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The Brand Credibility Paradox

Is over emphasis on your hard-core credibility limiting your brand’s influence and growth?

I’ve seen it a lot. Brands achieving the level of success they desire by focusing on one thing for a hard-core, loyal following. They excel at specialty-store and are beloved by extreme activity junkies whether they climb, hike, run, swim, tri, skate or board. Then they get stuck by the following question:

How do we grow our brand and not destroy our industry cred?

Our friends at Sugoi are a great example. They create technically advanced gear, enjoy a great cycling heritage, and are proudly worn by hard-core cyclists. So what is the problem?

Research shows time and time again that there are people who spend upwards of $5,000 on a bicycle and another $1,500 on apparel and gear to compete at a near Olympic level. But only a few. And a few more commute on bikes. Most people are what Sugoi calls Starbucks Riders. Someone who spends a ton of money to dress the part, then simply rides down to the local Starbucks to look extreme while enjoying their carmel Frappucino.

This challenge isn’t limited to cycling. I saw the same problem with REI too. Anytime a group of individuals who are passionate about a specific set of activities infiltrate and then stay inside an organization, their marketing and advertising focuses on the most extreme expression and conditions their gear can endure.

This continual emphasis on the extreme hard-core adventurer not only limits who can belong to and then contribute to your cult brand – it ultimately dulls the senses of everyone in the organization and stifles product development, marketing, and recruitment. According to Outdoor Retailer 2013, most people sporting Patagonia and NorthFace use the gear to drive 5 miles and scale Mount Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer case of their local grocery.

I have seen this in the wellness category too. Brands with street cred for pioneering the natural, wellness and organics movement, who focused every aspect of communication, recruitment and product development on making certain that their original Hippier-than-thou positioning was preached above all else. While they wrestled with their significance, Target and Walmart offered similar, more approachable products for today’s Yoga Mom and her 28 year-old, Chia swilling, tea-guzzling counter-part. Both of these consumer profiles now get their health & wellness needs met without having to give up their love of high heels, designer jeans, enjoying a cocktail or wolfing down the occasional box of mac ’n cheese.

The fundamentals of Cult Branding have the power to make humans respond viscerally, kinetically and socially. However, when practiced diligently, they create a paradox—one that is easy to see in others and nearly impossible to see in ourselves. The very elements that make us great (ritual action, social distinction, status claims and solidarity) work on us, the brand stewards, too. And these powerful forces, if incubated (and not allowed to evolve through outside influence) will stunt our growth, make us grow a beard, get weird and disappear into the mountains.

3 brand credibility sink holes and 3 ways to crawl out.

Over time, I began to see the pattern in organizations that needed brand revitalization. They kept falling into 3 problem areas (sinkholes) that plague many successful passion focused industries like sports, outdoor and wellness. When the pattern is broken, by outside influence, leadership change or the pain of failure, it actually creates a stronger, more meaningful brand that will enjoy preference, marketplace success and even more cult-like stature.

Breakthrough brands are created by people with passion and vision.  People want to follow them. It’s easy for these visionary leaders to enroll others in their quest. The sinkhole doesn’t show up until after success arrives and the followers have key responsibility. Those in the pot, accustomed to the water temperature, tend to shift focus to the financial report and maintaining the status quo by emulating everyone else in the industry rather than innovation. They risk being boiled alive.

How to crawl out.

Forget about features, benefits, and competition. They are table stakes to any category. Forget about your long-storied history and the pain you might have around eroding relevance. Reconnect your brand team with the core purpose and higher ideal the product was created for in the first place, which was likely not just about making money. Then cast a bold new vision.
Think about Apple, between Jobs (ha!). Recall that Apple seemed unstoppable. Then everyone, including themselves, saw Apple as a dying brand. They all just sat in the pot until it began to boil. Remember that they revived their business through visionary leadership, outside influence, and a renewed focus on making human experiences visceral, universally ritualized and forging solidarity. When Apple focused on computing, they tanked. When the focused on revolutionizing something everyone loves (music) they rocked.

Questions to ask.

