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Food & Beverage Brands: Stop Chasing Your Competitors

Imagine walking through a fully stocked grocery store where your food or beverage brand’s products are neatly and abundantly shelved among your category. You scan your competitors’ products, also neatly and abundantly displayed. Do you:

  1. Pull out your smartphone and make a voice memo listing all the ingredients and flavor profiles you need to get your product innovation team working on — stat!
  2. Move along with a certain swagger in your step, confident that your brand’s favored status among your customer base is enough to keep your sales velocity at a robust pace. 

(If you’ve been reading our stuff for a while, you know which answer is the correct one, right?)

The Perils of Brand Parity

So many brand leaders are just trying to keep up with the Joneses. Lately, we’ve been spending a lot of time with clients who are checking their neighbor’s paper and navel gazing, relying on what everyone else is doing and their own internal biases to make decisions. And all of those moves result in parity.

Brands that endlessly focus on their category peers are relegated to competing on price or on differences that either cannot be seen by consumers or don’t really matter because they don’t build velocity. It’s hard to stand out in a world of features and benefits. Faced with a shelf full of comparable chocolate-flavored energy bars, the consumer will choose on any number of easily copied features: flavor or package or price. Play the features and benefits game, and your products are destined to become commodities — if they aren’t already.

What’s more, this focus on competitors creates an internal feedback loop that reinforces your team’s safe decision-making. “Brand X is making this new organic adaptogenic product, and consumers seem to be buying it, so maybe we should make one, too.” Competing on benefits is a race to the bottom, a race that only deep-pocketed multinationals and store brands that can leverage favorable placement and discounting can win.

It’s a vicious cycle: 

Don’t Stand Among; Stand Out

Let’s go back to the pop quiz at the start of this article. What if you could get some of that swagger? What if you could all but ignore what everyone else is doing, in full confidence that what YOU are doing is right? What if your brand wasn’t a copycat but a disruptor?

Category disruption takes a programmatic discipline focused on seeking out the emotional territory of who your consumers get to be when they are with your brand. It means planting your flag on a distinguishing point of view, one that your consumers embrace, join in, and talk about with their friends.

This might be a shocking position in the CPG world, but I’ll throw it out here anyway: Purchase is not the endgame. Repeat purchase is only marginally better (because your brand might still be winning on price). The real endgame is to create stark-raving fandom among consumers of your products. And the pathway to that is belonging. It takes more than attributes to create belonging. It takes a well-defined and articulated Capital-B Brand: The promise you make and the ways that you keep it.

It’s Not About Competition, It’s About Education

And it also takes education. As I wrote in my book on branding, Beloved & Dominant Brands you need to understand that the purpose of customer education is not to sell them stuff; it’s to create evangelists.

Yes, you need to educate consumers about your features and attributes in order to convince them to buy. And yes, you need to innovate because consumers have become wired to expect a constant stream of new and different choices. The challenge is to integrate product benefits into a story that emphasizes belonging and community.

Consumers need to understand your brand in the context of the real world. They want to know what problems your brand will solve, why you make your products, and where you stand on issues they care about. When people do buy into your mission and your vision of how you’re going to improve the world, they’ll buy your products — loyally, repeatedly, with open wallets.

As a marketer, you may think that consumers will naturally gravitate toward your brand. They won’t. At every touchpoint, you need to teach the consumer why your brand matters, what wrong it exists to remedy, how it will help enhance their life, how they’ll feel when they stands with you.

Of course, this assumes you and your leadership team have done the hard work of articulating your brand’s WHY. (If you haven’t done that yet, start learning here.)

A powerful WHY is future-proof. It’s the secret sauce that everyone else will try to figure out how to copy — and fail because they don’t have the ingredients. If your competitors could get inside your boardroom and see all the positioning work you’ve done on the brand, they’d be terrified.

What you’re going to make, what you stand for, how you talk to people, where you sell, what you believe – if any of it feels ho-hum or sounds just like everyone else in your space, you have an opportunity to level up, think bigger, and disrupt.

We’re here for the disruptors. If that’s your aspiration, let’s have a conversation.

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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How to Make Retailers Love Your Food or Beverage Brand

I talk with food and beverage marketing leaders a lot about what it takes for consumers to fall in love with their brands. I write about the topic a lot, too.

But there’s another audience you need to woo … and they’re essentially the gatekeepers who grant access to your ultimate fan base. I’m talking about your brand’s retail partners. Specifically, category managers or buyers who choose which brands and products appear on their shelves. These relationships are essential to your business, present and future. And woe be unto the CMO or CGO who undervalues or overlooks these keepers of the shelf.

