I went shopping the other day. To Sainsbury’s, but that’s not important. As I ambled along the aisles I saw two things that made me question if what I do for a living is evil and a third that restored my faith in the power of brand and design. Let me tell you about them…
The first was in pride of place in the bread section – a little poly-wrapped loaf of ‘crustless’ bread. Now don’t misunderstand me, I like my snacks to be maize based, my wheat in puffed form and my MSG bountiful. A man who eats as many crisps as me is no food snob but, really, crustless bread? That’s one step away from me getting a trolley full of baby food every week because ‘it all goes down the same hole’.
It’s not the quality of the loaf or the packaging that was unnerving – it’s the brand idea. What is this in the world to do? The fact it exists at all means someone thought the idea had legs. I blame all of us.
This is a product not born of passion and determination but of consumer research and focus groups. We asked the public what they wanted and they said this. Not everyone can make their own hummus or sun-dry their own tomatoes but this isn’t about convenience, it’s about laziness; too lazy to cut, too lazy to chew. This is Henry Ford’s premonition of faster horses brought to life as an anaemic blob of carbohydrates.
Focus groups are fascinating places to be - in an anthropological sense. The ones that I have been in seem to always follow the same patterns. Loud person dominates the room for a bit, then everyone turns on them, nothing much gets resolved and the occasional bit of gold comes from the quiet one in the corner. Focus groups have their place but not as a way of ‘testing’ a brand. You can’t test the unknown. You just bring a carousel of baggage from other things to it. Viewpoints from a wider audience have to be baked in as you develop a brand idea but not taken wholesale as the answer. A large part of what we do at Wolff Olins is to balance what the world thinks it wants with what we think it really needs to succeed in the future.
The second thing I saw was a copy of a national newspaper. Its entire front page was devoted to the split of a band who were runners up in a talent contest in 2008. It’s a shame. But is it the single most important thing 3.13 million people need to be told about on Wednesday 24 April 2013?
I know tabloid newspapers are there to entertain as much as to inform, so it’s not the paper or even JLS that bother me, it’s how the JLS brand came to be and the plain safeness of it all.
The band are universally liked; sister, brother, granny, mother, everyone agrees they are/were definitely OK. And that’s the issue. Like the crustless bread JLS were born of consensus. 28 writers are credited on their first album. 34.66% of 8 million viewers thought they were better than Alexandra Burke. Of course Marvin and JB will sell more papers than Syria – it’s a safe bet.
The Manic Street Preachers once said “we don’t want to be anyone’s second favourite”, all or nothing, you’re with us or you’re with someone else. The best brands think and act like that – fearless and peerless, they take risks and know that if they are striking out on their own they are, at least, doing one thing right.
Bringing a great brand to life needs strong creative leadership and similarly bold approach with singular decision-making. A clear vision for people to get behind, coupled with a desire to not play by the rules. It’s about maintaining that passionate startup mentality no matter how mature your business is.
Which leads me to the final thing I saw (not surprisingly, in the drinks aisle). A single bottle of Swedish Vodka by a 134-year old brand, and next to it another perfectly un-identical version, row upon row of discordant bottles, sat like interlopers at a tea party.
The idea of limited edition bottles is nothing new but this bottle was one of four million, each one different from the next. I saw the idea for this a few months ago at an awards ceremony. Naturally, it did well but on the shelf it makes even more sense. I watched an old woman put three in her trolley; the care with which she chose each specific bottle from the shelf implied she wasn’t planning to get off her head. What I like the most is this is a perfect extension of the spirit of the brand. A brand that has spent years building the idea of their bottle being a canvas for creativity and now, in an ultimate act of confidence, taking their production line apart to make it a reality. It’s different, brave and it just works.
This is particularly relevant for the UK in 2013. Hell, we even run a government on a consensus driven timeshare basis. But today, more than ever, we need great brand ideas and innovative design to hurl us forward rather than nanny us with vanilla blandness, telling us what we want to hear. We should be making a concerted effort to shake ourselves out of a triple dip funk by embracing the different and difficult. There’s a great opportunity in these times of austerity to break the rules, make some new ones, to put some noses out of joint.
Great brands are peerless, they rebel. They say ‘I’m doing it this way, you do what you like.’
