relevance, less than delightful customer experiences, experiences that don’t match up to the hype created by marketing campaigns or a little to a lot of each.

When this happens, retailers sometimes opt to do nothing thinking they can ride out the situation. Others decide to rebrand. Both of these choices are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Doing nothing is never a good idea. Any retail brand that is in a holding pattern or losing ground needs help; problems don’t go away by themselves and remedial action is necessary.

There are assets associated with retail brands, especially those with heritage, that have value and they shouldn’t be discarded. By doing consumer research to assess equitable assets, retailers can be returned to reinforced core brand values if they’ve gone adrift, and made more responsive to customers’ needs and current trends. Discarding assets that customers value is a terrible idea. Rather, it’s important to leverage them as the starting point to rebuild. This is what a brand refresh or revitalization is all about.

It’s never wise to throw the baby out with the bath water, unless the retail brand has so little value left that it has to undergo a total rebrand or it will go out of business. We all know of retailers that have lost focus of their brands along with relevance. Some have tried to revitalize or rebrand with excellent results while others have had dismal to catastrophic results. Ann Taylor succeeded. Sears has not.

A total rebrand may be unnecessary and might do more harm than good. Revitalization might just be the answer.

There are assets associated with retail brands, especially those with heritage, that have value and they shouldn’t be discarded. By doing consumer research to assess equitable assets, retailers can be returned to reinforced core brand values if they’ve gone adrift, and made more responsive to customers’ needs and current trends. Discarding assets that customers value is a terrible idea. Rather, it’s important to leverage them as the starting point to rebuild. This is what a brand refresh or revitalization is all about.

It’s never wise to throw the baby out with the bath water, unless the retail brand has so little value left that it has to undergo a total rebrand or it will go out of business. We all know of retailers that have lost focus of their brands along with relevance. Some have tried to revitalize or rebrand with excellent results while others have had dismal to catastrophic results. Ann Taylor succeeded. Sears has not.

Refreshes & Rebrands: Who’s Done it Well & Who Hasn’t.

First, let’s acknowledge that some retailers remain rooted and true to their brands. They’re in tune with their customers, delivering strong brand experiences, anticipating customer trends and staying ahead of the competition so they remain viable. They’re constantly tweaking their brands in a smooth and consistent manner so that major overhauls are unnecessary. These retailers think constantly about helping consumers live their lives better. Their values speak to their customers’ values. New product offerings and services keep pace with the customer; they’re relevant. More than anything, they consistently deliver on their brand promises. As a result, their customers are more than loyal; they’re brand zealots. They can’t imagine a world without their favorite retailer. Their success speaks for itself. Think Nordstrom, IKEA, Whole Foods and H&M.

A Brand Wreck and A Brand Refresh

Talbots

Other retailers, once dominant among their constituents, have lost their way. Talbots, the Massachusetts-based retailer has made more than its share of mistakes in recent years in its attempts to revitalize its brand. Firmly branded as a retailer for women over the age of 35 for decades, Talbots decided to expand its retail footprint to include apparel stores for men and children, as well as apparel for these demographics in its catalogs. After trying to make it happen for a few years, the retailer closed these divisions out.

Talbot’s had always been perceived as a retailer providing updated classic apparel to mature women. The retailer then decided it should revitalize its brand by trying to cater to a younger clientele. The move made no sense. Younger women couldn’t envision themselves shopping at Talbot’s and have plenty of age-appropriate options. Yet, younger clothing styles appeared, mixed in with apparel for its mainstay customer, alienating the mature women who had always turned to Talbot’s. To make matters worse, cheaply-made, ill-fitting apparel replaced high quality, timeless clothing styles that fit mature women correctly. Instead of making itself relevant to the next generation of 35+ year olds, the retailer went after an audience it couldn’t hope to win over. Bloggers have discussed uneven customer experiences within Talbots retail stores; some have been strong and others quite disappointing. Add to that, the retailer’s website continues to present problems with frequency when customers try to make online purchases. With major disconnects and issues at every customer touch point, Talbot’s may not be around much longer.