– Who is your Chief Vision Officer?
– Is their primary job description in conflict with the concept of vision?
– Are they involved in optimizing the business? If so you need an outside influence.

Success sows the seeds of future brand failure. When something works we look for sacred cows to idolize. The brand stalls because, after everyone tires of the Facebook likes and high-fives, they focus their efforts on optimizing what worked, instead of earnestly working to evolve and adapt to our rapidly changing world. They try and win a race by standing still when they should be looking for new ways to take what they know and help more people.

How to crawl out.

Ask yourself some dangerous questions.
– What is your team doing to make cheeseburgers out of these cows?
– What does your product represent to people that is highly valued and difficult for them to replace? (Hint: it isn’t your jacket.)
– How can we flip this on its head to create a new conversation or add something meaningful to someone else’s budding conversation?
Then, once you know that you are in new territory, it’s time to craft a clear and relevant value proposition. The best example of this to me is a piece I wrote about Nike Fuel Band.

When your company has done all the right things to build your brand –from having visionary leadership that has invented good products focused around an ideology, recruited employees that want to be indoctrinated with your philosophy –there is a natural tendency to believe that you are your best customers. This creates a closed ecosystem that chokes the company vision, stifles product development and creates marketing messages that are self-focused and trite. Need evidence? Every outdoor brand has a set of athletes or enthusiasts who flood their brand’s social media channels and website with their extreme adventures. Not everyone can be a NorthFace, ProBar, or Adidas. You have to find your own authenticity. Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign is a great example of a well known brand using its values to move away from everyone else in the outerwear category.

How to crawl out.

Talk to your customers. All of them, and their friends who cannot relate to your brand message because “it’s just a little to hard-core” (and strangely, lacking authenticity for them).

The hard questions.

– What are the hopes and dreams of these people?
– How can you help those who want to belong to your cult, but will never go on an extreme trek, live a better daily life?
– How is your team reframing what you can do to be involved in this evolution?
– Who should you be inviting to tea?

We live in an information age and knowledge is power, but information and knowledge alone will not get you to where you want to go. It takes discipline. The process of successfully navigating a landmark brand shift requires open-mindedness, a rare mixture of confidence and humility and the ability to press on with a beginners mind while seeing a future that nobody else can see yet.

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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5 Ways Sports & Outdoor Enthusiasts Craft Their Sense of Self with Brand

When it comes to what people do with their free time, there’s just something different about the way sports and outdoor enthusiasts see the world. Ask a PC or a MAC lover about their favorite home computer and they may wax rhapsodic about what their favorite hardware can do, that its competitor can’t, and they may try to convert you, but you get the sense that the attachment has to do more with the way their minds work than their hearts. Ask most fans about their favorite sports team and they’ll undoubtedly sing their praises and explain why their squad is better than any other, but it’s clear that they are speaking from their hearts…with a few statistics thrown in for good measure. Ask runners and climbers about their passions, however, and their replies are more visceral. They get a faraway look in their eyes and they will talk about their favorite marathon or the peak they scaled with such intensity that you might wonder if they are experiencing it all over again. Call it a runner’s high flashback if you will, but it’s also something else: It’s what makes outdoor enthusiasts different. Instead of sitting in a chair waiting for the latest piece of hardware to come out or hoping for their team to execute a hat trick, or catch a Hail Mary pass; these people get up, get out and take charge of their own experiences. It’s also part of what make them an attractive target audience. Why?

You can debate all you want about whether outdoor enthusiasts are wired differently, one thing for sure is that their pastimes become their passion quite quickly. In much the same way that a spiritual seeker looks for a religion that fits their belief system, these amateur athletes are also looking for the right fit. For the spiritual person, the first indication they’ve found what they’re looking for could well be a feeling of belonging. In outdoor pursuits it could well be a given sport’s equivalent of the euphoria marathoners feel when they reach their highest performance level.