Perhaps your company has emphasized direct-to-consumer channels and wants to expand into brick-and-mortar. Or your sales team is getting some pushback in annual reviews with retail buyers who question the strength and performance of your brand. Or, worse, slowing velocity has put your products at risk of being discontinued by one of your outlets.

If you’re running into any of these challenges, it’s time to build or shore up relationships with your channel partners.

When Brands Overlook Retail Partners

The lousy retail partnerships we’ve helped our clients resolve typically occur under two scenarios.

First, the small passion brand that is still in First and Only mode. It has come out of the gate hot, with a unique product that’s attracted a legion of fans. Led by a charismatic founder, the darling brand is killing it at Whole Foods, and when it debuts at a trade show it stops traffic. It’s getting tons of likes and shares on social.

But this brand lives in a bubble, surrounded by a cohort of fans that don’t represent a broader consumer base. The founder-CEO is convinced that her product is the bomb and that if she loves it, everyone else will, too. She doesn’t value retail partners—and their input or feedback—because they just don’t get the brand. She’s happy to sell DTC, so she doesn’t have to deal with grocery category buyers. She doesn’t recognize that the cost of customer acquisition through DTC is significantly higher than at retail, where people are literally walking past the product every freaking day.

Second, the brand is mature and not a darling anymore. It’s reached 100M in sales but still struggles to be profitable. It’s gotten onto the shelf at Target—yay!—but then faded, gone on discount, and been discontinued. The brand has lost relevance. The CGO senses that retail relationships may be the issue, but isn’t sure why.

It’s Not a Sales Issue

Food or beverage brands that face challenges at retail often turn to their sales team to build better relationships with buyers. But this is not a sales problem. It’s a brand problem.

Understanding how to expand your audience without abandoning your die-hard fans is key to changing the conversation with category buyers who may be losing patience with your brand. These buyers are under enormous pressure to constantly elevate the performance of their departments or categories. They’re looking for winners, period.

Convince them that your offering isn’t just a set of features and benefits (which are easily copied—by the retailer’s own label—and ripe for discounting), but a purposeful brand that resonates powerfully with a rabid and growing audience. Deep relevance means you attract a loyal buyer who seeks out your products no matter what and is willing to pay a premium. Those are the kinds of shoppers the retailer hungers for.

Remember, too, that the category manager is armed to the teeth with data—probably more than your marketing team has. When you can demonstrate that your consumer syncs with theirs, you reframe the conversation.

While it’s tempting to deploy your most charismatic salesperson to woo the retail buyer, that may get the product on the shelf, but it won’t make up for poor performance. The retailer will gain the power to dictate terms and placement.

Instead, position yourself as a partner in their business. There’s no retailer on the planet with a block of shelf space just waiting for your product to show up. You have to have a story that convinces them why they should displace something else that’s already there for your new or existing offerings.

Show Retailers You Mean Business

So what does a retail buyer need to understand about your brand?

1) That you understand the consumer. You know who they are and who they aren’t, what they currently buy, how your offering sits adjacent to that, and what else is in their consideration set.

2) That they have your undivided attention. The Target buyer doesn’t want you to talk about your grocery business; the Costco rep doesn’t want you to talk about Target.

3) That you understand their world. They’re responsible for driving velocity and margin, and the extent to which you understand the expectations they’re facing will go a long way in establishing a collaborative relationship.

4) That you’re in it for the long haul. The buyer wants assurances that you’re sustainable enough to last and that their channel won’t become overlooked as your business grows.

5) That you’ve done your homework around supply chain and cost. You understand how the global economy works, and if one of your key ingredients comes from overseas, you have a plan for what to do if it becomes difficult or costly to obtain. If you have a supply chain breakage that forces you to discontinue some or all of your SKUs, a solid retail partnership ensures that you can return to the shelf when it’s resolved.

By leading with your capital-B Brand and a deep understanding of your current and potential audience, you’ll gain influence. You’ll build a partnership with retail decision-makers based on a goal of mutual success between equals. Rather than allowing the buyer to dictate terms and placement, you’ll bring to the table a plan that outlines how the audience shops their channel and how you can make the retailer more money. Your category review conversations will focus on new products, additional opportunities, and favored placement. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Need some guidance on making your retail relationships work better? We should talk about it.

