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Use Research to Avoid Common Brand Strategy Pitfalls

We were thrilled to be interviewed by Kathy Ireland for Worldwide Business. She asked some great questions, and we shared how to use research to drive brand strategy so that your integrated marketing actually communicates to the right people for the right reasons.

Kathy Ireland: Welcome to Worldwide Business. I’m Kathy Ireland.

While most companies understand the importance of branding, they struggle with implementing all of the components that lead to success. Retail Voodoo helps their clients understand the power of branding and delivers a value-driven triple bottom line.

President David Lemley is here to tell us more. Welcome, David.

David Lemley: Thank you, Kathy.

Kathy Ireland: David, what are some of the traditional challenges companies face when it comes to design and brand strategy?

David Lemley: I think the biggest problem they face is really understanding the vocabulary. Many organizations push them together and consider them a single function. In reality, brand strategy is a set of diagnostics and insights that are used to create a language, and design is the creative translation of that language.

Kathy Ireland: How is Retail Voodoo helping these companies to re-define their message?

David Lemley: We’re helping them really connect with why they exist and what their purpose is.

Kathy Ireland: In this Worldwide Business field report, we take a closer look at Retail Voodoo and their brand strategy solutions.

Narrator: Many companies fall short of establishing an effective brand. This is often because they struggle to integrate their business strategy with their visuals, and they don’t know how to incorporate their research into a usable strategy.

Retail Voodoo helps values-focused triple bottom line companies make the world better by using disruptive brand strategy and category-defining design to make strong, sticky, and impactful brands.

Susan Strible (Ruffwear): Retail Voodoo was on our radar for a couple of years. We realized when we needed to redo our packaging, they were the obvious choice for us. They had such great alignment with Ruffwear’s values, that it was just a natural fit to work together. We really appreciate their focus on archetype branding, and we felt like with that understanding on their end, we could really do some magic together. I believe they were the best partner for us in the end.

Will Blount (Ruffwear): Early in the process when we brought the project to Retail Voodoo, David’s first comment was, “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to help with packaging.” As he went through the research and did some in-field studies, he quickly realized that we’d engineered the soul out of our packaging in an effort to create supply chain efficiency.

It was this observation that he brought back to us that was the “Aha” moment for us.

Diana Fryc: Most of our clients come to us for a few reasons. First of all, we’re a brand strategy firm and a graphic design firm second. Underneath that umbrella, we deliver brand strategy which is what the company stands for, how they’re going to move forward, we talk about innovation a little bit. Then we do the design deliverables. People usually engage with us when they’re looking at packaging systems, they need to reinvent themselves graphically.

Sometimes we’re involved with in-store marketing plans where we’re talking about designing an interior space, creating signage, connecting the consumer with a brand on a real-time basis in the store. Then we do some of the other things that you’d expect a firm like ours to do, like marketing plans and ongoing marketing collateral and deliverables.

Andrew Rubinstein: Retail Voodoo’s deliverables is everything from brand strategy to brand identity, in-store shopper experience, category audits, packaging systems, product portfolio alignment, and integrated marketing.

Our goal is to understand what the needs of our clients are first and foremost, try to prescribe the best strategy to move forward, and then through that continued relationship develop their whole identity, their look, and depending on who they are and what they need, complete this holistic package and hand it off to them.

Sharelle Klaus (Dry Soda): What I like about their approach is that they are fearless in what they ask you to do. They partner with you so they’re right by your side through the whole process. They’re very passionate partners as well.

Then what’s really amazing about that process is the amount of voices they bring to the table. From consumers to the different partners that we work with from buyers to vendors to our own team. Everybody has a voice in that and really is able to have an impact on the end result. For us, this whole rebranding has been an absolute success slam dunk!

Kathy Ireland: David, in your opinion, why is research so critical to developing an effective brand strategy?

David Lemley: Research takes it out of subjectivity. I really think the research helps you have a baseline for conversation. It really helps so that it’s no longer focused on the most outspoken personalities in the room and their taste. It really changes so that we understand how people think, what their need states are, and how we can connect our promises that we’re going to make into their lives and their needs.

Kathy Ireland: We all know that it’s important for companies to engage and connect with their customers. How does Retail Voodoo help clients do just that?

David Lemley: We’re helping them separate design-driven deliverables from a brand strategy. First, we help them set up their reason-to-be and understand what their people, their purpose, their planet, and their profit is going to be. We help them with things like portfolio category alignment and the language they’re going to use to talk to the world.