Let’s be more like that.
Chris Moody is Creative Director at Wolff Olins London.
Ask anyone who even slightly cares about a band or a specific genre of music and they will tell you that they do much more than listen…
Real fans feel music. Real fans buy records on the sleeve design alone. Real fans have the download, the single, the Japanese import and the 12inch of the same record because it just feels different on vinyl. Real fans can taste the snakebite and smell the sweat in the venue when they heard ‘that’ song for the first time.
Music lives in fans’ hearts and they take that spirit with them everywhere, not just when they walk into a venue or turn on the hifi.
HMV, UK’s largest music retailer, going into administration last week shows just how much the former top-dog has lost its way. Yes HMV’s old business model is sickly, but there’s something in its heritage that could be it’s cure. In the 50’s it was one of the very first experiential shopping experiences. With road closures for store openings and personal booths that played everyone from Little Richard to Big Joe Turner.
HMV was a sensory overload on the High Street…The 80’s love of plastic and disposability should have been the warning sound. The bloated record industry went a bit Phil Spector and shot itself in the foot with astronomical margins for CDs and their tacky jewel cases, forcing the stores to become grand warehouses for alphabetised blandness. And everyone knows that someone who organises their CDs in alphabetical order is a bore…
By the early noughties, fun, danger and exploration had left the building. Bays of iPods and speakers neatly displayed next to the racks of CD holders showed the customer how confused stores had become. Outside the store, HMV did little to celebrate our passion or get people more into music.
HMV became bland, like an Amazon.com warehouse in real life.
Suggestions that labels like Universal, Warner and Sony will join forces to “save” HMV don’t bode well for the brand’s long-term viability. Their involvement is likely to perpetuate old model thinking, putting formats before fans, and prevent the necessary transformation that needs to take place.
The key for HMV to find its feet again is to remember what it’s selling—and it’s not five inches of plastic. It’s selling icons, future memories, soundtracks to adolescence, friends and the experience of finding music. Their job is to excite people; make them dwell, explore, discover.
That said, here are four ways we think HMV could do their job better:
1) MIX IT UP With each HMV store stocking the same anodyne guff anyone can buy cheaper online, customers are only likely to go into store if they know what they want. There’s a parallel to look to in the world of fast food or fast fashion: Byron burger sell patties all over London but no two restaurants are the same because no two sites are the same. Topshop has different stock in every store, spanning the range from big volume to boutique. And while some of HMV’s current stores might be the wrong size, there is still a place for various sizes and shapes of HMV stores up and down the country. What if HMV Hackney had exclusives that HMV Kings Road didn’t?
2) BECOME A DESTINATION AGAIN HMV has some iconic retail locations, but there is no reason to meet your mate in the once brilliant Oxford Street store. HMV could stop acting like a supermarket and became a destination again. A place people want to hang out in to experience the passionate, exciting and escapist world of music that shapes young identities and returns spirit to old ones. Think in-store gigs, in-house DJ’s not high rotation fodder, record label take-overs, second-hand sellers, boutique concessions. Give His Masters Voice some personality again.
3) EMPLOY PASSION Celebrate difference and discovery by hiring all sorts of people that live and breathe music (just like Majestic staff not only love but speak passionately about wine). Reward staff that write reviews, go to gigs, tattoo their favourite band to their arm. A conversation with someone in store should always leads visitors to walking away with more great discoveries. Amazon proudly claims to never have accidents, but we’ve all discovered brilliant bands by accident. HMV can be the place where we do that again.
4) EMBRACE DIGITAL Not as a competitor to the retail store, but something that compliments it and gives people more of what they want. Just as our music tastes are a mixed bag of obscure artists and guilty pleasures, so too are our listening habits that include Spotify, vinyl, iTunes and good-old radio. Digital isn’t just a channel. It’s a cost-efficient and scalable way to play a more useful role in customers’ lives. HMV can lead the way with curated email newsletters, surprising online radio stations, and shared playlists for all the music moments in our lives.
Today, we’re enabled to listen to more music than ever before. This is a great thing. HMV can be one of the few brands at the very top of the tree that help us get more into music and become fans. Real fans feel music and will follow it everywhere. And that’s a powerful place from which to build a brand.