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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A Dramatic Sales Turnaround for a Heritage Brand

The State of the Brand

This heritage chocolate brand invented the sugar-free chocolate category during the 1980s with a product that tasted just like regular chocolate. Because it was marketed as a product for consumers with diabetes and other dietary concerns, it sold well but remained a niche product. As Russell Stover leveraged multi-decade distribution channels through mass-market food and drug chains, the brand built and led the sugar-free chocolate category.

That is, until a host of competitors, notably Hershey, started flooding the market and sent Russell Stover Sugar Free into a three-year sales decline. They came to us under threat from competitors and retail partners who were moving to reallocate their shelf space.

How We Helped

When the brand team came to us for help repositioning Russell Stover Sugar Free, our 360° Brand Development process revealed two opportunities: an untapped audience and a packaging positioning reset.

First, there was an emerging class of consumers looking to reduce sugar intake for all kinds of wellness and lifestyle reasons. Russell Stover Sugar Free wasn’t in their consideration set, and no other brands were meeting their needs, either. These consumers were seeking natural products; sugar alcohol substitutes weren’t cutting it.

We advised altering their ingredient deck by swapping natural stevia for sucralose. In research, consumers told us they’d rather reduce their chocolate intake than eat a product with artificial ingredients. An extensive testing and formulation process landed on a product that looked and tasted indulgent.

Second, the consumer insights we unearthed during our 360° Brand Development showed that the original packaging and positioning, as a diabetic-friendly product, signaled “diet” and deprivation. When it was launched, the predominantly green packaging played in the same category as other “diet” foods like SnackWell’s and Healthy Choice.

But for the broader market of chocolate lovers (which is pretty much everybody), the old packaging looked more like a lousy alternative than a treat. Our packaging renovation leaned heavily into the nostalgia that comes with the Russell Stover master brand and the company’s legacy of chocolate making. Copy highlighted that the product is made in small batches by chocolate artisans, just as it’s always been. Updated messaging centered around the emotional and celebratory occasions when people gift and enjoy chocolates — not around the sugar-free-ness.

By combining a new ingredient profile that appealed to a natural-oriented consumer with the brand’s emotional legacy, we created an unmatchable position of differentiation.

The Results 

Talk about a turnaround. Per their annual report, Russell Stover Sugar Free reversed its precipitous sales decline in just six months, producing 33% growth over that period. And they were able to stave off Hershey, which threw three brands at their sugar-free initiative. Channel partners, including their biggest outlet, Walmart, were energized by the brand’s evolution; the new products flew off shelves. Russell Stover Sugar Free pirouetted to become the category leader again, ranking #1 in dollar and product volume, #1 in repeat customers, and a host of other metrics.

If this kind of brand acceleration appeals to you, let’s talk about what we can do for your business.

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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Consumers Don’t Care About Your Cause. They’ll Flock to Your WHY.

A meaningful, powerful WHY is your brand’s most valuable business asset.

If you aspire to make your better-for-you food or beverage brand brand future-proof, you have to stand for something. A capital-M Mission that connects to the deepest hopes and desires of the people who love you (and the people who don’t yet know they love you) enables your brand to rise above the constant churn of the marketplace and own your category for the foreseeable future.

Our latest white paper reveals how a powerful mission not only competition-proofs your brand, it also makes you future proof. When you set a true North Star, it’ll be gravitational for the entire organization, and it’ll inform every bit of decision making. Download it now and use it in your team’s planning and strategy.

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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Not Everyone Is Your Brand’s Audience, And That’s OK

You can spot fans of the Grateful Dead from across the street: by the way they dress, the stuff they ingest, the wheels they drive. They’re devoted followers who travel with the band and share bootleg recordings via online discussion groups. Deadheads can spot fellow Deadheads (even discreet Deadheads) in an instant.

But the Grateful Dead aren’t for everyone. And that’s OK.

As a food or beverage brand, your goal is to cultivate your audience like Deadheads. That means you’re not for everyone. And that’s OK, too.

Why a Base of Core Believers Matters

One of the core principles of using brand strategy for growth is building an inner circle of true believers that see themselves as different from others. Successful brands don’t appeal to everyone; they call to those with shared values.

You’re thinking: But wait. Isn’t the goal to sell lots of stuff to as many people as possible?

