What’s in a brand?

There was a (relatively) brief moment when the retail industry really thought in-store would dwindle and eventually be seen as archaic. Like the wired house-phone or the CD player. The demise of some companies in favour of their online alternatives (i.e. Blockbuster vs Netflix) didn’t really help quell any fears of an ‘online-takeover’, particularly as retailers increasingly had to come to grips with sharing their industry’s profits with the likes of Amazon and Asos. But if anything can prove that in-store is not obsolete, it’s the recent move by online giants to open up bricks-and-mortar shops (think Amazon and Microsoft). And a very, very large part of that has to do with branding, engagement, and the employee.

It’s starting to become generally understood that in-store and online have a complementary, not competing, relationship. In the same way that brands use different social media channels to communicate with their audiences, retailers can provide different benefits to their customers over different channels. In-store retail is going through a necessary transformation at the moment. In her book The New Retail Revolution: Bricks and Mortar Stores are not Dead Just Different, Joanna Arhontis perfectly sums up the journey that in-store shopping is going through: “Evolution, devolution, revolution”. And right now, in-store retail is at the stage of revolution.

Branding and the in-store experience

In its first instance, shopping is about satisfying a need. But when products are replicated into hundreds of similar variations by hundreds of producers, the key differentiator becomes the brand and what it means, stands for, and how it relates to a consumer.

Branding began hundreds of years ago – in the 16th Century, to be precise, when “to brand” referred to burning a mark on cattle that would help identify them should they be lost or stolen. This was a label, a mark of ownership if anything. In the 19th Century this ‘label of ownership’ evolved into a ‘label of quality’. Once products such as ales and wines started to be shipped by more and more producers, the ‘label’ of a brand was a sign of quality. Then, in the late 1920’s, Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud and so-called father of public relations, started the move of associating products not with quality but with bigger ideas. The end goal was to convince people to buy a product because of the idea it communicated (Bernays sold cigarettes to women by convincing them that smoking symbolised their emancipation). Bernays called this Propaganda, and as the word suggests it was a lot more about window-dressing than real values.

But today, brands can’t get away with window-dressing. Authenticity and consistency are key – at every single touchpoint a brand needs to communicate one distinct personality. Today, brands stand for something. They are characters with opinions and beliefs, and any discrepancies between what a brand says and what a brand does weaken this “character’s” legitimacy and breaks ties to those who felt they could relate to it. Branding is about relationships and trust, but how does this relate to in-store?

In first place, in-store is the perfect empirical brand experience. Online is convenient, it time-saving, and it’s effortless. But online is to in-store what Skype calls are to dinner-parties. It’s a full immersion into the brand. Ted Baker is an excellent example: the shops feel like the brand’s home, rather than simply a retail space. And this is where the employee plays a huge role.

Employees are a brand’s greatest advocates. If a brand doesn’t do enough to engage their employees, that brand’s legitimacy is weakened the moment this disengaged employee interacts with a shopper. But if an employee truly stands behind their brand, that’s when they become the strongest relationship builders between brands and their consumers. Retailers need to empower employees – they have the potential to be so much more than boots on the ground facilitating a transaction. Employees are key relationship builders.

Great relationships must start in-house

In first place, brands need to nurture their relationships with their employees at least as strongly as they do with consumers. Brand identity – that is, the character that brands then present to their consumers – is an internal construct. While a brand is a strategically thought out persona, this persona is executed by a company’s employees in the form of culture, behaviour, goals, etc. It is really important to communicate a brand clearly, and to engage employees to make them feel like they are a part of this identity (because they are).

In second place, employees need to be given the necessary tools to do a great job. Employees shouldn’t be put on the shop floor simply to facilitate a transaction, they’re there to create relationships and engage with customers. And for this, they need time and freedom to do so. Understaffing, for example, is a huge problem for retailers – not just because certain customers are left unserviced, but because of the restrictions it places on employees to build those strong relationships. And this is where retail needs to take a close look at how it runs its operations – because small inefficiencies like incorrect staffing can seriously impact an employee’s ability to be more than transaction facilitators.

Technology – facilitating engagement

Online is inherently embracing of technology because of the platform it lives on, but that’s not to say in-store should do the opposite. Companies have focused their innovation spend so heavily on online that the shop itself was largely neglected for years. Over the past five years there has been a move towards tech-accessories in bricks-and-mortar, an attempt to bring retailers closer to their tech-savvy consumers (like VR and personalised digital advertising). But the processes and operations that ran these stores were, and generally still are, seriously outdated. A great example is staff scheduling. This is often still done on paper handouts and spreadsheets, and staff are rostered based on nothing but gut-feel. This results in under and/or overstaffing, inflexible schedules, limited work-life balance for employees, and valuable time spent writing up and editing schedules.

A brand no longer begins and ends with a logo and a product. A brand is a carefully planned and honestly executed character with countless connotations. At the very core of this character is it’s team, and this is one of the key things that in-store retail needs to hone in on. Employees need to be empowered and absolutely engaged, something that technology can play a significant role in, in order to be the strong advocates they can be.

Guest Author

Sofie Malá

Communications Strategist – Rotageek

Do not miss the Retail Recharged event, taking place in London on October 11th 2017. In just a few years, Retail Recharged has established itself as the not-to-be-missed half-day, highly curated and invite-only Retail event, which attracts a fantastic crowd.

Retail Recharged puts retailers and learning at the centre of the event. Every year there are talks, panel discussions and debates on specific topics. Some of the best start-ups showcase their products.

This year’s key topics are:

  • Personalisation
  • Global Expansion
  • Brand Engagement

Unlike many other events, Retail Recharged is all about helping retailers surf the continuous waves of innovation.


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