We all make mistakes. But often, those mistakes provide an opportunity to show people just how good you are at dusting yourself off and trying again. Today, as brands’ relationships with consumers become increasingly based in the digital, the possibility of a quick error affecting your consumers at scale is ever increasing. Take, for example, this email Eastern Mountain Sports sent out last night to anyone who’d ever shopped at their store:
It’s more important than ever that brands be flexible, human, and have a sense of humor when things like that happen. This is an example of a brand doing just that, turning a blunder into a lovely Thanksgiving bonus.
Rachel Blatt is global content manager at Wolff Olins.
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, retailers (and shoppers) everywhere are gearing up for the post-turkey rush – pushing opening hours further and further into the wee hours of the night to lure customers through their doors first. But with online sales expected to grow 15% to $68.4 billion this holiday season (Forrester), is Cyber Monday ultimately on the path to eclipse Black Friday?
There’s certainly an underlying and intensifying industry concern that digital is cannibalizing brick and mortar – pushing in-store sales online and online sales to other (cheaper) online retailers. There’s no denying the trend but there is something savvy retail brands can do about it. As with any major industry shift – in retail or otherwise – big moments of change are scary, but can equally present opportunities to capitalize and reinvent for the future.
Here are three inventive ways to think differently about the online/offline shopping experience this holiday season and beyond:
1. Leverage learnings from an online world to drive offline sales
The growth of online shopping has a lot to do with two ideas: convenience and access. The web as this infinite, ubiquitous platform makes it easier than ever to find what you need and discover what you didn’t realize you wanted. And in one click, to get it delivered to your door overnight. For a huge population of shoppers this is an ideal value proposition – cut out all the hassle of in-store shopping: the lines, the mess, the people, the pressure. In the context of Black Friday, where people literally trample over one another to get the best deal, calm, clean Cyber Monday has it’s appeal.
However, while some shopping is about buying goods and getting on with it, there’s a whole culture of shopping that’s about the act of shopping. Being in a physical space, among other people, discovering products in a non-linear manner, finding things you never expected, trying them out live, spending time in a cramped dressing room where you can ask the advice of strangers. There’s something magical about real live shopping – perhaps more magical to some than others.
But consumers today are smart. They know how to get the best of both worlds – the physical, tactile experience of shopping in-store with the convenience and ease of purchasing it online. It’s called “showrooming.” And it wouldn’t be a problem were it not for an increasing number of online-only retailers who can undercut the cost of goods because they don’t have the large overhead costs of keeping up physical stores. Try at Circuit City; buy on Amazon… we all know how that story goes.
In this climate, retail brands can’t just continue on with old ways of doing business. For one, having a strong, user-friendly ecommerce platform that’s closely integrated with the offline sales and merchandising strategy is a must, not a nice-to-have. Even if your customers can’t get your products anywhere else today, you can bet they’ll find a way tomorrow – with or without you in the picture. Mono-channel is no longer an option in an omni-channel world.
One way that retailers are working towards becoming omni-channel is by more seamlessly integrating web with brick and mortar capabilities. Large retailers like Nordstrom and Macy’s are linking online and store inventories for greater efficiency and accuracy. The Container Store takes a page from online shopping (and wedding registries) into its stores by allowing urban customers to shop, scan and buy items in-store without having to physically take those purchases with them. Instead, they’re delivered to your door later that day at a time window of your choosing. Whole Foods does something similar with same-day delivery – taking the schlep out of urban shopping and removing the potential barriers that might lead customers to switch to an online-only option.
2. Remove the online barriers
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Brands like Amazon.com or Soap.com have online shopping down to a science – literally. And while it’s not realistic to suggest that all (or any) other retail brands can out-Amazon Amazon, they can at least consider how to apply some best practices to their own business. This is certainly not new thinking, but it’s still relevant – super simple sign-up, one-click purchasing, free shipping, hassle-free returns, underpromising and overdelivering on shipping expectations, transparent, consistent, and instant communications, secure payments, reliable customer service, predictive promotions…
As category by category reaches their own tipping points in the online shopping curve (for example, Warby Parker’s approach to eyeglass ecommerce), swimming against the current to maintain better margins or to keep sales in-stores will only lead to further opportunities for cannibalization – from other online retailers who do it better.