Once they know their passions, they seek out the like-minded. They join running clubs, they get into cycling groups and they look for more information about their new-found passion. That might mean looking at magazines that cater to their crowd and often contain ads and reviews of the latest gear they’ll need to get the job done. Or it could mean hitting social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn to find folks with similar interests. Before they know it, what began as a virtual group named the Bellingham (ski)Bums ends up becoming a real time ski club with people who share the same environmental ethos and values. First, they meet every week or so, then suddenly they find themselves spending much of their time together, on and off the slopes, either skiing or wishing they were doing so. Ironically enough, the process not only leads to the establishment of an informal tribe of skiers, it also allows each of its members to feel like individuals because they have found a group where it’s safe to be themselves.

Although most people like to believe that all of their purchasing decisions are rational, it’s a little more complicated than that. While there’s no shortage of companies that make gear that will keep mountain climbers safe, there are other factors that enter into the decision including fit, comfort and appearance. After all, if they want to be thought of as more of an environmentalist they might be more likely to opt for Patagonia than REI gear. If they want to be considered as favoring more extreme pursuits, they might favor NorthFace. At the same time, if members of their tribe all favor equipment from REI, chances are they will, too. Part of it is desire for acceptance of course, but another part of it is reliance on the wisdom of the tribe. If a newcomer to the tribe notices that the people she respects all use REI gear, she will accept that they made the decision based on their experience and will follow in their footsteps to gain their acceptance. That could help explain why retailers are so eager to provide free lessons to beginners. Once people who are curious about a sport, say attend a snow-shoeing lesson at REI, they may be more likely to buy the products they’ve seen in action. In addition, the people who attend the same workshop may end up making friends with other participants, hanging out with them and creating a whole new tribe that just happens to prefer REI gear.

Endurance Triathletes are a good example. Active Network research shows that 44 percent of these outdoor enthusiasts have household incomes of more than $100,000, they’re considered among the most desirable customers to have and they are more than willing to pay big bucks to support their outdoor habit. In fact, Active Network estimates that 35 percent have bikes worth $2,000 to $4,000 and another 18 percent have spent between $1,500 and $2,000. Most could easily get a bike for less, but they not only want to have the best, they want to be seen riding the best and be identified with that brand. Their willingness to open their wallets represents an opportunity for marketers and brand managers. Since many enthusiasts are so passionate about their pursuits, they often find ways to spend money on the things they think they need even in economic downturns. Awareness of the characteristic allows marketers and brand owners to spend less time focused on the bottom line and more time on quality. Most outdoor enthusiasts won’t tell you that money is no object, but they see their gear as an investment and do so much research that they are willing to pay more for higher quality. All a company needs to do to cash in is show why its quality is better than its competitor’s.

The question for for marketers is this: Now that you know these five steps and their stunning simplicity, what will you do to help deepen customer loyalty, increase interaction and grow your brand as you elevate it to cult status?

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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Secret Meaning is the New Black

As odd as it sounds, companies that want to create their own brand could learn a lot from the kids who helped you build your first treehouse, Yale University’s Skull and Crossbones Society and the He-Man Women Haters Club from the old Our Gang comedies. And maybe even Boy and Girl Scouts and Fight Club.

Think about it for just a minute and you’ll see what I mean. All of them thrived on secrecy, shared symbols and a feeling of being instantly understood. The best part was that you didn’t have to be pretty, popular or even all that athletic to belong. All you needed to know was the secret handshake, the password or the secret code and you were instantly cool no mater what the rest of the world thought. Ironically enough, belonging to the group even helped validate your sense of being unique.

In short, you’d follow those guys and gals to the end of the earth. The only problem was, they weren’t so good at selling things because, well, that wasn’t what they were about.

But they could have been. If only they’d realized that secret meaning was the new black.

We’re not talking about the hidden meaning that some organizations or religions may imbue in otherwise ordinary, everyday things, though. Instead, we’re referring to the shared sense of meaning that people find in the products they use everyday and how to harness it.

The footwear maker KEEN is a good example. The company may have been built around the need to make sandals a safer form of sportswear, but it quickly evolved into a larger community centering on its own invention, HybridLife. The concept is meant to cover how we split our lives between working, playing and giving back. In addition to allowing the company to state its goal of finding solutions through what it makes and its business practices, it also encourages its customers/followers to take care of each other and the planet. And, by the way, the company helpfully adds, it couldn’t hurt if you threw on a pair of KEEN shoes, socks or used one of its bags while doing it.