REI

On the other hand, when Seattle-based co-op REI needed help, it was understood that the retailer had extremely loyal members and the brand had equitable assets. At 70+ years old, REI was failing to attract younger customers, which an outdoor retailer must do. REI called on retail brand design experts to research its problems and address them in a comprehensive, 360 degree manner. REI’s brand was revitalized with a new brand identity and positioning, visual branding system and customer acquisition strategy. The logo was updated along with store planning, exterior trade dress, packaging, apparel and gear marking systems and the brand standards manual. Nothing was left untouched. Most importantly, with C-suite cooperation, internal branding initiatives including employee training and an Employee Rewards program were instituted. Customer-facing initiatives included a new member loyalty program, improved catalog program, REI gift card program and bank card marketing strategy. Nothing was skin deep about this brand revitalization. End result? A marked growth in new customers, sales and locations; record profits; all without alienating its established customer base.

Rebranding Miss and Hit

Radio Shack

Radio Shack is a perfect example of a retailer that clearly misdiagnosed its problems and responded to them with the wrong solution. Unfortunately, the retailer had not kept pace with the customer. It looked old and tired losing business to competitors that offered trendy tech products and a better experience. So the decision was made in 2009 to rebrand. Unfortunately, it wasn’t well thought out or executed. Nor did it seem to be well researched. End result: the retailer changed its name from “Radio Shack” to simply “The Shack”, which sounds like a teen hangout for Rave parties. As bad as that was, the name change was clearly a marketing gimmick since the brand identity and store names remained the same! Merchandise assortments remained largely the same except for an expanded cadre of cell phones that could be purchased at Wal-Mart. That didn’t do anything to change the retailer’s image into something hip and cool, either, even though “The Shack” was meant to convey those values. The core in-store shopping experience didn’t change for the customer; it didn’t match the hype.

This whole exercise was skin deep doing nothing to revamp Radio Shack to entice new customers; it did alienate existing ones. Simply put: there was nothing authentic or believable about this rebranding effort, so it failed abysmally. The whole thing was a farce and consumers knew it. They also knew that if they wanted innovative tech products, a memorable experience and an aligned brand, the Apple Store was the place to go.

Instead of promising a total rebrand, which it clearly did not execute, Radio Shack would have been wise to bring in experts to assess whether a refresh or total rebrand was in order and then to make certain every aspect of the brand was touched and brought into alignment. By updating its core offerings with some exciting proprietary choices to reflect its customers’ current needs and by delivering on its brand promise with great customer experiences, Radio Shack might have started to turn things around.

Target

A total rebranding effort was undertaken in the late 1990’s by Target with very different results. The retailer had been branded as a discounter, competing directly with Wal-mart and K-Mart on price. The Target C suite recognized they simply couldn’t beat Wal-mart at that game; it was time to reposition, rebrand and own unique positioning. The turn-around was dramatic. “Cheap chic” resonated with fashion-conscious consumers. “Tarzhay” became a haunt for middle class and affluent consumers who touted the fact they could purchase Michael Graves designed teakettles and Isaac Mizrahi fashions at bargain pricing.

Stores environments became reflective of the new Target attitude. Advertising employed Andy Warhol-like pop culture photography and splashes of color and yes, the Campbell soup can was feted in ads. Shops within store with “only available at Target” apparel from noted fashion designers supports the retail image. Unique licensing deals and limited time offerings are relevant to trends and impress consumers that Target is far from staid; this is a retailer that’s on the move with plenty of newsworthy, changing merchandise.

Retailers that have found success have made the consumer the core of their strategy. They’ve gone after unique, ownable positioning and remained true to their core brands. They’ve worked to deliver on the brand promise every day. But many of them have done it with help. For successful turnarounds outside resources should be tapped; people who objectively conduct brand and consumer research without bias; who can present a sound, comprehensive strategy and tactics. It’s a major undertaking and no aspect of the brand can be left untouched. Experts work collaboratively with the C-suite to make it happen.

Without a 360 degree redesign, a refresh or rebrand is doomed to failure. It will not only fail to be effective; it will expedite the demise of the retail brand since consumers will be presented with a marketing proposition that isn’t authentic, makes no sense and does more harm than good. Executed poorly, a refresh or rebranding causes confusion among existing customers and fails to woo new ones. Marketing gimmicks are superficial and retailers who think they can turn things around in this manner are simply deluding themselves. Just remember the golden rule: “anything worth doing is worth doing well”.

Full disclosure: REI was a client of ours and we were happy to collaborate with them on the brand refresh mentioned in this article.

Ready to talk about your project?

Or give us a call at 206.285.6900