Then when we get into the creative translation, we do things where we will create immersive brand experiences that help people to slow down, understand what their need state is, and really help the company communicate with those people. We also do things like naming and all of the writing in order to help make sure that everything comes together and that it doesn’t sound like a marketer.

Will Blount (Ruffwear): One of the unexpected bonuses we’ve had with working with Retail Voodoo is we’ve really learned a lot about ourselves and really how our audience connects with us. We’ve been able to take all of this information that Retail Voodoo has given us, and we’ve begun implementing it in our overall branding strategies. I think it’s really made us a lot more approachable and friendly to our consumers. It’s really helped us to tell the more emotional, authentic side of who we are and why we do the things that we do.

Kathy Ireland: It looks like Retail Voodoo can really help companies transform their design and brand strategy. David, thank you so much for joining us today!

David Lemley: Thank you, Kathy.

Kathy Ireland: Thank you. For Worldwide Business, I’m Kathy Ireland. Thank you for watching.

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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Brand Strategy is a Short-Term Investment with Long-Term Benefits

The Nike’s of the world bring home the bacon, and they look damn good doing it. To the untrained eye, there’s something special about these brands – some might say they have “it.” Well, our years in the marketing and design worlds have taught us the ever-elusive “it” is also called brand strategy. Companies killing it with brand strategy have die-hard loyal customers and an entire lifestyle emulating from their brand’s core.

But with these heavy-hitting brands, you know they paid a pretty penny to look so good. Can they afford to have such a strong brand strategy because they bring in so much revenue? Or do they bring in so much revenue because they have such a strong brand strategy? It’s the classic chicken and the egg dilemma, but we have the answer this time. Strong brand strategy puts money in the bank.

David Ogilvy (arguably the grandfather of advertising) said brand is “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging and price, its history, its reputation and the way it’s advertised.”

Our version is much simpler.

So, if brand strategy is this intangible concept, how can we possibly measure ROI on it? Why would you risk investing in something abstract? We all know brand is important, but is it important enough to spend money on? We’re here to tell you: taking the leap of faith to invest in brand strategy is one of the wisest possible uses of your money. A bold recommendation, but we’re ready to prove it.

People Don’t Buy Products, They Buy Brands

Your product could be in every single grocery store or every single outdoor retailer, and it could still fail. Purchase decisions happen in seconds – just like first impressions. Consumers already formed an opinion about your product long before they saw it on shelf based on its reputation, history, peer reviews, and brand narrative.

So, ask yourself: Does my reputation align with my mission? What does my brand stand for? Why do we do what we do? How do we want to impact people’s lives? What’s the legacy we want to leave? The answers to these questions form the foundation of your brand, which you use to build your products and identity. People buy into the brand before they buy into the actual product. Rather than shoving your product into people’s carts, let your brand do the talking for you.

When we diagnose a brand’s marketing strategies, we often ask them to replace their logo in marketing material with a competitor’s logo. Most are shocked when they realize any brand in their category can “own” their voice and their visual identity. When all of the products look and feel the same within a category, brands must give consumers another reason to choose them beyond the product offering. This is where brand strategy becomes crucial. If you lack a definitive point of view, you will never stand out from your competition. Show your customers you offer something more valuable than the purchase alone.

Before we removed the word “soda” from DRY Sparkling’s name, they tried to compete with brands like Coca-Cola and Pepsi. They frankly didn’t stand a chance against these heavy-hitters. That being said, it was actually the smaller brands taking their market share away. We dove into uncovering DRY’s mission, target audience, and vision through extensive research. After we transformed their tone and voice, their marketing messages began speaking directly to their consumer. It showed – rather than told – them how to seamlessly incorporate the product into their everyday life. Soon, DRY became a staple for the culinary-minded, metropolitan woman. She mixes it with her cocktails at foodie events and carries it into her board meetings. Consumers buy into the brand and the lifestyle it represents before they buy the product. No way could Coca-Cola or Pepsi slap their logo on their product and feel the same. As a result, DRY saw 20x growth in its first two years after working with us and they are now the fastest growing carbonated soft drink in North America. Talk about ROI.

Value is No Longer Simply About Price

In the experience economy, value has a new equation: value means that what I get must be greater than what I give. This can be dollars, but more often includes time, attention, loyalty, and belief. As a debt-ridden millennial living in an overpriced apartment in the city, my shopping habits tend to revolve around how I can get the biggest bang for my buck. I’m at the stage in my life where clipping coupons is the norm and buying a $20 bottle of wine is a luxury. But at the same time, I insist on buying MaraNatha organic peanut butter and refuse to buy Jif Natural.

