ASID Update: Successful Brands Start with Strategy

Sept. 9, 2009

Of all the services provided by designers of retail spaces, perhaps one of the most crucial is brand management.

Design magazines are filled with pictures of beautiful stores that win awards all the time. But beautiful stores go out of business every day (I have designed a few myself). “Beautiful” doesn’t necessarily ring the cash register. Beautiful doesn’t necessarily grow a brand. So what does?

I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to figure that question out. I started my interior design career as a designer of retail store prototypes. Today, I have my own retail brand development and management consulting firm. Here is what I have learned. It takes a strategic planning process—one that is not so difficult to master—to arrive at a store design that is truly a brand reflection: one that is targeted to specific guests and their own special desires and aspirations ... connecting with them in some meaningful way, and leaving them with a lasting impression that lingers in their lives (through the merchandise that they buy).

This process does not involve using focus groups to try to understand a customer or to discover what the customer wants or needs. Instead, it is about taking your “guests” to a completely new place; using the skills you possess to create the right, new future for them.

Asking customers what to do next is a common occurrence—and a common mistake—in market and product development. I’ll never forget the story Jack Trout, perhaps the most famous marketer of all time, tells about relying on customer advice.

At the time, Trout was working with Colgate-Palmolive, and they had deployed a team of researchers to do “man-on-the-street” interviews by the thousands—asking people all about what they wanted in a toothpaste product. Who among us has ever even spent two minutes thinking seriously about toothpaste? Of course, if asked a question, most people are happy to give an answer—even if it is one they just thought of at that moment. Colgate-Palmolive was ready to commit $50 million to a marketing and new-product campaign based on this “expert advice” that they had gotten from their “expert customers” on the street! As Trout says, this is no way to plan a brand expansion.

Business guru Tom Peters has a wonderful perspective on this part of the brand development process. He says (and I paraphrase), “Your customers are excellent rear-view mirrors for your brand. They can tell you where you’ve been, the potholes you’ve hit, and what they’ve liked most about the ride they’ve had so far. But they are not so reliable for looking forward, through the windshield, and telling you where your brand should go.”

As brand designers, and ultimately, experience designers, it is our job to know about our current guests and why they love our brand; about the ones we would like to attract; and about the tools for brand-building that we have at our disposal, so that we can envision the right future. We can then map that future out and make it come to life! It is our job, as designers, and ultimately, brand managers, to look ahead and plot a new direction that will take the business to the right destination—the strategic one (not the “pretty” one that some CEO’s spouse has envisioned and championed for the brand, with no strategy or thought besides personal likes and dislikes).

If we do our jobs right, then our loyal guests—the ones who have made our brand what it is and have always loved us—will see the refreshed brand (logo, signage, store interior, bag design and product display) and say, “This is what I always knew you could be! You’ve made yourself more perfect! This is what I always told you you could be!” (Of course, they didn’t, actually. We figured them out. What they are really saying is, “You’ve succeeded in making your brand more like me or more like my aspirations of who I want to be.”)

In this kind of environment, which perfectly matches our sensibilities and our aspirations of who we’d like to be (in some niche of our lives), we buy. We buy to bring these aspirations, feelings and “meanings” home with us and into our lives. And when the feelings begin to fade ... when they are no longer quite in sync with our ever-evolving personal image ... we go out and buy again! In this way, we seek to realize that vision of our “best selves” that we all aspire to (and that the brand manager at our favorite store has figured out).

The job of a brand manager is to bring some kind of meaningful new experience to life, in a way that reinforces the brand attributes customers respond to and that expands and rounds-out the brand’s unique “vocabulary” to create not only the right experience but a memorable one. The really great retail brands of the world—Prada, Channel, Banana Republic, even Costco—can stand alone without their logo-name signs and be instantly recognized. The multi-dimensional vocabulary they have developed and come to own to transmit their brand experience is completely distinctive.

Successful brand management, I have found, all revolves around strategy: planning, research and some simple lists of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to success. It’s a process I learned from ASID as I worked to develop myself as a successful interior designer. Today, “strategy” forms the basis of my success as a brand manager.

ASID president Bruce J. Brigham, FASID, ISP, IES, is an award-winning interior designer and authority on retail and lighting design. He is principal of Retail Clarity Consulting, specializing in retail design and brand development, based in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with clients in the United States, Hong Kong and PRC China. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or [email protected], and on the Web at www.asid.org.

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