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How Your Consumer Brand Can Survive a Burning Platform

Think back 10 or 15 years ago to a time when, more often than not, you went into a physical store to buy that thing you wanted. A time when Blockbusters were on every street corner, and Barnes & Noble stores were as ubiquitous as Uber drivers within a 5-mile radius are today.

Unsurprisingly, companies that for so long relied on in-store purchases haven’t been able to keep up with technological giants like Amazon that blazed into the marketplace and showed customers in no uncertain terms that online shopping was the way of the future.

But Amazon can’t really be to blame for putting big-box bookstores like Barnes & Noble or Borders out of business. Neither is Netflix on the hook for the demise of Blockbuster. The reality is, any disruptor could have come along and done the same thing. Names we know like Amazon and Netflix just did it first.

The real reason that these brands went out of business?

They were on a burning platform.

What is a Burning Platform?

In short, a burning platform is a product, service, or even industry that, in light of technological advancement or changing consumer trends, is for all intents and purposes destined to become obsolete.

Take the gym industry, for example. The proverbial fire has yet to burn your local Gold’s Gym or Snap Fitness down, but I think the spark is there.

The big trend in fitness right now is mass customization, but more specifically, mass customization married with convenience. If you can meet with a personal trainer on your phone who gives you a killer workout from the comfort of your living room, why would you ever invest the time, money, or energy to join and go to a gym?

This is the kind of consumer attitude that causes a platform to burn — the impending fire is inevitable.

If you’re a retail brand, you know that relevancy is vital to your success in the marketplace. So the question is: How do you know if your brand is on a burning platform?

My best advice is to pay attention. If your brand has yet to be threatened by technology or innovative disruption, it’s only a matter of time before that happens. No industry is immune.

I heard a statistic recently that blew me out of the water: We have evolved more as a society in the last 20 years because of technology than we did in the previous 500 years. That’s astounding. In a world where technology is evolving faster than we ever thought possible, you either have to keep up or get left behind.

How to Survive a Burning Platform

Any brand can be on a burning platform, but that doesn’t mean it has to go down in flames. Brands can survive a burning platform — they just have to take the right steps.

Over the last few decades, brands have realized that to survive they have to compete on either price or prestige. This dichotomy is something we like to call the Wal-Mart/Tiffany Effect.

“Tiffany” brands are built on luxury and specialization. The devotees to these brands are, in essence, the brand loyalists, the ones who shop by brand name because that brand is part of who they are, their identity. “Wal-Mart” brands, on the other hand, focus on commoditized products or services, banking on customers who want to save money and couldn’t care less about a name on a label.

Brands on either end of this spectrum are the ones that have the best chance of surviving a burning platform.

Being in the middle is where it gets tricky. But that’s also where the opportunity is.

Disruptors & the Rise of Starbucks

One of the most widely recognized disruptors of the last 50 years is Starbucks. The franchise saw huge growth beginning in the late 80s, threatening coffee shops big and small across Seattle, Washington, and beyond. The coffee shop brands that stayed afloat despite the Starbucks heyday were the ones that found a way to carve a unique niche in the marketplace.

Brands like Dunkin’ Donuts survived in the face of Starbucks dominance primarily because of cost and convenience; in other words, the Wal-Mart Effect. If you’re even a casual coffee drinker, you know that Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t cater to coffee snobs. Their customers are the ones just looking for the path of least resistance to their end goal — a cup of joe to get them through their morning.

Conversely, a brand like Zoka Coffee Roasters can continue to charge $18 for a bag of coffee that would only cost $13 at Starbucks. How? Because loyalists to this brand are paying for a premium. With only three locations, all in Seattle, Zoka creates coffee — and an experience — their customers can’t get anywhere else.

Existing in the in Between

So how do brands like Stumptown Coffee Roasters, which don’t really live on the Tiffany or the Wal-Mart end of the spectrum, survive and even flourish?

Stumptown in particular has lasted for as long as they have because they exist for a very specific audience — the “hipster” coffee drinker. Stumptown chose their tribe, and as a brand they’ve dedicated themselves to that tribe through their product branding, shop design, and location. (They’re primarily in Portland, with additional shops across a curated list of neighborhoods in cities like New York and Los Angeles.)

Or take The Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, which has done remarkably well not because of how many franchise locations they have (none, to be exact,) but because they plugged into their employees and into their community. Their book selection is curated almost to the point of obsession, with picks you won’t find in most traditional bookstores or ever stumble upon online. As a company, they thrive on culture and passion; that’s ultimately why they have such loyal customers.

Most brands live in this same space, this in between. If this is your brand, do what a brand like Amazon can’t do. Be hyper-local. Go deep. Get good at one thing. Offer customization, personalization, specialization.

If you can find your niche, you don’t have to be a Starbucks or a Whole Foods. Your customers will stick around because you speak to who they are and what they want or need in a way that other brands simply can’t.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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The Definition of Brand Has Evolved, Has Your Company Kept Up?

What is a brand? This question persists even within the walls of our agency. I have enjoyed the various perspectives and truth bombs my colleagues and clients have shared with me. If we boil it down, there are typically two schools of thought: the 19th century definition and the 20th century definition. However, at Retail Voodoo, we have a 21st century definition that challenges everything said about brand up until this point in time.