I pay nearly double for virtually the same product because this purchase makes me feel better about myself. I know I’m not just buying a product, I’m investing in my health and the health of the world. MaraNatha exists to promote good health and preserve the environment. They do this by creating all-natural, great-tasting nut butters with simple ingredients. While Jif makes “all-natural” products, that’s not why they exist. They don’t have a compelling mission or purpose. Therefore, I feel better supporting a company like MaraNatha.

Start with the “why,” and then work backwards. Brand strategy helps you identify the “why” and then sets you up to share it with customers through packaging, identity, messaging, and so much more. Ultimately, when consumers understand the true value of the brand exceeds what they give, they are more inclined to spend more.

Brand Loyalty Overcomes Price Resistance

We all know the classic Mac vs. PC debate. However, the average Mac is roughly twice the cost of the typical PC. Why are Mac fans so excited to spend double for a (somewhat) similar product? It’s simple: they’re loyal to the brand.

Apple created an entire lifestyle around the Mac – it’s youthful, hip, and attractive. It’s aspirational. Apple’s entire brand strategy revolves around emotion. Instead of talking about the features of their products, they talk about what they believe and why they created the products. As Steve Jobs said, “The chance to make a memory is the essence of brand marketing.”

This emotional bond fosters fiercely loyal fans – exactly why it’s such a huge deal when a Mac user switches to PC. It’s an anomaly, despite possibly being the more economical choice.

When you purchase a Mac, you’re also purchasing the hope of becoming the idealized version of yourself. To many, that’s worth the extra money. Once consumers understand the “why,” price becomes a non-issue because the value of their investment surpasses the monetary amount they paid.

A Strong Brand Identity Attracts Capital

Although some startups have super flashy, cool new products, they frequently lack depth. Many of these brands sprung out of a brilliant idea, but require additional support and strategic direction to continue their initial momentum. Often, they have a “what” and a “how,” but not a “why.”

Investors can smell a rich brand narrative that will drive sales and produce revenue from miles away. When you take the time to create loyal customers and get them to buy into your brand (not just your product), you present a strong case to anyone looking to put money on your brand. Investors see your brand not as a makeover project they have to spend time fixing, but as a booming business at the threshold of greatness. Your brand won’t be seen as a child needing coaching and support because you’ll already be equipped with brand strategy to inform all of your business decisions and conquer the competition.

When Sahale Snacks invested in brand strategy, they refocused on their commitment to quality, sustainability, and community. Their “Snack Better Promise” showed consumers – and investors – why they existed. J.M. Smucker Co. recognized this strong brand core and acquired them shortly after. Their short-term investment resulted in leaps and bounds for the company’s market share. Brand strategy laid the groundwork for them to launch into the world and become an explosive force in their category for years and years to come.

Brand strategy informs the development of messaging and brand identity – creating a unique brand lifestyle and a loyal, long-term audience with incredible buying power. Audiences will buy into your brand, not just your product. This means cash money in your pocket. When it comes to brand strategy, you don’t just see a return on your investment – you see your investment come back tenfold.

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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If I Owned an Equity Firm, I Would Invest in These Food Brands

The current marketplace is filled with darling brands – like KIND, Plum Organics, and Patagonia. People expect something new and innovative from these brands because of their consistent success over the years. However, we forget that most of these brands started out at the kitchen table or in the garage – all on shoestring budgets.

One of my early roles here at Retail Voodoo was in client development. I have walked many a tradeshow floor and seen many interesting products and brands over the years. I enjoy watching unknown brands that started off as one person in the back of a tradeshow grow into household brands (EPIC, FitBit, Applegate Farms and Justin’s being a few favorites). As you attend enough of these shows, see enough products, and talk to enough founders, you get a good sense for who’s about to break out.

Let’s talk biohacking. A fairly new trend, it turns natural, health and wellness on its head while the marketplace emerges from an era where raw diets and clean foods were the hot new “front pagers.” Biohacking takes healthy living and food one step further than these trends. It breaks down raw, clean foods into a mineral or even molecular level, and then designs a regimen that captures all those “best items” to shape the perfect diet. We all know people who geek out over this – they are the ones that tell you the antioxidants from this specific plant combined with the minerals from this specific animal, fused together in a blended drink with caffeine, is the best way to do X, Y, and Z (from jump-starting your brain activity, allowing you to focus better, grow your muscles faster, etc.). For control freaks (we know who you are) this is the diet lifestyle du jour.

The brands leading the way have made biohacking far more approachable and so much easier to understand and adopt.