The company has even co-opted symbols from our past and present and given them new meaning through Recess Is Back, an initiative designed to encourage its followers to play more. First, there’s the concept of recess, a callback to those halcyon days in grade school when we would take off time from our (class)work, blow off steam and play. The company’s web site also helpfully provides Recess Passes (like the Hall Passes of our school days) to e-mail to friends to encourage them to join you in your effort to have some fun in the middle of your workday. Finally, it also encourages you to print off a door hanger, something usually associated with the fun of vacations and hotel stays, to put on your office door. It turns the convention on its head by substituting “Do Not Disturb” with “Disturb All You Want I’m At Recess.”

It would have been easy for the company to just create a better mouse trap in the form of a sandal with a toe bumper, rest on its laurels and let the money roll. KEEN took it a step further and created a cult-like following by using the symbols its customers already know to tap into their passion.

Here’s why it works:

Smart Use of Symbols

We live in a world that is dominated by symbolism and we are hard-wired to tap into it. Regardless of whether those symbols are religious icons like crosses or six-pointed stars or iconic logos like an apple with a bite missing or a pair of yellow arches, there is a meaning attached to them. Those symbols and the meaning we ascribe to them are the key to the global sectors of any cult. KEEN wisely takes symbols we already know and adds a new layer of meaning to them.

Differentiation

Cult brands know they cannot appeal to everyone, so they focus instead on their community of likely customers/converts/believers. Instead of trying to appeal to all sandal wearers, KEEN focuses on those who are interested in the larger world around them and who want to do more than just buy any sandal that will get the job done. The focus on the symbols of recess like hall passes and door hangers allow them to further refine the group to folks of a certain age who remember hall passes as well as people who travel.

Providing Meaning

Once they have built a following through use of symbols customers recognize, and causes they identify with, companies like KEEN know how to provide a focus for that passion. And not just through the sale of their product. They often also harness the passion to other products and services. Companies like KEEN and others often show the causes they support and encourage their customers to get involved as a way to deepen their connection and commitment.

Increased Individuality Through Group Membership

Yes, I know it sounds strange, but there’s just something about identification with a group that makes people feel more like individuals. Undoubtedly it has something to do with finding a place where a person who previously felt he or she didn’t fit in society has suddenly found the group they identify with and the association allows them to walk taller, feel prouder and more confident than the folks who don’t belong.

There’s a fine line between being different and not different enough. For a cult brand to succeed, you want to stand out from the crowd, but not so much that you frighten your intended audience. In order to get your members to interact and spread word of mouth, you need to build in them a sense of belonging and being a part of something while still encouraging their sense of uniqueness and individuality. By sharing values, objectives or life ideals, brands can work as human identity markers.

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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5 Ways Cult Brands Bridge the Gap in the Customer’s Mind

It’s easy to spot the brands who seized the imagination of a small group and then taught that group how to spread the word, make converts and turn their fringe offering into a mainstream way of seeing the world.

It is another thing to understand how to use the cult branding formula made famous by BJ Beuno in his landmark book, The Power of Cult Branding. This article aims to build on these theories, modernize them and offers strategies you can implement starting today.

Before we begin, I need to simplify and update the opening statement that Doug Atkins makes in his book The Culting of Brands:

Special Thanks to STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST

How to Build the Bridge Between Customers I Need and I am

First let’s understand that this article refers to I need as tactical and I am as how one identifies themselves within the context of that need.

It’s a non-linear process but this is what happens in the human mind:

I need to lose some weight,
I am not competitive.
I need to start jogging.
I need running shoes.
I am a light-hearted, non-conformist.
I am a Brooks runner.

Top running shoe brands and their achetypes. Courtesy of The Hero and The Outlaw by Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson.

1. Know why your brand has stark-raving fans

Understand what needs your brand fulfills in your best customers. Know who loves your brand and why. Be specific. Let’s look at some brands that really understand who loves them and how their brands can return the favor.