19th Century: Brand was First a Trademark for Corporate Property

Way back when, branding referred to the searing of cattle with a permanent, prominent scar that claimed said cow for life and helped keep it out of the hands of thieves. Then, as a by-product of the Industrial Age, it became a legal term that helped protect breweries in Great Britain from counterfeiters selling inferior knock-offs.

From its inception, branding was used to identify and differentiate based on ownership.

20th Century: Brand was the Appearance of the Company (Logo and Visual Identity)

Two fundamental shifts in business culture occurred during the 20th century that evolved the definition of branding. Post-war prosperity gave rise to the ubiquity of manufacturing. This resulted in the business philosophy that “he who has the factory gets the gold.” It was no longer about innovation but about controlling the manufacturing process.

So, in a world of parity products, something needed to change in order to help companies differentiate their offerings. Enter the graphic designer as a cultural influencer. Think Mad Men.

From 1950-1999, if you had the factory, sharp logo, cool packaging, and clever slogans, your business won – and in turn, likely won business. Everything was based on features and attributes. During that time, everyone with capital built factories and product proliferation became the new normal.

21st Century: Brand is the Feeling or Meaning (Values and Purpose)

In response to hyperchoice, the Experience Economy was born.

Now we buy as a form of self-actualization. Consumer culture has moved beyond purchasing merely on the basis of need or utility. Consumption has become meaningful, and brands are often used as building blocks for the construction and maintenance of our personal identity.

Most brand owners have spent all of the 21st century striving to bring human attributes to their offerings in order to create, define, and evolve the relationship they have with customers. As such, brands have now become distinct markers of human identity. Complex symbols no longer simply represent ownership, features, and attributes – they now also represent complex ideas, values, and company mission.

What’s Next: The Purpose-Driven Economy

In response to people using brands as building blocks of their own personal identity, contribution is the name of the game. This makes it more important than ever before to understand why your organization exists beyond what you make and how you generate profit.

So, it comes down to this: In the 21st century, your brand is what they say about you when you are not in the room. To put it another way, your brand is the gut feeling people get by the manner in which you and your company keep the promises you make. Your identity is the graphical elements (logo, type color, etc.) that people will use to identify your brand’s offering in the marketplace, but your brand is a feeling.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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The Recipe Disney, Whole Foods & Adidas Use to Transform Employees into Brand Ambassadors

Good employees are hard to find. It’s an adage that seems to prove true with every generation. But as with all generalizations, there are caveats. As employers, we need to be aware of the influences that contribute to the success and failure of an employee.

In today’s economy, simply offering a job and paycheck isn’t going to cut it. “Golden handcuffs” (as we like to call them) aren’t what every person is interested in. Your brand must offer something else to create a truly loyal community of employees.

So many brands struggle to gain buy-in from their employees. Either they don’t care about your brand or they don’t understand it. If even your own employees don’t love your brand, surely customers don’t have reason to. In order to grow and retain an engaged employee fanbase, your brand will have to do some work internally.

In this piece, we answer the following common questions:

  • How do you make your employees your biggest brand advocates?
  • How do you use your brand to attract top talent?
  • What companies manage and retain employees well?
  • What are the key ingredients to keeping employees happy and engaged?

Let’s start at the beginning. If you have no vision, you have no future.

Everyone has a vision for their life. Or better said, everyone has a vision for some parts of their life. Some ideas are smaller than others, but a vision nonetheless. Employment is one part of that vision.

It starts very young. We are asked as children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We play sports, we join clubs, and we take on hobbies. And then one day, we are launched into adulthood and we try to keep our passion going. We align ourselves with brands and companies who either share our passions or at least foster them. And naturally, we envision ourselves working for the brands we love and know.

Given the choice, no one wants to work for a company that only wants to increase revenue. Everyone wants to be part of something bigger. We can look to Whole Foods, Adidas, and Disney as stellar examples of brands whose fan base includes employees. These brands know how to recruit, motivate, and inspire customers. And who else would be more qualified for the job than someone who’s already a customer?

A Sprinkle of Mission & Vision

Now, I’d like to introduce you to the BHAG. Originally outlined by James Collins and Jerry Porras in “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies,” BHAG is short for “Big Hairy Audacious Goal.” Essentially, it’s a long-term goal that changes the very nature of a business’ existence. At Retail Voodoo, we use this term and point-of-view frequently when starting the brand strategy process. In fact, every company starts with a BHAG – it just gets lost in the P&Ls, M&As, and desire for the bonus at the end of the tunnel. But when a company and brand adheres to that BHAG in every aspect of their business, that’s when the magic happens.

Often, a company’s vision is expressed in their mission statement. Let’s look a couple of examples:

  1. Applegate: Changing the meat we eat.
  2. Patagonia: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.
  3. Starbucks: To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.
  4. Walmart: We save people money so they can live better.
  5. REI: A national outdoor retail co-op dedicated to inspiring, educating and outfitting its members and the community for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.

We know these BHAGs work because they adhere to the building blocks of a mission statement.

A quality mission statement should:

  • Include a goal that is an action
  • Avoid sentiment
  • Be specific and quantifiable
  • Change lives (stands for something other than simply selling a product or service).

If your mission statement can’t be easily memorized or is so full of “corporate speak” people can’t tell what company you’re talking about – you’ve got it wrong. Go back to the drawing board.

And if you need an example of a failing mission statement, look no further than Kroger: “Our mission is to be a leader in the distribution and merchandising of food, pharmacy, health and personal care items, seasonal merchandise, and related products and services.” It leaves you completely uninspired and speaks nothing of value to the customer, community, or soul of the business.