3. Redefine the role of the store
Back to the magic of shopping. If today’s consumers are increasingly using stores as showrooms, I say double down and let them do as they please. As long as you’re working to remove the barriers to purchase from an online perspective (as described above), and you agree with the premise that a sale is a sale regardless of channel, then it really shouldn’t matter if the POS takes place online or off.
Which means there’s an opportunity to rethink the purpose of physical space. Online space is (basically) free, whereas offline space – especially prime real estate space – can be quite expensive. So when brands have both (and more cost-effective warehouses stocked with inventory to fulfill online orders), why use them for the same purpose? Especially when customers have every incentive to make the ultimate purchase online.
This thought speaks to the ‘experiential store,’ or the idea of store as a marketing tool. In other words, using your prime real estate spaces to give your customers an experience they can’t have anywhere else – and certainly not online. Giving them opportunities to engage with your brand beyond the transaction. To engage with your people beyond a call center. In this way, brick and mortar stores can become social/experiential hubs that build the kind of equity and loyalty that’s increasingly hard to come by in a very crowded world. Much like Niketown in NYC or London (Nike iD), REI in Denver (REI Outdoor School), and of course – Apple… everywhere.
An interesting observation – retailers focused on children were way ahead of the curve on this – case in point: American Girl Stores, Build-a-Bear Workshops, FAO Schwarz. What all of these brands have in common is an experience-based, engaging offline strategy to get customers in stores and keep them coming back. Oh, and that they all target little kids with short attention spans probably has something to do with it.
If you consider some of the major the shifts in consumer behavior that have resulted from an increasingly digital landscape, retailers might do well to think about their customers like impatient children – more demanding, less patient, more fickle, less loyal!
As with any major industry shift – in retail or otherwise – big moments of change are scary, but they can also present opportunities to be inventive for the future. Retailers who look for ways to leverage learnings from an online world to drive their offline sales, remove their online barriers, and experiment with the role of the store will have the edge this holiday season and beyond.
Marissa Vosper is a senior strategist at Wolff Olins New York.
The official commencement of New York Fashion Week.
The small economic kick-start project turned overnight global phenomenon.
The post-Labor Day weeknight when, despite saying our goodbyes to beloved Summer Fridays, it still feels abuzz with summer in the air.
Fashion’s Night Out (FNO or now #FNO) is more than just a successful publicity stunt with corresponding printed t-shirts and celebutantes (ahem, Usher?) – it’s a reminder of what great retail can, and should be.
There’s something about the offline nature of FNO that brings this to light. That gets people away from their screens and into the streets – even if for just one night.
It’s a reminder of why real, brick and mortar stores still matter.
Why shopping, live, is irreplaceable.
For the luxury sector especially, expressing that offline allure is the ultimate challenge in a digitized world. Which begs a variety of open questions like, how does a luxury retail brand signal high quality and craftsmanship without the ability to touch and feel? How can a luxury retailer maintain an air of exclusivity and ceremony in a medium that’s completely open? How can luxury establish a recognizable editorial voice amid the infinite web of other, often confusingly similar voices – both quiet and loud?
Part of the trick (and of course I’m biased) is having a thoughtful, cohesive brand strategy that guides decision-making, both online and off – from dressing rooms to zoom capabilities to Instagram posts.
Now, this is not to say that the online experience ought to mimic offline to be considered cohesive. Quite the contrary – many brick and mortar brands too often fall into the trap of digital reflection, using the online space to simply duplicate a physical space – a web 1.0 “shopping cart” mentality.
A few of the more digitally behind luxury brands that come to mind (and accordingly rank low on the L2 Digital IQ Index) – despite my personal love (or distaste) for their collections – Zac Posen, St. John, Mikimoto, Manolo Blahnik, Moschino, Givenchy.
The fact of the matter is that the capability, and hence the typical customer interaction, on a web or mobile site versus in a store is completely different. Which means the strategic design of those experiences should be – well, quite different. This presents an opportunity, but also requires more effort. Ultimately, the exploding influence of digital makes it all the more critical for brands to get their teams across platforms – whether web, mobile and/or in-store – completely and obsessively focused on a unified, focused brand purpose.