It isn’t. The goal of any brand — that isn’t selling commodities on price — should be to attain cult status among a key group of consumers. Here’s what that gets you:

1) When you have stark raving fans they prefer you over competitors. You’re not just in their consideration set; you’re their choice, always

2) Your fans are willing to pay a premium for your product. Not just because they like its taste, but because they like who they are when they engage with your brand. You drive more margin even as you’re selling to fewer people.

3) Your fans are also compelled to brag like maniacs about your brand. They take pride in their fan status and will evangelize on your behalf, and all of those people in their world who opt in will become fans too. They do your marketing for you; it costs less to recruit and maintain these consumers.

If you’re a brand without any differentiation, you need millions of people to care. If you’re a brand with a purpose, you need a focused group of fans to care. Here’s the math: Consumers who believe in what you stand for will buy on the order of 40x more than the average consumer — that’s according to a proprietary report we purchased from Mintel.

Knowing Who Not to Pursue

If your food or beverage brand is cultivating a community of superfans, then, by extension that means you’re keeping some people outside the ropes. And a lot of marketing executives we work with get squeamish about that. When I first started talking about this idea with clients several years ago, they either laughed or shuddered. And it’s still an outlier philosophy.

Today there is a lot of rhetoric aimed at brands, marketers, and business leaders to emphasize inclusion. This is good for people and society, and I’m personally all for brands doing their part to make a better world. But I’ve seen this emphasis on inclusion cause the best marketers in the world to second-guess themselves when it comes to shepherding their brand’s flock.

Being inclusive can mean different things. As you build your brand aimed at a better world, checking the inclusivity box, or the organic box, or the insert cause/certification box is not a differentiator. There’s more. When you get clear on your audience, you’ll also get clear on which audience is not yours.

Here’s the strategic way to think about this: Your goal is to create affinity, not exclusivity.

That means gathering rather than rejecting. Consumers who align with your brand’s mission are like moths to a flame. Mission is the wrong you exist to right in the world, the fight you fight, the good you do. People become superfans not because they like your products, but because your goal is theirs, too.

In other words, they’ve evolved beyond buyers to become believers. Believers don’t care about price, which yields a healthy margin on your products. They’ll remain loyal; you’re not one of 20 different brands they may rotate through their shopping carts.

How to Appeal ONLY to the Right Customers

You cannot have a group that subscribes to a set of behavioral doctrines and sticks together through thick and thin if you don’t excommunicate those who will never belong (because they don’t value what you value). The decision to forego a segment of the population to focus on your core fans requires that you and your leadership team know and agree upon what you believe in and who you are for — and, as important, what you do not believe in and who you are not for.

Again, the goal is to include and not reject. So how do you focus your audience without posting a “you’re not invited” sign in the window? Here are three tactics:

1) Maintain a laser focus on your brand’s mission. It should provide a True North for internal alignment, decision making, team behavior, and interaction with partners and customers. Other brands can copy your packaging and products, but they cannot replicate your mission and your dedication to pursuing it.

2) Steer all product innovation toward your fan base and away from the masses. Your brand’s mission should underpin every new product decision. Think of a Venn diagram with two circles representing the consumer’s need and the brand’s mission: Your opportunity for innovation lies in the overlap.

Venn Diagram - Your opportunity for innovation lies in the overlap.

3) Make it easy for your target audience to find and choose you. Create messaging and storytelling that resonates deeply to people who share your brand’s ethos. When you trumpet your passion far and wide, the folks who don’t get it will simply not opt in. In my book “Beloved & Dominant Brands”, I write about the Bat Signal — a message that only those in the know will see and respond to.

Honing a tightly focused fan base is the difference between lowercase-b branding and capital-B Branding. If you’re a brand, you need millions of people to make your P&L. If you’re a Brand, you make a ton of money off your group of true believers.

If you’re not sure how to sell this strategy to your team or you’re concerned about dismissing a segment of would-be buyers, we should talk. We’ve helped brands like Essentia and HighKey go narrow and go big.

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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How Food & Beverage Brands Can Stave Off Private Label Competitors

Those of us of a certain age remember the Cost Cutter brand. 

We’ve come a long way since those “off-brand” or generic products, infamous for cheap prices matched by poor quality.

Private label brands are vastly different today. And they’re aiming to eat your lunch — unless you can beat them on relevance, innovation, and engagement.

Not Your Parents’ Store Brands

Back in the day, generics were all about super-low cost. But over the past decade or two, that marketplace has shifted. Major retailers like Kroger (and the chains it has acquired) began offering store-branded products that improved on the generics. These house brands were all about reasonable facsimiles – incrementally less expensive for the illusion of a parity product. Retailers took a path of least resistance by co-manufacturing decent-enough items, designing decent-enough packaging, and shelving them alongside national brands. And consumers believed they were getting a decent-enough product for less money.