REI and Nike

REI provides the knowledge and confidence to explore and discover new adventures for people of all levels, but for those whose identity is Outdoor Enthusiast, Cyclist, Climber, Hiker, or Skier, REI is Mecca. REI knows its followers are active, environmentally concerned and eager to share their passion for the outdoors with others. The co-op returns their love in ways that create stark-raving fans by providing opportunities to contribute to the brand in multiple ways: joining the co-op, taking an oath to “leave no trace”, community education and outreach programs, and even a garage sale.

Phil Knight said, “Nike’s culture and style is to be a rebel. The company was built on a genuine passion for sports and maverick disregard for convention, hard work, serious sports, and performance.” But there is more to the story. It wasn’t just gear – Bowerman and Prefontaine were the genesis of life coaching.

Nike cares about its customers’ lives not just their bodies. It doesn’t just promote sales, it promotes sports for the benefit of all. Nike coaches you to deepen your passion for whatever sport you choose, relying on education, lifestyle management and inspiration rather than selling gear. As a stark-raving fan, my experience quickly moves from “I am a runner” to “I need gear so that I can go faster, be stronger and rush into the waiting arms of the goddess of Victory”. Over the course of time it has evolved to become “I am Victory’s lover, I need to be worthy.”

2. Identify your brand’s archetype

The use of archetypes in branding has become its own phenomenon. An archetype is a universally familiar character or situation that transcends time, place, culture, gender and age. It represents an eternal truth. Books and articles abound. The reason for the popularity is simple: By using the concept of the archetypes, management can protect itself from developing a brand that is inconsistent. Archetypes make it possible to deepen the customer’s relationship with your brand because doing so fulfills an unconscious ambition that is linked to who they get to be when they are with your brand. Using archetypes in your brand development helps delineate the marketing process while helping to keep your brand’s value system firmly intact.

The most common archetype used in sports and outdoor is, no surprise, The Explorer, but comes under many names, including Seeker, Pilgrim, Wanderer, Pioneer, Individualist, Iconoclast and Adventurer.

Explorers are authentic, fulfilled, curious, individual, unique, ambitious and always true to themselves. Their goal is discovery, to experience a more authentic and fulfilling life by using their freedom to explore the world.

The Explorer is a perfect archetype if your brand helps people be free, is pioneering, is rugged and sturdy, is used on the road and in the wild, helps people express their individuality, can be purchased and consumed on the go or if you want to differentiate yourself from a more conformist brand. This might explain why it is the most common brand archetype used in the outdoor industry.

The Explorer isn’t limited to outdoor brands.

Starbucks leverages the Explorer archetype to great effect. Think green logo and Siren as sea goddess. They also emphasize choice and customization for every customer. Even the name was taken from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – Starbucks is the name of the first mate on the Pequot. Even their packaging and retail experience reference exotic places where coffee is born. Yes born, not grown, but that, Dear Reader, is another tale altogether.

Starbucks leverages the Explorer archetype to great effect as demonstrated in their first India location.

There’s no rule that a brand can’t have multiple archetype personalities. And in a space where nearly all brands are leveraging the same archetype I encourage adding a second archetype to bring distinction and clarity in how you write, design, and communicate for your brand.

Go ahead and try it with your brand management team. Unorthodox combinations are a great starting point for brand strategy and communication.

3. Create a single brand voice

Establish a single brand voice that allows for many to chime in, transmute, interpret and re-forge your vision. Focus your efforts on ways to share that vision with like-minded people and keep your message consistent. Knowing what your business stands for (besides selling things) makes it easier for people to commit to your brand.

Lululemon is quickly becoming a Beloved Brand, with an extremely loyal following that loves not only how the brand makes them feel (healthy, comfortable, free) but also love the product which is reliable, ethical and high quality.

Lululemon‘s manifesto has quickly become a guide to life for the modern woman.

Centered in the core values of traditional yoga, their manifesto is translated for our modern world with statements such as “this is not a practice life, this is all there is.” The core of Lululemon’s DNA is Yoga. And all of the voices in their choir are singing from the same songbook.