With a solid strategy-based mission statement, it becomes much easier to translate your operations and speak to your employees. Your mission distills your brand strategy into a simple bite-sized boundary that your employees can now easily buy into.

A Dash of Leadership

Leadership starts at the top and is visible all the way down to the frontline employees. Oftentimes, leaders like to see themselves as the smartest people in the room or smartest in their industry or the smartest at, well, everything. That’s not a good sign. If you rely on a few key people to be the smartest and best in your organization, you create a bottleneck.

Leadership should be more like coaching. Think of sports teams. That coach, being a good leader, knows they are there to inspire and groom members of the team. They are not out calling the plays or overseeing the medical staff – they inspire and grow another team of leaders who then go on to inspire each other and so forth.

Since they’re busy coaching and know how to coach well, they hire people they can trust to do the other work they might not have the time or experience to do. They know what they know and more importantly, they know what they don’t know. They hire people that best fill the gaps in their knowledge base. Good coaches encourage teams to work together and identify, nurture, and mentor future leaders.

Howard Schultz’s humble beginnings and his father’s experience with crappy employer/employee relations lead to the Starbucks BHAG. Schultz shares his passion so frequently that his employees own it, rally around it, and live it out through leadership that is almost unparalleled in any other employer with such a sizable minimum-wage force. Employees live the Starbucks vision at a corporate level all the way to the frontline barista making your grande latte with that triple shot of sugar-free vanilla syrup.

A Cup of Nurture & Care

If a company cares for its employees, the employees will care for the company. For sure. However, most companies translate a foosball table, an endless supply of snacks, and some health benefits as the ways to care for employees. And they are, but these items are table stakes. Let’s look at what Starbucks recently did after the natural disasters in Texas and Florida. Inc.’s Wanda Thibodeaux covers the situation well. After the storm, a total of 1,100 Starbucks stores were forced to close and approximately 15,600 workers and their families were impacted by the storms. In response, Starbucks offered catastrophic pay to employees who couldn’t work because of the storms and offered grants for additional aid to employees for rebuilding their lives. What a relief to these families, most of them frontline employees. Here Starbucks lives by their mission of nurturing the human spirit, and in this case, those humans are employees. Not all companies can afford this sort of support. That is not the point. The goal is to find a way that your company can take care of its employees that is a direct expression of your brand.

A Tablespoon of Career Paths

As most employees are on a personal career journey, brands should offer career paths that provide growth opportunities. Small companies have different career path opportunities than larger, more layered and divisional companies. Either way, be prepared for that conversation and even market the possibilities, like General Mills and Costco do. If you are smaller, it’s OK to have one person in a role. Leadership can still identify responsibilities that can be transferred to that role as the person grows. Knowing what a potential career path looks like, and then mentoring those employees is a very important part of employee happiness. Which brings us to our next ingredient.

A Teaspoon of Learning, Testing & Mentoring

The more you encourage employees to participate in shaping and implementing your brand experience, the more your employees will want to commit to the success of your brand. Career paths are great to have, but unless you have opportunities for learning and a pointed direction, the promise for advancement will fall flat.

At Retail Voodoo, we call it “Jedi Training.” It’s a little corny, yes, but Star Wars fans get the connection. We have the teacher and the student, and both know their roles. We tell all prospective employees during the interview process that our firm is a learning environment. And it needs to be one because we promise our clients that we will change the trajectory of their business (rather than just make cool stuff). Then we provide all employees with a set of books to read as part of their onboarding process. It helps level set and allows learning from the same sources as the rest of the team. Then, during quarterly reviews, we review their learning along with their performance, to make sure they continue to grow and push outside of their comfort zone. Our goal is for them to be empowered and stay with us. But if they do leave, they will be much smarter, better, and faster than when they came in. If for whatever reason they aren’t, then we have not done our job as employers who embody their brand.

You’re probably thinking, “I don’t have time for that.” We suggest you find the time. Employee turnover is a very expensive and labor-inducing process. Develop a plan around your brand strategy and mission and then spread the training and mentoring responsibility around to others on the team for added strength.

Those that embrace coaching will stay and become an indispensable, passionate part of the company. And those that aren’t coachable will leave. In the end, it will give you an opportunity to find a better fit. If your employees are coachable, that’s a great indicator of success and potential. Show them that you’re willing to invest time and energy into them, and they’ll do the same for your brand.

A Pinch of Empowerment

Empowerment is a strange beast. The dictionary defines empowerment as “authority or power given to someone to do something, or the process of becoming strong and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.”

In business, empowerment means that you, the leadership, hand over some responsibilities and decision-making powers to others in the company. It can also mean brands allow employees to be ambassadors out in the world on their behalf.

For brands that aren’t dialed into this thinking, there is typically a lot of middle management to wrangle and dictate the bulk of the employee actions on some of the most trivial issues. Leadership should only be involved in issues that cannot be resolved or are simply too challenging to tackle. The more successful a brand, the more those decisions should be parsed out using the mission as the guiding force and benchmark. The more empowered the company, the more powerful the brand.

Let’s look at Patagonia. Love them or hate them, you know exactly what they stand for. And so do their employees. Patagonia’s approach to empowerment extends so far beyond the boundary of retail that it’s sometimes hard to know where the brand ends.