But, wow: Store brands today, which the industry calls “private label,” have upped the ante. Kroger’s Simple Truth lineup became the first billion-dollar store brand in less than two years after its 2012 launch. As of 2019, the portfolio included more than 1,550 organic and natural products. And then there’s Target, which holds nearly 50 “owned brands” ranging from low price to high style. Not to be left out, Amazon is growing its Amazon Basics and Happy Belly brands like bonkers. The category killer may be Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand, which in some cases is more expensive than competing national brands. Costco members know that Kirkland Signature products are premium and limited, so the brand creates a sense of FOMO that drives shoppers to buy.

The tough news for food and beverage brand marketers is that you’re competing not just against peer national/global brands, but against some really strong house brands from the very retailers you partner with.

Getting Ahead of Private Label Players

Private label incursion can frustrate the best CMOs in the business. Incremental moves by store brands can erode your market share and flatline your growth. And sometimes this happens imperceptibly, until one day the house brand looks like a legit competitor.

So how can you fend off these retail-owned challengers that seem to have every advantage — including deep consumer data, funding, and guaranteed shelf space?

It’s a question of playing big and pushing far enough ahead of  the category norms that consumers see you as the it brand. So let’s unpack how to do that.

1. Hit ‘em where they ain’t. (h/t to Bull Durham)

Use your super power: your mission, the good that connects your brand to a worthy cause, solves a wicked problem, or rights a known wrong. Private label brands don’t stand for anything; their strategy is just selling stuff.

Consumers align themselves with brands whose mission and values they share, and thus those brands become a form of self-identification or self-expression. When they choose your brand they get to be more healthy or earthy or whatever-y because your products enhance their lives. They’ll wear your merch and post your products on Instagram. They’ll create rituals around your products. But let’s face it: Nobody puts their Simple Truth dinner on Instagram even if it’s delicious. Nobody dunks their store-brand chocolate sandwich cookie like they dunk an Oreo.

Combine that mission with a well-defined audience — one that’s as broad as possible but not universal. Beloved and dominant brands know that they’re not for everyone. Gather a group of like-minded people who are comfortable standing apart from the rest of the world: the early adopters, life hackers, want-a-better-way-ers. The uptick of the bell curve before you hit mass adoption is the group you’re after. These passionate fans will never choose a private label option.

Private label brands are by necessity for everyone. Your brand shouldn’t be.

2. Play bigger and bolder.

How can you outpace private brands’ capacity to make stuff? Be committed to walking on a higher plane. Don’t just talk it, be it. Set the bar for whatever — clean ingredients or traceability or efficacy — and tie that to the mission your audience cares about. Then be the best: the cleanest ingredients, the most sustainably sourced, the most committed to social causes, etc.

And let’s talk about pricing. You and your brand team need to get over your premium phobia. Marketers fear premium pricing because they’re afraid of missing out on customers and of pricing their products out of the market. Retailers scare brands into managing price because they want competitive advantage for their private label items.

If you’re a brand that wants to sell as much as it can, then you have to play the price game. But if you stand for a higher cause, you actually don’t want everyone on the planet to buy your product. You need your fans to carry out your mission. It’s an ecosystem. Premium pricing signals that your brand is better than the rest of the set; it takes you out of product parity and into brand relevance.

3. Make communication and marketing decisions that private label can’t copy. 

House brands can mimic many of your brand’s attributes, including flavor profile, ingredients, even packaging style.

But they can’t replicate your relationship with your audience. So your goal is to get your consumers involved so that they become stark-raving fans of your brand.

To do this well, you need to think long-term about brand promise and how your team will deliver on it. And then you need to speak, write, and design like a brand that has no competition. Use your marketing and communications not just to promote product — but to drive ideas that transcend your offering. On social media, play not as a snack or nutrition brand, but as a lifestyle brand. Your brand has a distinctive voice; house brands can’t communicate like that.

It may be tempting to think of your private label competitors as gnats: annoying little buggers, but ultimately harmless. But you ignore them at your peril.

If you sense that they’re lurking outside your door, let’s connect. We can help leverage your strengths and steer your brand in a direction they can’t possibly follow.