4. Create places for your brand to build community

Use the insights gained from your customers’ attraction to the brand as inspiration for developing programs to support community. If you are just starting a brand I might suggest the best way to reach people is to look for topics and causes around which they are already gathering and align one’s brand with those topics or causes. Since most of us are already on the path, I suggest the following:

  • Sponsor events that reflect your brand’s mission.
  • Acknowledge the community. Strong communities provide a sense of identity to their members and become an integral part of their lives.
  • Support the community to reinforce the affinity customers have for your brand.

Don’t be a control freak. Communities aren’t focus groups.

Don’t waste energy trying to control the community. Instead, participate as a co-creator. View communities as a chance to stay close to your stark-raving fans. Look for ways to innovate around their needs and to help them fall deeply in love with your brand.

Nike+Fuelband is the poster child for branded community.

Nike Fuelband not only encourages customers’ active lifestyles, it encourages community engagement. It allows people to track performance through a wristband and compete with friends by climbing up the leader board. Users share their success on facebook and call out friends when they lose. Nike knows that their stark-raving fans are highly competitive individuals so they built a community to leverage this using social media to strengthen their brand.

5. Know thy enemy to deepen the brand rivalry

Differences help define group identity. Watch your competitors to see how they can be leveraged to reinforce the culture of the community. Nothing unites a group like having a common enemy. In the words of Scott Bedbury, “Everything Matters”.

Brand rivalry means competition, and competition means never-ending improvement of service, products and brand relationships. This leads to more transparency, more collaboration, better socially responsible and environmentally responsible actions and a greater incentive towards good in all industries.

Case in point: Puma and Nike have been meeting each other’s sustainability standards, and are producing more and more goods and services that are for good. Nike encourages social responsibility and sustainability through their ‘Better World’ manifesto.

Puma edged ahead recently by being named the world’s most sustainable large company. Puma is the first company in the world to put a value on the eco services it uses to produce its gear, signaling a radical change in the way business will account for its use of natural resources. Puma committed that half its collections will be manufactured according to its internal sustainability standard within four years. Clearly the rivalry is good for innovation and mankind.

What can you do you leverage your brand’s rivals to make the world better and create stark-raving fans at the same time?

Get on the path to constant and never-ending brand improvement

The path to elevating your brand to cult status is not linear, but I’m giving you tools that you can experiment with and put into practice today. My goal isn’t to claim this territory as my own, but to simplify and modernize it so that more people can believe in and be empowered by belonging to something bigger than themselves.

What are you doing to elevate your brand’s cultability?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brand Wreck and a Brand Refresh

Talbots

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

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

REI

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

Rebranding Miss and Hit

Radio Shack

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

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

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

Target

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

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

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

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

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

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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Design is Transformational: But Only if Strategy & Execution Marry

The problem with retail environments today is that they’re still transactional in nature. Most retailers really haven’t changed much in their thinking or their approach to retail design. Retailing is understood as environments to sell merchandise; that seek to drive sales the old-fashioned way. Advertising lures customers in and the store layout, merchandise selections and services are expected to close the sale. Same old approach with a few new high tech toys thrown in without a lot of thought.

There’s a big problem with this kind of thinking.

Customers are too sophisticated for retailers who think they can be wooed using 20th century marketing techniques that lead them into 20th century store environments, notwithstanding the fact there’s some shiny new interactive media to play with.

Then, there are retailers who get it. They understand that they’re dealing with 21st century customers who don’t want to be marketed to on a one-way street; who don’t want to be bored and disappointed by dated stores and sales associates who are MIA as well as by brand promises that are routinely broken. The problem here is that strategies are often put into place and then they’re not executed. And we wonder why retail stores are failing?

We live in an era that isn’t for the timid. Retailers who plan to make incremental improvements in the way they design customer experiences aren’t going to succeed even if they do execute. It’s time to go for store design and customer experience design that are transformational in concept and execute. Scary? Rather than choosing to look at it that way, why not embrace these challenges and view revolutionary solutions as exhilarating? Why not dream big and dare to transform retail?

Dreams need to become strategies. Strategies need to be outlined into actionable plans. Plans need to be executed.