Many brands approach this direction by trying to figure out how to fix what’s broken when instead they should leverage the strength of those key employees that personify the brand’s ethos and mission — And use their dedication and commitment as fuel to grow an employee base that can help solve those problems beforehand. The simplest approach is allowing your employees to make decisions in the best interest of the customer.

A Pint of Recognition

This is a tricky ingredient. Without a definition of what recognition means in your company, employees will rely on weekly meetings, daily attaboys or the oft-dreaded annual review. This isn’t very effective in growing long-term, passionate employees.

We helped to developed key employee rewards programs at REI to leverage their mission in a meaningful way outside of compensation. Our research showed that outside of the outdoors themselves, REI employees valued quality gear and time off to be in the outdoors. We helped REI define and market their President’s Award to give gear and paid time off to employees who significantly contributed to upholding the brand’s mission. REI also introduced another more elite annual award for managers and corporate employees who best channeled the spirit of founder, Lloyd Anderson.

A Cup of Co-Authoring 

The culmination of all the above ingredients is co-authorship. If your brand already has many of the above ingredients above, this is the cherry on your employee engagement sundae. Congratulations! If your employees are feeling the love from all your efforts, they now get to participate in “spreading the gospel.”

The expectancy theory says that people are motivated by how much they want a certain outcome and the chance they have of achieving it.

We look to Patagonia again as an example of a brand that thrives by encouraging employees to co-author the brand’s mission. It’s very much an activist company. They encourage employees to become involved in environmental campaigns and to give back to the community. They provide grants and support to employees pursuing the betterment of nature and humankind. This empowers employees to participate in shaping an organization that allows them to afford their values by bringing them into the workplace.

Combine All Ingredients to Create Powerful Culture

When you blend all of these ingredients together, you can see we’re really talking about company culture. Knowing what your company stands for will help your employees enroll in your brand and a clear vision will help better identify right-fit candidates. But the key to participation isn’t simply the employees, it’s a leadership-inspired, branded employee culture, which becomes a self-feeding machine. It all starts with your brand vision.

So, next time you ask yourself how to inspire employees, start with your brand. The ingredients above are the recipe you need for success.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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How & Why a Strategy-First Ethos Translates to Brand Success

In the early stages of vetting an agency, marketers often tell us they need an updated, cool packaging design and a re-skin for their existing website design. And some are quite surprised to learn that we take a strategy-first approach. Essentially, this means all of our client engagements begin with brand strategy before we ever touch design.

The conversation usually changes rapidly when we start asking questions about sales, competitive landscape, product development, vision, and employee morale. We then ask about research, historical data, and their gut instinct. By this point, we begin discussing what brand strategy does for an organization prior to and during the process of updating the look and feel of their marketing.

Brand Differentiation

Brand strategy speaks to a brand’s unique point of difference as well as the brand’s values. And it needs to be unique, ownable, compelling, and consistent. Compelling brand strategy goes beyond marketing to become the roadmap for all other areas of your business: operations, HR, product development, and sales.

A clear and definitive brand strategy will provide a strong foundation to drive awareness, loyalty, and profits while you build your brand.

Brand Vision & Purpose

Your company’s future is more than the sum of its parts – the tactics and products you create to generate revenue. Brand strategy provides a clear, compelling, and differentiated organizational future. Aspirational positioning will help your team to define why you do what you do and how it makes a difference in the world.

We call this your brand purpose – it’s who you are and why you exist beyond making a profit. Organizational values and founding principles play an important role in creating your brand’s real reason to believe.

Unified Brand Language

Having a common language is key to implementing brand strategy. Unified language sets a consistent and authentic vocabulary to discuss your strategies. It is the surest way to get what was created in the boardroom as inspiration and aspiration to become believable at the front line.

We believe that reality exists in language. And the quickest, most authentic way to align everyone in your organization is to develop a common vocabulary around your values system. This will help everyone discuss, believe, and ultimately implement your company’s vision, mission, and brand promise.

Without an agreed upon set of vocabulary and mutually understood definitions, your brand is subject to the loudest voices in the room or the nay-sayers chanting, “We’ve always done it this way.”

We have found that using data to establish a unified language helps your team to avoid a wrestling match over visual preference at the eleventh hour by those who are strong personalities, most outspoken or simply longest-tenured people.

Tactical Tools

Brand strategy provides key messaging formats to make sure that prospective and loyal customers understand what you value, represent, and offer. And it empowers your leadership to make confident choices when it comes to design translation of strategy. This is where your entire team moves from personal bias, competitive fears, doubts, and preferences because they are now armed with a clear vision, believable differentiating mission, and vocabulary with which to communicate about your brand.

Armed with vision, mission, and purpose, your team is far more adept at useful innovation that will deliver your brand’s promises and subsequently drive growth. During the brand strategy process, we help teams to build innovation filters that remove subjectivity from the equation.

Confidence in Your Brand Translates to Market Advantage

Communication becomes an opportunity to share and implement your brand strategy. It drives identity, packaging, and marketing systems rather than your marketing team chasing competitors, visual trends, or category norms.

We are in the business of creating immense value that provides you unfair advantage in the marketplace. And that is why Retail Voodoo adheres to our strategy-first ethos.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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In Food & Beverage, M&A Success Relies on Brand Strategy

The purpose of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) is to combine the intellectual property, capabilities, and reputations of different entities into something more powerful, more valuable, and ultimately more sustainable over the long-term.