This darling brand leads the way in the biohacking movement. Dave Asprey – part nutritionist, part life coach – truly walks the walk. He is committed to making sure his product connects with the lifestyle of an active biohacker or the atypical overachiever. With purposeful mission and passion, this brand stands on the precipice of massive growth.


Who else thinks of the funky 70’s movie, “Soylent Green,” your college sociology professor probably made you watch? Thinking the brand named itself after this movie weirds me out a bit, but I see what they are doing by leaning into the science fiction nature of their product. It’s risky – if played wrong, it could be a failure of a gimmick. However, since the brand doesn’t shy away from the scientific nature of their meal replacement products, it works. In fact, they’re unapologetically GMO. This brand has legs, but it needs more time to get over the hurdle of “what is this.” While the company received a recent investment/capital infusion, I have yet to see them making the marketplace impact that they have the potential to do. A little brand strategy love could really crank their engine and set them up for takeoff.

Eating Evolved

Many of us aren’t a target for biohacking, until we are. We love our food, and stick with our regular eats. That’s why Eating Evolved takes a food I already love (like chocolate) and changes the conversation by making it functional. This type of product will have a harder time being taken seriously because, come on, can chocolate actually be good for you? Apparently – yeah it can. It’s just that most giant candy brands have hijacked the good-for-you ingredients, watered them down, and turned them into junk. Eating Evolved flips that on its head and gives consumer permission to take a new look at “forbidden” favorites with new eyes.

The biohacking space is still in its infancy. I see entrepreneurs and investors very excited about the possibilities in this space. However, for many Americans, these brands are a bit far away from something they’re willing to try – yet. Early adopters (and control freaks) jump headfirst into this new space, while the rest of consumers are simply looking for life to be a little easier (particularly when on-the-go).

These next brands make eating yummy food easy and healthy without too much of a learning curve. Foods in a bottle, on a stick, in a tube, or injected (you know that’s coming…) are not new concepts – but the caliber of product and ingredients are changing and improving quickly.


I LOVE this product. I first found them at Outdoor Retailer about four years ago. It’s essentially natural Gatorade in Otterpop form. Are you kidding me? Why isn’t this product exploding? With some solid research, they could identify their future brand evangelists. Get this in front of the right audience, and this product will explode. Someone needs to buy this brand and give them the nudge they need.


I met this founder sitting on the floor at EXPO West a couple years back. This guy hustles – handing out samples and talking to everyone that will listen. Not only does he have passion, but he also has a near-perfect product. Drinkable, cold soup is healthy, easy, and portable. It just needs some brand strategy and financial backing to see great success in the marketplace.

Bonafide Provisions

This brand seems to have the traction Tio hasn’t quite yet by leveraging the bone broth craze. Not only is it healthy, but it makes the concept of bone broth very approachable by adding vegetables and creating flavor profiles that consumers easily recognize. The Bonafide brand is ready for the big leagues and I believe this drinkable soup should be picked up by one of the House of Brands.

Here’s the real reason why I am watching these guys: they don’t just have an innovative product; they have a brand. Yes, some of them could use a little more TLC to go big time, but there is legitimate opportunity for these brands to grow. The brands have passion for the product and consumer, not just the sale. I think they have the DNA of brands that could become the next Wheaties under the loving guidance of the right parent.

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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We Think Consumers Shouldn’t Be Your Innovators – Here’s Why

There are few things as frustrating as having a research- and consumer-validated innovation flop once it hits shelves. You’ve spent a huge chunk of change on surveys and focus groups proving your new product will win at retail, so what went wrong? If you go back to where you started – with consumer-based innovation – you’ll find your answer. Consumers are important to the innovation channel, don’t get us wrong. But if you’re looking for seismic, category-defining innovation, you need to look beyond your customers.

In an era of focus group frenzy and online surveys intended to measure purchase intent, Retail Voodoo offers a contrarian view.

Consumers Don’t Know How to Innovate

If you ask a customer what they want, they’ll tell you one of two things: it should be cheaper or it should be quicker. They just want the same thing for less money and faster. Your current audience cannot tell you what your future audience wants. It’s just not possible.

Truly innovative products – like the iPhone or Tesla – fail consumer testing or never even go through consumer testing. Steve Jobs did not test the iPhone because consumers in focus group settings and online surveys tend to lack imagination. Someone who has never seen an iPhone could most likely not tell you they wanted a hand-held device that could make calls, surf the web, navigate the world, and record video. They certainly could not have told you this product would take off in such an explosive manner. Apple changed the trajectory of human communication forever. Elon Musk did not conduct consumer testing for Tesla because he had a radical vision he knew in his gut would succeed. As a result, he revolutionized a conventional category – transportation vehicles and energy – and now Tesla owns the tech world.