The job of a strong brand then, is to tie those pieces together such that the sum of the pieces is greater than the whole. The brand’s purpose should clearly come to life through its various platforms, but should equally be able to flex in how it expresses itself, based on those different contexts. Complimentary, not cannibalizing. Driving customers in-store, online, and back for more.
Marissa Vosper is a senior strategist at Wolff Olins New York.
As announced last month, Nike and Cole Haan are parting ways after 24 years.
The original vision for the acquisition was a model in which both brands benefited, with Nike making strides (sorry!) in the fashion space and Cole Haan benefitting from Nike’s credibility and marketing power.
But that brand relationship, while long-lived, never fully blossomed.Cole Haan did become infused with “Nike-ness,” most obviously in borrowing naming conventions (Air Franklin) and performance technology (Lunarlon cushioning!). And classic sneaker style even emerged through bold color and texture choices.But Nike received little in return, with few consumers even recognizing their ownership of Cole Haan.
Now, Nike is pulling the trigger to tighten up, betting on continued international expansion and enhancing the technological innovation and sustainability angle of its core brand.Going forward, the company will use its internal Venture Capital arm (the Sustainable Business & Innovation lab, established last September) to acquire companies focused on alternative energies/efficient manufacturing and brands promoting healthy lifestyles (hello Patagonia?!).
And Cole Haan?Where might this brand land?Over the past month, analysts have predicted that another shoe company (like Wolverine Worldwide) or a massive house of brands (like VF Corp) might gobble up Cole Haan, but we’d hate to see this happen.
From a brand perspective, it’d be significantly more fulfilling to see someone like J. Crew step up.Someone who could fill the influential parent role more actively, who could benefit from the natural brand synergies that Cole Haan enables, and who could use Cole Haan to fill out their ecosystem.
Right?If you were J.Crew, wouldn’t you consider picking up Cole Haan? At their best, both go for that “new vintage-luxury,” emphasizing attributes like craftsmanship, pride, and heritage.While Nike-ness showed the Cole Haan brand new directions, J.Crew could bring it back to its classic American roots while maintaining the design-focused ethos that Nike successfully embedded.
And integration wouldn’t even be that hard.Through its “In Good Company” program (which it describes as “Our gallery of brand partnerships- a meticulously curated collection based on quality, craftsmanship, and of course, cool factor”), J.Crew has established itself as a curator, an authority on style.And in doing so, it has created an ecosystem that encompasses more than just clothing.With partnerships ranging from Ray-Ban to Alden already in place, why not make the jump to own and influence some of these brands?
As it looks to expand its retail footprint, J. Crew could use a brand-led acquisition strategy to take the In Good Company thinking to the next level.If successful, the brand will find huge growth as they evolve from from a product-focused brand into a curatorial ally.
“Change the way we shop forever.” It’s a big idea, but can it really be done? Marks and Spencer seems to think so.
We know that demonstrating social impact is a big deal for commercial organisations these days, but social commitments can be quite hard to pin down, often too intangible, somehow peripheral to the person on the street.
Quite a lot was made of Marks and Spencer’s Plan A when it launched in 2007, not surprising since their stated ambition is to be the worlds most sustainable retailer. For M&S, Plan A is “not only the right thing to do,” it is “the only way to do business.” The good news is that it seems to be working, and its remit has grown. There are currently 180 sustainable initiatives going on within the business under the Plan A banner – from treating suppliers fairly to being the first UK retailer to charge for carrier bags.
Of course, having the right partners in place makes a huge difference. The most effective commercial and social partnerships are between organisations who share a common sense of purpose. Take Boots and Macmillan Cancer Support – whose aim is to make cancer information available and accessible on every high street, or Orange and Rockcorps – bringing people together with a big dose of optimism for the future.
One of M&S’ highest profile partners in delivering Plan A has been Oxfam, and so far the most visible face of this partnership has been their clothes exchange, where you get a £5 M&S voucher when you take unwanted M&S clothes to Oxfam. But anyone who’s been watching commercial TV in the last week or so will notice that the partnership has been taken to a new level. This new level is called ‘Shwopping.’ Essentially it’s a scheme where you can drop your unwanted clothes at M&S, but it feels like something bigger.