Ownership changes, acquisitions, and huge funding deals continue to swarm the food and beverage industry like flies at the world’s biggest better-for-you summer picnic.

The benefits of an M&A include diversified product and service offerings, increases in capacity and market share, merging operational expertise, shared research and development, and reduced financial risk.

These are all good, but an average of 50 percent of the 70,000 M&As in the last two years failed to create long-term shareholder value (some rank this number as high as a 75 percent failure rate).

There are two key problems that contribute to this:

  • Lack of vision or poor long-term strategy. In most cases, vision and strategy are rolled out after the deal is sealed and usually as a knee-jerk reaction to the people experiencing heartache while the new entity figures out how to increase shareholder value without an articulated vision. Poor strategy is the leading cause of merger failure.
  • Not taking care of the people affected. Failure to acknowledge, plan, and follow through on how to integrate the different cultures prior to the merger can leave employees struggling to cope with cultural differences, politics, and lack of effective communication. And when people feel as though they are being tossed about in a storm without a compelling vision of how they fit into the new big picture, they jump ship.

But take heart, we have seen many M&As succeed culturally and simultaneously increase in value. Simply put, brand strategy allows the acquirer and the acquired to have a shared vision for a shared future that extends beyond simply increased revenue and marketplace dominance by considering the ways they can influence the world – together.

Use the M&A to change what your brand stands for

The questions and decisions leadership makes about brand play a crucial role in unifying the merged entity and maximizing long-term value. Decisions about the brand are signals following a merger or acquisition. Go-forward brand strategy translates how a merger or acquisition makes sense and establishes a compelling vision for the combined new entity that resonates with employees, customers, and the outside world.

A brand is a set of promises your company makes and the manner in which you keep those promises (resulting in what Seth Godin calls memories, stories, and relationships that give people a preference for one product or service over another). Then we can begin to see how brand, although less tangible than a financial report and operational integration plan, can enhance or detract from the likelihood of M&A success.

Use the acquired brand to improve the cultural relevance of your brand

There was much ado about Spam maker Hormel’s acquisition of organic meat producer Applegate Farms in 2015. People began lamenting that the little guys had sold out to greedy corporations and that the big guys used it as an opportunity to squash the little do-gooder brand’s influence on the landscape of consumer concern about our food chain — everything from quality organic standards and sustainability to animal welfare practices. We confess, at first, we were skeptical and a bit freaked out by what they might do to our “Sunday Bacon.” We watched them carefully (along with many brand loyalists) looking for clues suggesting that design and marketing could be masking a decrease in quality or standards.

But we could never produce any evidence.

In short, the little guys weren’t selling out. Instead, the biggest guys in the world bought their way into this emerging ideology and consumer preference. They bought into the future.

Bottom line: Hormel now gets a lot of respect from retailers and clean label-reading consumers for not destroying the integrity or quality of Applegate Farms.

Use brand strategy to inform planned integration – or intentional separatism

Understanding and integrating two different corporate cultures is tricky. Management often assumes that the other company is just like them and then dismisses the need for deeper cultural understanding (especially when acquiring a business in the same or similar industry). But it’s one of the most common reasons for failed mergers. Certainly, it’s much better to have a cultural understanding prior to a merger and keep two brands operating independently until this situation changes.

Unilever’s acquisition of Ben & Jerry’s is a great example of successfully keeping cultures separate. Throughout the critical post-acquisition integration phase, Ben & Jerry’s successfully retained its culture, corporate identity, and brand image and at the same time became profitable. This happened because the leadership at both organizations knew that combining the cultures would risk destroying Ben & Jerry’s most valuable asset: values-driven culture.

Use brand strategy to define the next generation of your portfolio strategy

In a move that surprises and inspires us, InBev (Anheuser-Busch), the beer giant, acquired Hiball Energy, a producer of organic energy drinks and the Alta Palla brand of sparkling juices and waters.

The acquisition represents a strong desire by InBev to diversify their brand portfolio and to tap into a new high margin, high-growth segment.

“The combination of Hiball’s category-leading organic energy drinks and Alta Palla’s organic sparkling juices and sparkling waters together with our network and operational know-how will create tremendous growth opportunities for these brands,” João Castro Neves, president and CEO of Anheuser-Busch, told the Chicago Tribune.

This acquisition, along with the joint venture with Starbucks and Teavana made in 2016, signals that InBev is actively pursuing brands that will help them with their next generation product portfolio beyond the latest micro-brew industry darling. This forward-thinking during an M&A proves the positive impact brand strategy can have on the overall development of your portfolio.

Use brand strategy to acquire a meaningful innovation pipeline

Large companies innovate to refresh their products and enter new markets. The bigger a company gets, the harder this can be to achieve (success at scale is often the antithesis of innovation). So, many larger companies feel they must acquire a market-leading startup or leading niche player to expand into new markets, feed their innovation pipeline, add new capabilities to fill a gap in its existing capabilities system, or to respond to a change in its market.

Another giant watching consumer trends, Campbell’s Soup, acquired Pacific Foods, currently a leading producer of organic broth and soup. Founded in 1987, Pacific Foods has a sustained track of growth and according to the Campbell press release, “has strong health and well-being and organic credentials, particularly with younger consumers.” Campbell noted that the acquisition will broaden its access to organic customers and channels largely because the Campbell’s Soup brand is not in the consideration set of people looking for healthier options.