Consumers Only Tell You What They Think You Want to Hear

The reason focus groups and surveys fail is because consumers will also tell you what they think you want to hear. They say what they think they need to say to be liked. They’ll say they exercise four to five times a week when in reality, they hardly work out once a week. They think “that’s what I want to be doing, so I should say that’s what I do.” Statistically, the majority of men add an inch to their height on their drivers’ licenses. It makes them feel better. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all done something like this.

It’s a strange notion, isn’t it? How can you possibly give consumers what they want or need if you don’t ask them?

Customer feedback can often guide entrepreneurs, product developers, designers and marketers towards problems, but feedback should not be used to dictate the solution.

Design for the Consumers You Want, Not Just the Ones You Have

Let’s take Alden’s Ice Cream, for example. Before our work with them went to shelf, they spent a large amount on money focus group testing different packaging. When we saw the design that won, we asked their team to go back and examine their data. They found the “winning” design had not won by enough votes to be statistically significant. If that wasn’t enough proof, they also only talked to current customers when conducting this research. These consumers already had loyalty to the current packaging, hence why they leaned toward a design that felt more familiar. However, we pointed out that through a frosted, freezer section window, the chosen design would be illegible. After developing a comprehensive brand strategy using this insight, we introduced a new design, and Alden’s saw 45 percent growth in just one year.

Now, don’t get us wrong – surveys and focus groups are good for continuity and making sure you don’t alienate your loyal customers. This works well when you take a single design and test different features like certification, and benefits messaging. Consumer testing is a tool to use, for sure. But it’s the least accurate tool. For truly revolutionary innovation that disrupts your category, you must dive deeper.

Learn to Make Mistakes Quickly

Instead of focus groups and surveys, we use our network of humans and expertise as the lab to play in. We take the pulse of the internal collective of the company, using trusted stakeholders to prove our data-based theories. We encourage clients to make mistakes quickly, step by step, until they get it right. Bruce Mau’s incomplete manifesto for growth explains that the process is more important than the outcome and in order to see growth, “good” needs to be thrown out the door. The right answers live within the wrong answers and solutions exist within accidents.

Brands need to listen to what the data whispers. For our food and beverage brand strategy clients, we use trend analysis to flavor forecast. We look at what chefs are doing, have people do taste tests, and conduct extensive research. In the case of DRY, we suggested unique flavor offerings to their product portfolio and saw massive growth within their targeted foodie niche. This is also why sampling is such a better format for testing theoretical situations. Consumers gave real-time feedback on “out there” flavors produced in small batches, so that the brand could know if it was worth creating larger batches of that flavor. But if the flavor flopped, that was fine – for the cost of one batch of product, the brand learned invaluable insight. Brands need to learn mistakes quickly – if they have an idea, they need to test it rather than ponder it.

Ultimately, you can have all of the data in the world. But if you don’t understand how to turn that data into insight or how to listen to your gut instinct, you will be wasting time and money.

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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From Data to Insight: Measuring the Warmth of a Smile

As a brand owner, it’s no secret you’ve been entrusted with your company’s most valuable asset: your brand. Data plays a significant role in your drive to understand your most valued customer, what they care about, and how to convert them into loyal fans. It’s also no secret that data alone does not equal knowledge, and data is only valuable if it can be translated into measurable and actionable insights. We seek the kind of insights that give you a chill knowing you just found the proverbial needle in the haystack. Revealing a key insight is hard and requires substantial empathy. Chris Hart put it best when he said, “All the statistics in the world can’t measure the warmth of a smile.”

We can think of data as a recipe. Anyone can put ingredients together and cook a meal. However, only a chef that can create an original recipe, tell you where to get the right ingredients and tools, or know how to modify a recipe based off their experience, even how to garnish and plate it. Not everyone can do that – it takes a lot of experience and a bit of magic. This is the same with data. All that information doesn’t make sense unless you know what you need, what you’re looking for, where to find it, and have the expertise to identify it.

The Shiny and New Data

We’ve seen plenty of marketing experts choose the color blue because it was on trend. Alright, that’s a bit of an over-simplification, but let’s look at Sears as an example. They are brand that has been around for years and is trusted by blue collar, suburban families to help them live the American dream by selling trusted durable brands at a fair price. Did you know that at one point, someone in the organization decided that they should sell luxury handbags on their website? Yes, that’s right – they were selling Gucci, Prada and other designer labels. Why would they do this? Well, because at the time, luxury brand sales were surging and Sears was desperate to regain their brand strength. Without looking at the data that supported their core audience and what was important to them, they chose to look at other data that was “shiny and new.” As a result, they further alienated this core audience, and were unable to woo the customer they thought they could attract.

