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How has brand marketing changed for retailers

A sculpture

When Auckland went into its fourth lockdown, I woke up on a Sunday morning kicking myself - I hadn’t made it to the garden centre the day before.

In a nutshell

  1. The definition of brand trust in retail is expanding from just products and services to now, what the company stands for.
  2. Digital is now a large part of retailers’ brand experience.
  3. Retailers are changing their product placement to facilitate faster, more streamlined trips.  
  4. Organisations are weaving people into their brand purpose, specifically in what they do for their employees.

My garden project was now in jeopardy. Still in bed, I jumped onto Mitre10’s website, expecting at least another few days before I could get anything delivered or even picked up under lockdown rules. 

But what a pleasant surprise! The website already had lockdown messages up and the COVID-19 process in place. I booked an appointment for contactless pick-up that morning, and within one hour of purchase, I was out in the garden completing my project. 

The effort to get a process like this setup and working must have been huge for Mitre10. But it is undoubtedly worth it. From a customer perspective, it was seamless, intuitive and, frankly, gave me a very positive brand impression. 

Mitre10 is not the only retailer adapting to our new times. The retail industry is going through extraordinary change, not just due to changing operational requirements due to lockdowns, but adapting to evolving consumer behaviour. 

Where does this change leave brand marketing for retailers? Should we throw out the timeless paradigms of marketing and usher in a new set of rules for retail?

In short? No. The timeless principles of brand marketing, as described by Connon Bray here, still apply, but it is how these are used that needs to evolve with our times – the THEN and NOW of marketing. 

Then – trust in what we provide

Now – trust in what we stand for

Trust in retail is not new. To keep up with consumer demand for transparency, retailers focused investment on the quality of their products and supply chain. With social media providing an instant feedback loop, this was essential to avoid the brand exposure risk of not being up to scratch. For example, calls for transparency on where products are sourced led to major retailers such as Kathmandu building sustainable sourcing into their core marketing messaging.

However, the definition of trust in retail is expanding from just products and services to now, what the company stands for. The public reaction to The Warehouse making a large scale restructure just months after receiving a government wage subsidy is an example of this.

"Change almost never fails because it's too early. It almost always fails because it's too late." - Seth Godin

The shock of COVID-19 led many retailers to examine what they truly offer. There has been a dominant narrative that product innovation is the silver bullet for maintaining or growing retail revenues. However, this proposition proliferation has the risk of brand dilution if deviating too far from the brand promise. If you are a specialist, do specialist really well. Think long and hard before deviating too far from your core promise. It might have a detrimental impact on consumer trust in what you stand for. 

Then – digital is a key marketing channel

Now – digital underpins business transformation

Digital advertising continues to grow and plays a big role in the marketing mix. But the role of digital in retail is evolving. When the coronavirus hit, digital transformation accelerated overnight. This, in turn, elevated consumer expectations in terms of what companies could do for them with a digital experience. Where once digital was thought of as another marketing or ecommerce channel, digital is now a large part of retailers’ brand experience. My experience with Mitre10 is a case in point. 

The evolution is more than just a seamless digital transaction. It’s the personalised digital experiences across all the retail moments that matter. An example of this is MAC cosmetics, known for quality products and helpful in-store staff, always ready to do an   on-the-spot makeover. During the pandemic, MAC trained all sales associates in ‘virtual selling’, in order to maintain the one-to-one communication that is vital within cosmetics retail. This strategy has proven highly effective and has remained part of their brand experience today. According to Sabrina Herlory, Managing Director for MAC, “70% of customers who received advice remotely then moved on to a physical store for purchase.” A true reflection of an evolving business model, where digital has become core to the business strategy.

Then – design for customers to go deeper for longer

Now – design for speed and seamless experiences

In the last year, centuries worth of retail design principles have turned upside down. Most retail stores are designed to encourage customers to go deeper into the store and spend more time shopping around. If you are anything like me, this can be a frustrating experience – even a familiar supermarket or hardware store can feel like a maze. These retail design principles are based on revenue and basket-size optimisation. However, as consumer expectations of ‘brand experience’ in retail heighten (even big box retail), they are being challenged. 

Retailers are changing their product placement to facilitate faster, more streamlined trips. The pandemic accelerated the consumer need to get in and out quickly, and heightened the expectation that retailers should discourage customers from touching items they don’t purchase. Eating samples at a supermarket, trying on lipstick or waiting in overcrowded changing rooms now feels unnatural and unsafe. 

In Texas, Target has created a dual entrance for shoppers. One side of the store is for quick grab-and-run items such as pre-packaged food and everyday items, while the other side is designed for inspiration, leisurely shopping and instore support. This has customer experience benefits but also improves operational efficiency. 

Contactless payment at your checkouts is a great start. But it’s now time to look at the overall retail experience – this is what could bring customers back into the physical environment and help you stand out. 

Then – our people represent our brand

Now – Our brand represents our people

Retail is an industry where people are a big touch-point of the brand, especially in the physical environment. Retailers have invested in training, conversation scripts, uniforms and behaviours all to create a consistent frontline employee experience for customers. This crafting of ‘people to represent the brand’ has always come from a control perspective, or brand first, people second. 

Now we see organisations weaving people into their brand purpose, specifically in what they do for their employees. Countless examples have popped up as a result of the pandemic: organisations putting safety of employees first, prioritising staff over the maximisation of revenue, cafés continuing single server per table and social distancing even when lockdowns are over. A small business survey in the US showed 33% of businesses continue to spend on improving the safety measures in their business as a result of the coronavirus, despite it cutting into profits. 

Taking a wider perspective, workplace wellbeing is becoming a critical pillar to a retail brand’s purpose. Whether this might be flexible working policies, mental support schemes or working environment changes to foster greater engagement and cater for different working styles. 

The retail market is accelerating through a major transformation. Timeless brand theory provides guardrails. But we need to evaluate how these can evolve to fit with the context and help us stay ahead of consumer needs. The brands that move from a THEN to a NOW mindset, keeping CX and purpose central, stand to gain the most in our new retail world. 

This article was published in the latest issue of Frame magazine.

Frame magazine

Black and white headshot of Shaun Fitzgibbon, partner at TRA
Shaun Fitzgibbon
Partner at TRA

New problems need new solutions.

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