Making the conscious – or too frequently unconscious – decision not to focus on brand strategy early on in M&A or waiting until your people are unhappy is a recipe for failure.

With so much opportunity and so much at stake in the fluid yet highly competitive landscape of M&As, we believe that investing in brand strategy to drive your planning and vision at the front-end of the new relationship will reap rewards more quickly and sustainably.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Four Cornerstones of Leadership for Wellness, Diet & Exercise Brands

Boxing legend and heavyweight champion Mike Tyson once famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” We couldn’t agree more. Leading through the lens of brand requires consistency and transparency, and a delicate balance of listening and coaching. But humans are messy and complex, even for those in leadership roles. And for that reason, you need a plan. That’s where brand strategy comes into play.

While the details and process of brand strategy are finely detailed, you can use some foundational blocks to start the process, or at least anchor your brand until you have a formalized plan in place.

We’ve created a set of foundation cornerstones to help you lead through the lens of brand.

Know Thy Brand’s Purpose

Purpose is why you exist beyond making a profit.

Most of you reading this article probably understand your brand’s purpose. After all, you are likely working in the better-for-you space and have a strong opinion about wellness, diet, and exercise. It’s also probably why you started the company or joined the organization.

Sometimes, purpose-driven brands find themselves behaving like ordinary brands because they make their purpose complicated. They forget that a brand can be boiled down to this: the promises you make and the way in which you keep them.

But simple is hard. So, here is an exercise to challenge you: write your purpose down and then simplify it by cutting it in half. Keep going until a fifth grader can explain what you wrote and your organization can still deliver it.

Know Thy Brand’s Values

Knowing what you stand for as an organization seems like a no-brainer. But many leaders struggle to articulate their values in language that is specific, believable, and contagious (one of the hallmarks of a great brand), especially when faced with unfavorable performance or sea-change. It is good to have an oral history that employees and customers experience over time through branded lore and storytelling. It’s better to have your values written down.

Know Thy Brand’s People

In purpose-driven brands we often have an advantage because we have hired our most loyal customers as employees. These avid users are built-in evangelists, who know the ins and outs of how our brand fits into their lives. The best employees are often the most outspoken of your stark-raving fans – which shows up as evangelism for the lifestyle that your brand supports.

Know Thy Brand’s Customer

Those of you that are lucky enough to have a team dedicated to customer research and data or have already purchased and analyzed customer data know that there is a little bit of magic and gut checking necessary to truly understand the numbers. However, at a basic level, all brands have a pretty solid idea of who you are talking to. Start there, and keep it simple.

This is where things can get tricky. All the data in the world will only tell you so much. And hiring raving fans as your employees comes with a bit of a double-edged sword – especially in purpose-driven brands. There is something called the awareness gap or the presumed self-identification as your best customer. In short, if all of your best customers are employed by your company then real growth is not possible. Sometimes, in an effort to see customers as not-us it’s important to bring in an outsider.

It may seem strange to hear a strategy firm focus on simplicity. But at the end of the day, as a leader, you should not need crib sheets or require a transcription service to remember what your brand stands for. Simplicity is what will help you and your entire organization make decisions.

No one likes to be “hit in the face.” But those that are prepared, can rebound quickly. The cornerstones help set the foundation on which your brand can be built solidly. Start with the basics and you can’t go wrong. And remember – we’re in your corner.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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The “Old” Versus “New” Design Language of Healthy Brands

Up until the last several years, there was a specific formula for the package design of natural and healthy food products. The target market of conscious consumers was small and looked for a very particular set of design cues to signal the niche natural food category.

However, nowadays, these brands are making healthy living more accessible to the average consumer. The claim of all-natural or organic is no longer a differentiator because it’s all over the shelves. Natural is no longer a luxury – it’s an expectation.

So, how do brands redesign their brands and packaging to stand out among these cluttered shelves of sameness? As the target market has expanded and evolved, so has the design language. These new cues speak to consumers in new, disruptive ways. For the brands not speaking this language fluently yet, it’s time to make some bold changes and reimagine the way they communicate their product’s benefits on-shelf.

Bob’s Red Mill vs. Lark Ellen Farm

Bob’s Red Mill used to scream healthy. Only the stereotypical health nuts would go straight for their bags when they saw them on-shelf. Now, it just screams outdated and makes you feel like it has been sitting on the shelves for a few months. The natural colors now feel dull and flavorless. The picture of the elderly Bob used to signify longevity, now it translates to all of the negative connotations of the word old. Instead of thinking, “Wow, if I eat this, I’ll grow to be that old someday,” people think, “Wow, only old people eat this.” Quaker Oats went through a large rebrand to make their mascot Larry appear younger for this exact same reason.

Bob’s Red Mill used to signal healthiness because it had a lot of information all in one place. The cluttered design and small text told the consumer there was a lot of health talk going on. With all those words, they must know what they’re doing – right?

For a consumer who is not naturally inclined to pick up a healthy product, this high density of information on-package can be a huge deterrent. It triggers the thought, “I don’t have the time to learn about this!” so they just grab the comfortable, unhealthy brand that doesn’t make them read or think too much. More modern natural brands have positioned themselves now to be far less overwhelming. To show their transparency and the simplicity of their ingredients, they don’t make consumers work to get the answers or information they need. It’s a reduction in information and increase in simplicity that communicates benefit and lifestyle clearly in-store.