Measuring the Warmth of a Smile

So, here’s the rub: Data is processed through a highly-contextualized lens by the person looking at it. Using the same data-set, different people can come to different conclusions based on shared history, context or other predispositions – just like our Sears example. Revealing and measuring the “warmth of a smile” is where the art and the science of interpretation becomes critical.

We start with the basic premise that true, game-changing interpretation of data often only reveals itself by going deep (as opposed to wide). It’s not because we don’t also cast a wide net, it’s because the Retail Voodoo way requires that the data either be insightful and useful in our quest to help our client’s transformation, or it’s fire insurance. Founder David Lemley often says, “We have climbed off hundreds of mountains of data in the food, beverage, wellness and outdoor fitness worlds. This has helped us see our role as detective and translator using a sixth sense about what will provide meaningful insight to our client’s particular challenge.”

Turning Raw Data into Insight

Raw data comes in a myriad of shapes, sizes and sources. Parsing through it to find the magic can be daunting, so we start by asking the following questions:

  1. What problems are we trying to answer?
  2. What are the best research tools for answering these questions?
  3. How will answers to these questions further our client’s stated goals and success metrics?
  4. What is the cultural context that our client’s brand lives within?
  5. How can we leverage data to create meaningful consumer connections?
  6. Who is translating your data
  7. What is your data telling you?

Once you dig deep to answer these questions, you’ll understand the magic of extracting insights from data. You’ll find meaningfully different information that will drive concrete financial and cultural results for your brand.

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.

Connect with Diana
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Using Values to Differentiate & Define Your Brand

Brand values impact relationships and reputation – two key business assets that are earned (rather than bought). When the marketplace is cluttered and consumers have tiny attention spans, brands must bring something more valuable to customers than their product or service. They must connect with consumers through shared principles.

Ethos can best be described as beliefs and behaviors that advance an ideology. Brands, just like people, have values they hold near and dear to their hearts. These principles form the reasons that brands exist.

In our profit-driven world, many brands consider emulating values as an afterthought. It’s easy for leaders to have tunnel vision focusing on the bottom line instead of turning their eyes internally to reflect on the company’s original mission. But just as the marketplace changes, the consumer changes. The individuals with the highest spending power care less about the “what” or the “how” and more on the “why.”

Brand values influence two important business assets:

1. Relationships build loyal customers and organic brand ambassadors

Relationships are built on trust, and trust is built on delivering on your promise. In our overcrowded marketplace, points of difference that are function- and future-based are no longer sustainable. Consumers today are tuning out marketing and tuning into those brands that represent shared values.

2. Reputation forms the basis of an enduring brand legacy

Reputation revolves around respect and legacy – both are earned, rather than bought. This highlights the importance of companies putting values first rather than profits. Since many companies fail to do this, a brand that excels at earning respect and creating a meaningful legacy will earn a stellar reputation.

Clifford Geertz, arguably the godfather of cultural anthropology, put it this way: Ethos and worldview describe how cultures create a seamless, unified system. The ethos, which is an understanding of how we should act in the world, is supported by the worldview, which is our picture of how the world really is, and vice versa.

In a sense, ethos and worldview are what differentiate one culture from another, and it is the culture that traditionally gives individuals their definition of self, who they are, what they believe, and how they should act.

Let’s take REI for an example of an ethos-driven company. Through equipping customers (and employees) for adventure, REI promotes a love of the outdoors and stewardship of nature. REI is an employee-centric operation meaning they attribute the success of their company to their workers and offer incentives for them to live out the brand promise of engaging with nature. These values translate into happy and passionate employees, which then permeates every aspect of their business to create a strong, loyal customer base.

When employees live out brand values, those principles naturally translate to the right customers.

Patagonia thrives by wearing its ethos on its sleeve as well. The company’s Common Threads initiative converted people into customers based on the shared desire to do more with less. Leading with “reduce, repair, reuse, recycle, reimagine,” they speak to consumers’ interest in sustainability and doing good for the planet. It is aspirational and inspirational. They even launched an e-commerce recycled clothing site called Worn Wear to encourage a “sharing is caring” mentality. Not only does this subtly remind consumers that their high-quality products last a lifetime and commitment to sustainability, but it also encourages storytelling around the adventures the brand equipped.