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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How Brands Use Rituals to Meaningfully Engage Their Customers

If your target audience lacks engagement or community, ritual can answer that need by fulfilling your customers’ natural desire for routine and belonging. Embracing this type of behavior modification will allow you to not only capture their attention but retain it as well.

Ritual comes from an inherent human desire; we’re creatures of habit. We naturally look to routines for stability and simplicity. From an anthropological perspective, rituals are an integral part of the human species. While habits and routines are typically naturally-derived over time, rituals follow patterns of behavior developed by an external source (like a brand or an organization).

Primitive images of sacred, mystical, or religious rituals often come to mind when thinking about this concept. But more “modern” rituals can be just as powerful. Organizations use ritual to build loyalty, conjure a perception of exclusivity or secrecy, and naturally intertwine with the everyday behavior of its members. Rituals are reassuring, giving us a sense of security and belonging.

Brands tap into the power of ritual by leveraging simple behaviors they recognize in their customers. Involving customers physically in the brand experience helps build loyalty.

While marketers may salivate at the thought of a ritual that cements the brand into the cultural zeitgeist, know that it’s really hard to pull off. Nabisco didn’t have Instagram to show them that people were unscrewing and dunking Oreos; the ritual developed organically among the audience over time. We have faster, deeper-reaching tools into the psychology of our consumers, so why is it harder than ever to leverage these rituals?

If you’re eager to identify and elevate a ritual among your brand’s devotees, use our 20 questions to guide you on where to look for them and how to capitalize on them. To discover those 20 questions, please complete the short form below:

Which Brands Do Ritual Well

The following brands harness ritual in powerful and memorable ways that can be adapted to increase loyalty and engagement for your brand.

Corona

Corona and lime is a terrific example of how a brand can use ritual to elicit emotion. The smell of the lime evokes the tropical essence of the beach, reminding consumers to kick back and relax. Even the action of pushing that thin green lime into the golden yellow liquid screams sunshine.

This ritual transcends time, language, and culture. Without speaking a word, consumers acknowledge the “right” way to drink a Corona. This pseudo mutual agreement makes us all feel like “insiders.”

Kit-Kat

Think about it – you have a very particular way you eat a Kit-Kat bar. Think about it: You have a very particular way you eat a Kit-Kat bar. Why? Why do we feel so strongly about the correct or incorrect way to eat one of these candy bars? The brand has created a sacred consumption ritual reinforced by catchy ad jingles and clever marketing. They leveraged a simple, inherent behavior they recognized in their customers and made it into a memorable ritual known by all. It’s woven into the collective consciousness of the world — something few brands can lay claim to.

Oreo

This brand utilizes emotional storytelling as well. Their brand ritual of twisting the top and dipping the cookie into milk could be an individual ritual, but they have shifted the narrative to make the consumption experience an event in itself. Their advertising shows dessert time as a time to connect with family and the ritual experience as a bonding moment between individuals.

It also leans into consumption behavior that already exists. Marketers coined the “twist, lick, dunk,” but customers were already doing this before the ads came on television. The brand harnessed the power of a pre-existing behavior and ritualized it — powerfully bridging the connection between the consumption experience and the brand itself.

Starbucks

Starbucks is the ultimate example of brand ritual playing into human nature. The brand is rooted in emotion and behavior. The brand took the European ritual of drinking coffee and “Americanized” it. Until the conception of the “Third Place,” coffee was always an individual experience. The goal of the “Third Place” was to give consumers somewhere to go besides work and home. The brand created a place for people to gather, chat, read, listen to music, study, and oh, by the way, drink coffee. This collective ritual changed the game.

Not only did Starbucks harness the social routine of the “Third Place,” they also tapped into our desire for individualized rituals. Their drink customization system made customers feel important and in control. In personalizing their experience, they felt involved in the brand in a new way.

All in all, brands embrace human natures and behaviors — giving them purpose and meaning through ritual. Enhancing the brand experience through ritual involves customers, weaves the brand naturally into their lives, and builds an emotional connection.

In order to create a successful brand ritual, you must:

  1. Modify or take advantage of an existing behavior.
  2. Tell a story to elicit emotional connections.
  3. Physically involve the customer through action, smell, movement, etc.
  4. Personalize the experience.
  5. Keep it simple and easy to replicate.
  6. Be natural; don’t force it.

Adapt these lessons for your brand to powerfully engage your audience and foster loyal relationships.

And if you’re interested in a deeper dive into how you can identify and leverage consumer rituals around your brand, access our 20 Questions: Brands & Rituals worksheet.

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.

ROI

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