Without a marriage of strategy and execution, transformation isn’t possible.

And here’s the thing: retail operations don’t have to be the biggest to become the best. Emerging, challenger brands can and should blow the socks off the retail world. Business is ripe for the taking; the customer is hungry. Who will take the lead?

It’s all in the planning and execution.

Transformative design is all-encompassing. But it doesn’t happen without vision and a plan. Even when armed with a plan, retailers are going off the rails when it comes to implementation. And that isn’t only due to lack of focus. There are a number of universally human maladies that derail the best laid plans.

  1. Over-confidence in the C-suite. “We’ve got a winning design plan for our retail operation. Give it to our managers; they’ll figure it out and implement it.” Hmmmm. . .maybe it’s more like “The buck doesn’t stop here in the C-suite. . .more like pass the buck and hope for the best. We’ve got too much to do.” Really? What matters more than execution to ensure success?
  2. “Hey, look at what the competition’s doing!” Losing focus on one’s own business and reacting to everything competitors are doing never leads to good things. Even worse: confusing managers and staff by too many directives in response to everything competitors do takes everybody away from implementing the strategy agreed upon in the first place; the one that is transformative if it only gets executed.
  3. “This is too much work and takes too many resources. We need to take a break from all of this for a while.” Bad idea. Understood: it takes time and resources to put a comprehensive plan together. But if that sucks all of the energy out of the atmosphere so that management isn’t willing to commit to executing the plan, a great strategy was all for naught.
  4. “The grand plan is so much fun to fantasize about. . .but then, there are the nuts and bolts.” So much work has to be done! The coaching! The culture has to be sold on the redesigned brand! Such a long-term investment; maybe we bit off more than we can chew!” So many retailers get bogged down with self-defeating articulations like this. Of course it’s hard work but is there reward without it?

So let’s dig in. Let’s:

  • Do some research and find out who your primary customers are.
  • Get to the heart of what they’re looking for; what their expectations are.
  • Deliver in a memorable manner. Consistently.
  • Design a unique retail footprint; one that embodies a unique retail brand.
  • Touch every aspect of the business: employee-facing and customer-facing. Translation: work to change the culture for the better, encourage teamwork and help managers to excel.
  • Speak in one clear voice: in store, online, from the C-suite to the back office and the sales floor.
  • Get focused and stay focused on delivering the brand day in and day out.
  • Map out all of the elements of the plan so that there’s a blueprint to follow.
  • Involve all stakeholders so they can understand the design strategy, its components, the reasons behind it and its implications.
  • Make sure that the C-suite gets 100% behind the execution of our transformative strategy. Commitment makes it happen.

As Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy stated in their book, “Execution”, “Many people regard execution as detail work that’s beneath the dignity of a business leader. To the contrary, it’s a leader’s most important job.” After all, what criterion is the C-suite evaluated on: strategies–good intentions–or execution–making it happen?

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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Identity Crisis: The Seven Deadly Sins of Branding

Economic limbo cannot erase the fact that we live in a world where cars start the first time, phones are addictive and the gourmet coffee, is well, gourmet. Only the Unaware offer products or services they deem good enough to a world where everyone can get anything they want almost anywhere.

Today’s consumer is looking for you, the brand steward, to provide them with a self-actualizing experience. And while this needs to be orchestrated carefully, take heart, ending up in branding purgatory doesn’t happen overnight. It comes after a lifetime of refusing to be saved. Sadly, for every good thing we can do, there are many more actions we take either purposefully or by happenstance, that simply don’t contribute anything worthwhile to the brand’s presence, personality and strength.

So what can the faithful do to avoid such a fate? Keep a watchful eye over the Seven Deadly Sins of Brand.

Ennui is essentially boredom brought about by prosperity: an unwillingness to investigate, evolve and challenge or do much of anything. It has killed many great brands while their executives scatter to new, unsuspecting organizations, secretly scratching their head in wonder that their former co-workers were unable to learn new ways to gain market share. It begins something like this, “No one can touch us. We are superior in every way!” Then subtly evolves to something more like this, “We are number one and always will be. Now we are bored. Enough about me, why don’t you tell me what you think of me!” And finally it ends with, “Ugh, why bother?” The opposite of this sin is a firm belief in one’s offering, a willingness to deliver what’s promised and strength of conviction.