Ethos-based brands value their purpose more than their profits. They eliminate a sales-first culture and focus on things money can’t buy. They live their convictions, rather than conform to the convictions of the marketplace.

Ethos-driven brands listen more, and market less. They elevate the quality of life for their cult followers.

Shared values form the basis for all relationships. Wherever we go in business, and in life, we bring our own values along. When others share our values, this becomes a powerful and attractive force to bind us closer together. Enlightened brand owners realize that in our busy days, most of us have little time for things and people that don’t really matter to us.

For brands to matter, the customer must believe the brand is bringing something more valuable to them than the money they spend.

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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Creating a Third Place

In the business of retail brand design, one phrase is so over-used, it’s been rendered almost meaningless. And that phrase should be the most meaningful one in the business. In fact, it employs the word meaningful.

“Creating meaningful customer experiences.” Like anything else, this concept is being bandied about because it’s what retailers really want to hear from design consultancies, since it goes to the heart of what they want to accomplish. “Creating meaningful customer experiences” is the one determinant in branding that retailers, large and small, know makes the difference between commoditization and unique positioning in the marketplace. But this begs the question: “How can we effectively go about accomplishing this objective?”

The pat answer, of course, is research. The consultancy begins by launching into research before the retail brand can be developed or revitalized, and proper positioning can occur. Research is intensive and exhaustive, encompassing many factors; the retailers’ desired demographic groups, current customer base, store locations and the competition among them. Yet, from our perspective, the real work begins after that. By digging deeper and deeper into the retail core, a clear picture begins to emerge of who a particular retailer is and what they offer. The retail operation’s core assets generally offer some kind of differentiating factor that enables the consultancy to give it a unique brand identity and positioning. From that, an entire visual brand communications system can be developed and put into place with a comprehensive brand standards guide.

While all of this is a textbook, pragmatic, and very professional approach to retail brand design, will it get the retailer to that magical point of real connection with the customer? Probably not. All of the best branding efforts: identity and positioning, internal/external brand initiatives, optimal store design, high tech components, glitzy internal/external signage, catalog programs and P-O-P are missing the point if they fail to touch the customer. If the retail brand is unable to touch the customer intellectually, emotionally—even spiritually—the branding work has been nothing more than a fruitless exercise; done for naught. Yet, this is the key component that is missing from so many retail operations. So how did we arrive at this holistic view of retail branding from the “customer experiences” cue?

Retail Evolutions

During our two decades in the retail brand design business, it’s been interesting to witness the evolution of retailing. While there have been substantial gains in the product sourcing, purchasing, technology and distribution areas of the business—which are all meant to translate to better service, more customer friendly environments (and greater profits)—there have been significant losses as well. The strongly individual retail brands of the past have given way to a new generation of much more generic retailers. Human contact between retailer and customer has become more and more minimal. An excursion into any major shopping mall proves these points.

When the customer walks into store after store, what differentiates one from another? The store layouts all look the same, the merchandise mix looks the same, the high tech environment is just as coldly modern from one store to the next, from the fixtures to the blaring Plasma TV screens and music. But where is the human contact? Where are there any human elements at all? What is the customer’s experience? Is it meaningful? Memorable? Are any ties being forged with the customer?

Experiential marketing theorizes that the customer’s experiences with corporate (read: retail) brands go well beyond tangible product offerings to the intangibles around those product offerings that form customer perception, attitudes and emotions based on their interactive experiences with the brand. These intangibles transcend product mixes—all of which can be purchased from a number of competitors. Retail marketers who still think they can sell to the customer based on the perceived unique features and benefits of their brands, had better think again. It is the intangibles—the way the customer’s intellectual and emotional needs are met, in their perception, that truly build their preferences and loyalty for specific retail brands.

Again: how do we go about accomplishing this?

Starbucks: A Case Study

When Starbucks came to our consultancy a few years ago, management knew that their stores were in imminent danger of becoming generic. Customers needed to have a fully branded experience in order to be engaged by Starbucks’ coffee shops—a world of premium, distinctive coffees embodied in one place. Otherwise, customers might as well buy their coffee at the corner convenience store. It was Starbucks’ management’s objective to make Starbucks a memorable and connecting brand experience for coffee lovers—so they would make Starbucks their chosen, ultimate destination for great coffee. In fact, Starbucks management specifically desired to become the global leader in coffee. Their stated objective from the beginning was to “open a store per day forever”!

For Starbucks, future growth, brand and corporate valuation and “getting its brand positioning right” were key; long before the idea of specialty coffee brands and coffee shops caught on and proliferated. Starbucks felt that if they got it “right”, every new specialty coffee brand that emerged would be either viewed as a Starbucks “knock-off” or a poor second to a superstar brand.