Lark Ellen is the perfect example of this level of simplification. They have three clearly marked areas of information – the most important ones being readable from a few feet away. It also helps that it feels bright and lively while maintaining a healthy vibe. The hand-drawn ingredients contrasted with the window to the real ingredients shows whimsy and transparency. The playfulness of the illustrations is an invitation rather than a distraction.

Lay’s Natural vs. Uglies

You see the Lay’s logo, and you immediately think unhealthy. It’s hard for the brand to have any semblance of health because of its reputation for salty, fatty snacks. The illustrated farmland in the background originally signaled to any shopper it was more natural than the usual, regular old chip. Showing cues of farmers or farmland is one of the oldest tricks in the “Make This Product Look Natural” handbook. However, that’s about it. The packaging differentiated the natural product from the traditional just enough. Nowadays, health-conscious consumers skim over this package—it blends into the product line and doesn’t offer any value besides “natural-ish.”

Uglies, on the other hand, educates the consumer through creative copy and visual storytelling as to the value of the product beyond just a chip. Many natural products originally look funky and weird before they’re manicured for consumption. It used to be common practice to hide this by showing the prettiest, most perfect chip on the package, which left the concept of authenticity at the wayside. But now, there’s this celebration of ugly. That’s why this packaging works so well. It’s embracing natural for what it is and finding joy in telling that “imperfect” story. Not only that, but it also promotes the reduction of food waste and makes ugly food more appealing to the average consumer. The simple colors, unique typography, and cute illustrations work together to communicate a trial-worthy product.

Adams vs. Wild Friends

Adams—western, wild, natural. The gradations of color and old western style typography gave you a sense of nostalgia to simpler times. When this packaging was designed, the big “100% Natural” probably jumped out at customers from the shelf. Now, we just expect to see that label. Most consumers hardly even notice it.

In stark contrast to that aesthetic, Wild Friends nut butters jump from the shelf into the consumer’s cart because of the vibrant colors and friendly illustrations. It makes the customer feel youthful and playful. There’s an immediate whimsical feel when you view this packaging. Whimsy is a cue many natural brands use to help consumers understand they can feel good about what they eat while also having it taste great.

It’s uplifting – you can tell by the craft design cues that whoever makes this product feels a sense of pride in their product. Wild Friends tells their origin story upfront in a relatable way. This squirrel acts as a mascot of clean, delicious nut butters and leaves an emotional (and therefore long-lasting) impression on consumers.

Mountain House vs. Patagonia Provisions

Mountain House was one of the first brands to pioneer the category that answered the consumer need for portable, practical, and tasty backpacking food. At the time, they had a great idea. They put beautiful photos of a place anyone would love to set up a campsite, large and prominent on the front. It was all about the activity of the consumer and did not say too much about the product itself or the lifestyle associated with it.

As this category of packaged goods continues to expand to accommodate a wider audience of backpackers and people looking for more from their snacks, Patagonia has stepped up to the plate. Being a premium brand known for having a triple bottom line and a deep understanding of their consumers, Provisions was a natural brand extension for them to move into a new outdoor category: food. They come with a promise—one they don’t have to shout from the package because they use purity of color and youthfulness to communicate it. The vintage style illustrations and simple typography communicate the natural and pure elements of their food, rather than drool-worthy photos of mountains. In the case of Patagonia Provisions, if you took the Patagonia name and logo off the package, their packaging looks like a kick-starter, “the food chain needs fixing,” kind of brand. It harkens back the same feeling you get when you look at something from the Audubon society, but with more joy and celebration about the ingredients.

The natural category used to rely on complex packaging. It needed to scream “outdoors” or “natural” or “healthy” from the shelf, and need to explain itself far more than it does now. And as the natural sector has evolved, so have the design cues. Healthy and natural foods have become far more accessible to the average customer, which means the packaging must speak on that same wavelength. Simplicity translates to transparency and makes information easy to understand and find. Bright and vibrant colors evoke joyful feelings of youth and vitality. Illustrations and unique typography show how the product amplifies and enhances the consumer’s lifestyle. And finally, this concept of a celebration of natural builds an emotional bond with the consumer and feels extremely authentic. Understanding these changes and anticipating the next evolution of design will keep your brand ahead of the curve in the healthy food category.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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Improve Testing by Leaning on Brand Strategy

Keeping your packaging design relevant and effective in an ever-changing market can be daunting. With the pressure on, we continue to see our clients look to consumer testing to guide their next move, looking for quantifiable metrics to help guide the way. The downside is that the results you get from testing could give you false security, and even worse, push you in the wrong direction. Don’t worry, we have some tips to help you get the most out of the testing process.

Start with a validated brand strategy

Before you jump into testing, take a look at your brand strategy. Is your leadership team in alignment around your mission, with a rock-solid understanding of why you exist as a company and what you stand for? Do you have a vision for where the company needs to be in 12 months or two years? If not, you have some work to do. Testing creative without tying it back to strategy means you’re building a flawed testing environment built on instinct instead of data. When you start with strategy, you remove subjectivity from the decision-making process and you gain a tool that should be used to drive your design systems, product innovations, and inform your testing process.