“That’s not my department” echoes in the halls of an organization that is has succumbed to this sin. These Sullen Pagans do not understand that functional silos are barriers to innovation, not just in brand marketing. In Driving Growth Through Innovation, Robert Tucker says that one of the reasons innovation has not become embedded as a key driver of growth and profitability in many organizations is because it has been limited by functional and divisional silos within companies. The responsibility for innovation has been limited to R&D or senior level Strategic Planning Pagans who do not feel it necessary to speak to, let alone share ideas with others. I find it fascinating that functional silos are a bi-product of the Quality Movement. Today, thanks to ISO9000 and the like, quality is everyone’s responsibility. This needs to be the goal for innovation and brand stewardship as well.

Advertising can be summed up in one word: impotence. No amount of advertising is going to have the psychological impact today that it did on previous generations. It doesn’t have the same function it used to and yet is still purchased by brand owners in exchange for the false hope of cultural relevance. If advertising worked like it used to, two well-known Bankrupt Pagans would still be recovering from the pulled muscle they got when high-fiving their agency partner for successfully copying a competitors “celebutant” television campaign (because they would have raked in cash). Mervyn’s and Linens ‘N Things long enjoyed high top-of-mind awareness, but apparently never got the memo: awareness no longer creates preference. Preference lives in the human heart, where brand matters most. If advertising worked like it used to, two well-known Bankrupt Pagans would still be recovering from the pulled muscle they got when high-fiving their agency partner for successfully copying a competitors “celebutant” television campaign (because they would have raked in cash). Mervyn’s and Linens ‘N Things long enjoyed high top-of-mind awareness, but apparently never got the memo: awareness no longer creates preference. Preference lives in the human heart, where brand matters most.

Girls Gone Wild Apparel, Humane Society Dog Lovers Wine Club, Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper, and my favorite as listed on Brandweek, Hooters Energy Drink. There is a special place in Hell for the avarice and the fraudulent, regardless of whether they are malicious or just confused. Egad!

This sin belongs to the Short-term Gluttons who are quick to reduce prices in order make the sales number look good on their watch, so they get their bonus. They already have their eyes on the door, not long-term brand success. The mistakes that kill brands are the mistakes you sometimes never realize you’ve made. And when you do realize them, sometimes it’s too late. Unless you are the low-cost producer, you cannot sustain your brand on price cuts and discounts. In fact, companies frequently cause irreparable damage to their brands by discounting. Consumers will pay more if they feel they receive an added benefit or value with the higher price—even in a recession.

Decision by committee is often an exercise in mediocrity. Not standing up for a single, ownable position is pretty common business practice today. Trying to please everyone will result in creating a brand nobody will hate (vs. a brand people will love). If you work in a culture where you may get your head chewed off by your management team for not using a traditional laddering model or the appropriate shade of navy blue on your PowerPoint deck, then standing up for a radical new idea isn’t likely to be considered an asset. Bad news: unless you want to just put in your time on the mediocrity train, then you may wish to consider your options (while you still have them).

We all use them and hide behind them. Afterall, nobody ever lost his or her job for mentioning David Aaker’s Brand Personality Scale to help demonstrate the case for change. And where would we be without the Brand Pyramid? In Strategic Brand Management, Kevin Lane Keller’s pyramid reminds me of Dante’s gates of Hell– while I am captivated (and a bit frightened) by the inscription, I know that true understanding of it lies in the netherworld below. And you guessed it, a guru called Brand Architect has tackled Below The Pyramid. It’s really a great example of virtuous marketing pagan adding to the buzzword stew.

Bottom Line

Marketing guru-ism without an actual business objective (where your job is on the line) is really only theory. I am tired of theory. I want visceral creative, human communication. And this, thank Goodness, is why you, Dear Reader, hire people like me.

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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The Road to Authentic Brand is Littered with Design

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