Research showed that Starbucks lacked the right retail brand platform and environment to create a premium “coffee culture”. In order to become relevant to coffee aficionados, the Starbucks brand would have to embody the culture, magic, romance and cult surrounding the exotic offerings in its shops. Those shops, too, would have to be inviting, warm environments where customers—human beings—would want to come and linger for a while, enjoying their coffee with a newspaper, just sitting and relaxing away from daily rushed routines, or experiencing the camaraderie of visiting with their friends.

By creating that “Third Place”—not home and not work—but a unique environment where people are welcome to come in and linger, a deep connection was—and still is—being made, between Starbucks and its customers all over the globe. The concept of “third place” was conceived by CEO Howard Schultz and his marketing team and implemented by Lemley Design.

Starbucks has a unique culture, and it was brought out in a special way. Starbucks’ culture is centered on the “Siren”—an alluring, fluid and human figure that gave rise to a unique iconography in its stores, signifying the natural elements involved in the roasting, brewing and aroma of great coffee. Earth grows the coffee beans, fire roasts them, water brews them, and the air carries their aroma. These icons are deeply rooted in human consciousness and artistically depict modern representations of music, mythology and ceremony; the sea, navigation, the sun, the moon and the stars. Customers connect to these images in a profound way. They speak of the human story. When retailing is put into such strong cultural context, human connections are made. When retailing creates a warm, human environment, one that the customer can relate to, that magical “meaningful customer experience” is finally a reality. Neither home nor work, but a refuge and haven from life’s routine schedules and places, the goal of making Starbucks “The Third Place” has been achieved. Countless customers—who have become both fans and devotees—attest to this daily. The Starbucks brand instantaneously delivered culture, hipness and sophistication with a $3.00 cup of coffee.

By extending Starbucks’ new brand platform to include positioning language, a voice was given to its visual brand communications. A packaging system for the coffees sold in the stores was developed, connecting each to its cultural roots. Each coffee bag is unique and its packaging and distinctive coffee stamps tell the story of each brew. When customers purchase Starbucks coffee and take it home, they bring the Starbucks culture right into their homes. Starbucks becomes part of their lifestyles.

Crucially important to the positioning and branding of a retail operation, is the establishment of employee training and internal branding initiatives. After all, every employee is a brand evangelist, or should be. The onus is on management to make certain employees who interface with the customer and are the “brand” to that customer, embody that brand in alignment with its values… and deliver on its promise. Retail specialty stores like Starbucks are service intensive. Direct interaction with the customer is the last and most critical brand touch point that determines the quality of customer experience with the brand. This last brand element brings all of our cultural cues, warm environments and shared humanity into sharp focus.

Bottom line: there is a positive thirst among consumers for a unique branded experience (read: a deeply human experience) in the retail marketplace. Those retailers who give the customer satisfaction at all levels, who serve the intellectual, emotional and even spiritual needs of the customer, will develop cult followings. It’s obvious that retailing is about far more than selling products the customer needs and wants. It is far more than offering better service. It really is about going back to our roots—the human, cultural ties that bring us all together.

Understandably, not every retailer is a Starbucks. Every retail operation is unique, and each has to be approached and branded according to their unique brand identity. This is the common thread that binds all retailers to their customers.


My perspective, as the Principal of a seasoned retail brand design business, is that all of our creative capabilities and core services are subservient to the business needs of the retailer. We are in the design business, and I always say that: “The business comes first and the design comes second.” Our firm’s first directive is to really listen to the retailers’ needs and to address their problems with the most viable brand identity and brand communications solutions. Being conversant with retailers’ financials and delivering results—a solid ROI—is crucially important. In fact, this is the first order of business. Sharing a big picture view with the retailer, as well as seamless brand strategies that will carry them solidly into the future, is always the plan.

In the case of Starbucks, when Wright Massey and Scott Bedbury shared our brand vision for the specialty retailer with a Wall Street analyst at Starbucks’ corporate HQ in Seattle, the stock rose by $3.00 per share that very day. Over the next decade of using the toolbox we helped to create Starbucks added $5 billion US in brand value. Is investing in the proper brand positioning, and comprehensive in-store experience, or design strategy a determinant of corporate value? You be the judge.

Our mission, and passion, is to position or revitalize retail brands that drive culture and build loyalty and equity. Cultural cues are personal, relevant and truly connect the customer to the retail brand in the most meaningful way, creating a leader in its sector. And that is where the retailer’s ROI is realized.

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