With strategy in place giving you a clear diagnosis for where your brand should move next, and a new set of creative that will get you there, maybe you still feel that testing the new against the old will give you the extra push you need to take that brave leap into new territory. In that case, beware of certain risks—like a dynamically changing leadership team, or an outside ‘expert’ brought in to guide the testing process. They may come in thinking they know best, but if that expert authors the questionnaire that helps lead your existing creative to a win on paper, but doesn’t address all the failings uncovered during strategy, is that really a win? Trust your strategy, and let it guide your decisions.

Don’t only rely on consumer insights to inform your next move

Retail reality is nearly impossible to replicate. What consumers say in a testing environment will never fully reflect their behavior in the real world. They will always behave differently in a controlled environment than when they are out living their lives, naturally interacting with the brands they know and trust. And under observation, people will most often try to give you the right answer instead of the real answer—they will say what they think you want to hear.

A recent client of ours whose packaging was failing at retail experienced this kind of thing firsthand, after going through the strategy and design process with us. After presenting new creative that addressed all the pain points uncovered during strategy, they were still hesitant to abandon their existing packaging. They were too emotionally invested in the current designs and the beautiful product photography. So, they decided to test the current packaging against the new, and the current designs won by two-tenths of a point. That emotional validation might feel good, but where does that get you?

Understand testing for what it is—fire insurance

Testing is not a silver bullet, but it is a great form of fire insurance. If it is something you decide to invest in, make sure you do things in the right order. Know your vision and mission, have a clearly defined “why” for your business and a roadmap for where you want to be in the future. Use elements of your brand strategy to inform your testing stimuli so you are asking the right questions.

Ultimately, when testing is driven by strategy, you are creating a much more valuable testing ground. You have a clearer understanding of what you are testing against, and your test subjects can help you prioritize features and benefits instead of splitting hairs over the design itself. Supplement your test results with other forms of data and research, and you will start to see the way forward. Because in the end, even with that testing box checked, you will most likely still have to trust your gut—and won’t it feel better to trust your gut with strategy backing it up?

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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The Role of Brand Strategy in Innovation

The Role of Brand Strategy in Innovation from Retail Voodoo on Vimeo.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David
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Three Ways to Honor Your Brand’s Heritage While Looking to the Future

In a world where Amazon-Whole Foods and Apple are now the old-guard brands, how can your brand’s past become an asset that connects with employees and customers living a modern life?

Heritage brands today are losing relevance as newer, more transparent, baggage-less brands capture the modern consumer’s imagination. These new options can feel more authentic than those who could claim category original.

In many cases, a company’s history powerfully shapes the way its leadership thinks about vision, strategy, and brand. Heritage is a strength unless decisions made in the past put constraints on the solutions of the future.

When we started our work with Derma E, they were a skin care expert with a 30-year-long reputation as one of the original players in the natural channel, yet they struggled to connect with a younger audience. Despite their strong, ethical point-of-view, their old-school, clinical look felt outdated. We helped them reposition their brand so that once those messages were translated into package design, contemporary consumers could confidently display their products on the bathroom sink.

Real purpose will never go out of style, especially in today’s world. Beyond product and brand positioning, here are three ways to honor your brand’s past while leaning into a fast-paced future.

1. Kill the sacred cows with a pen.

If your brand has any history at all, there is room for your heritage to create a set of unspoken and untouchable rules. Every organization has some version of “we’ve always done it this way” echoing throughout their leadership and employees.

I believe this is because most brands see their heritage as a set of laws, rather than a permission slip to innovation. Anything not written down can be misinterpreted. Innovation begins when you write down all of your brand’s oral history and then edit it mercilessly.

2. Link your brand’s values to your culture.

Brand values are the beliefs defined by what Simon Sinek calls your “why.” When clarified, written down, and shared as part of the culture, brand values guide behavior, actions, and communication throughout your organization and externally to the public.

Your company’s culture and core values are the bedrock of innovation, communication, and effective teams. Today, the most successful companies are the ones that don’t just have great products but are also deeply focused on culture.

In order to win in the market, you need to win in the workplace first. REI is a great example of a heritage brand that continues to enjoy marketplace relevance and an avid fan-base driven by happy, engaged employees who understand how to share the company’s values with consumers.

REI is a brand with a true heritage that honors the past and looks to the future. They have created an internal culture that encourages employees and customers to “be one of us” and go deep. It is personal enough so that people want to share the story, contribute to helping make it real, and express it as one-of-a-kind heritage brand living in the present.

3. Care about human needs more than market opportunity.

In other words: Love your people as you love yourself. REI’s #OptOutside campaign is a great example of a brand using company values to push against the grain of what has become of our annual Thanksgiving holiday. By keeping their doors closed on Black Friday, they have taken a stand for their employees, promoted their values, and accomplished more sales than many of the retailers who opened at 4 a.m. and worked their people into the ground on day one of the holiday season.

For Derma E, once they embraced the realities of a changing consumer and acknowledged that what worked 30 years ago might not be as effective anymore, they saw dramatic results. Their leadership began thinking like their target audience and found a way to share their brand’s values and preserve the history while simultaneously evolving. Streamlining their offering, telling their story, and repositioning their focus to ethical beauty resulted in 45 percent growth in just 12 months. What was once seen as an outdated, medicinal brand now stands worthy of sitting on the vanity countertop of a contemporary woman.

As a business with heritage, you have an opportunity to turn your origin story into a powerful differentiator. As you go, remember that people seek out brands with authentic stories and a purpose beyond the bottom line. The strongest version of your brand story includes the past, present, and future of your how, what, and why.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David