Bigger not because it’s fronted by the new face of Plan A, Joanna Lumley (though it can’t really hurt can it?) Bigger not even because they’ve coined a new name for it. Like other names that seem to fit the zeitgeist (‘bromance’, ‘sexting’) the name ‘Shwopping’ is one part annoying and four parts catchily obvious. But if you’re trying to get people to do something new then giving that thing a name is a smart move.
The main reason it feels bigger is because it’s a statement of M&S’ bigger purpose beyond just profit – an ambition to fundamentally change the way we think about how we shop – but one which we can all contribute to really easily. And the way it’s presented is almost too easy to resist: from Joanna telling us that it’s as obvious as recycling bottles, to the ‘Shwop drop’ boxes in store tothe intuitive and interactive website with real time totalisers and step by step guides.
It’s a challenge for big businesses to make their purpose beyond profit visible in everything they do, in a way which fits with their day to day business rather than feels like an add on. It feels like M&S has raised the bar with this.
“Ms. Filley and Mr. Dominguez persuaded a landlord to offer pop-up stores free six-month leases in locations that, in some cases, have been vacant for years. The merchants have a goal of turning a profit during the six months and then signing a longer-term lease, at a price to be negotiated. The landlord, Peter Sullivan Associates, is hoping that the free short-term leases will turn into longer-term revenue.”
Compared to the proliferation of pop-up retail by any big player from Target to Gucci, Popuphood’s approach harnesses the David and Goliath effect of rooting for the underdog - and the sense of possibility that comes with it.
Drawing on what seems like a tired marketing strategy for a solution that’s experimental, transient, urgent, novel and efficient, Popuphood’s strategy is a great example of boundaryless and constant beta behaviors we described in our recent Gamechangers report.
The Popuphood project made us wonder:
+ What can city planners learn from retailers?
+ What are other examples of success being redefined as fluid versus fixed experiences?
+ As more categories look to transform themselves from B2B to B2C – like healthcare and financial services – what can they learn from a pop up mentality?
+ Artist Julia Christensen’s Big Box Reuse project: how communities are repurpose abandoned retail spaces
+ Generation Sell: “Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business” (New York Times)
+ London’s Boxpark, a pop-up mall made of old shipping containers
+ “Urban culture is retail culture” (Trendwatching, Retail Renaissance)
A “Match Made in Merchant Heaven” was the headline this morning on Forbes, describing the recent partnership/funding announcement between upstart menswear e-retailer, Bonobos and department store darling, Nordstrom.Or as Evelyn Rusli of the New York Times termed it “a symbiotic deal,” whereby Bonobos will aim to illuminate the Nordstrom execs on all things online in exchange for $16.4M in cash and a retail presence in some 100 Nordstrom locations nationwide.
What’s interesting is that, while most companies are desperately attempting (and sometimes failing) to take their offline concepts online, Bonobos (with help from Nordstrom) is moving in the opposite direction – but not for the reason you might expect.
Certainly a brick and mortar presence provides a physical scale that the Internet cannot replicate. But for a company like Bonobos, who has leveraged the limitless scale of the web to grow more rapidly than most (the company launched in 2007 and is now the fastest growing men’s clothing retailer online), this physical presence is more about marketing than point-of-purchase. According to Rusli, “by 2011, [Bonobos] was devoting about 20 percent of its revenue to marketing, about double the previous year. The hope is that the Nordstrom partnership will expose Bonobos to new clients, particularly those who may not be shopping online”… yet.
Tug of Store is simple: A picture of an item pops up, and you click on the left side if it’s crap, on the right side if it’s cool, tugging against whoever else is clicking on the site. After a hundred clicks, the verdict flashes on the screen, and the next watch / kayak / pair of shoes steps forth to be judged.
The site is an experiment with the recently released Svpply API, playing on elements of Chat Roulette, Hot or Not, and the convention of Facebook’s thumbs up.
Mercifully, there is no nuanced engagement, no “thinking,” and no actual shopping. After only a few moments, Tug of Store gives you a clear verdict, and a list of the coolest and crappiest stores.At the time of this blog post, the coolest is Etsy, and the crappiest is End Clothing.
The site accelerates what shopping on the internet has become: this product is crap, this product is cool, and that’s the whole story.