If you’re a 1980s child that grew up in North America as I did, you’ll likely count Sears and J.C. Penney as household names. You probably won’t be surprised to hear Sears filed for bankruptcy earlier this week and J.C. Penny is down 54% this past year against an S&P 500 performance of +10%. Long gone are the days of sifting through endless racks of clothing in downtown department stores and placing orders from un-curated catalogues.
The makings of a brand have also transformed at pace with its retail environment. A brand used to be synonymous with a trademark. Great emphasis was placed on its logo and the attributes depicted in its slogans — ‘where there’s Coke, there’s hospitality’ and ‘Tide knows fabrics best’ are two notable ones. The most successful brands spent a lot of money on creative agencies, catchy jingles and prime-time TV commercials.
This won’t cut it in today’s world.
A logo and a clever tagline are a solid start, but today’s brand is defined by the attributes a consumer associates with it, based on their engagement with that brand, from initial discovery through to purchase. There are dozens of touch points in-between: the email confirming newsletter subscription, the uniqueness of a pop-up store, right down to the packaging, thank you note and ease of return.
What makes or breaks a brand in this new world of experiences?
Technology has caused a huge shift in retail, enabling consumers to get to know the products we never knew we wanted. One’s Instagram feed is a collection of photos of the people, places, activities and companies we consider meaningful. There’s no place for just any advertisement making its way between the latest meme and our best friend’s addition to the family. These ads, astutely designed to mimic our friends’ posts, need to be relevant (whether on Instagram or elsewhere). Brands need to understand their target market and do the virtual sifting through clothing racks for each one of us, presenting a personalised and curated selection of products we will welcome the opportunity to peruse.
2. Product design
A close second to relevance is the requirement a brand provides products that are on-trend. Reformation does an excellent job of dressing millennial females in the US with what’s most fashionable each season. Furniture retailers such as Schoolhouse and Brosa are quick to show us the latest styles necessary to make our living spaces more beautiful. Design goes beyond trendiness to encompass utility. A tangible example: Quip has flourished with a single toothbrush ‘designed for every mouth’ to facilitate better hygiene, created when designers and dentists spent time together. Who doesn’t want a good-looking toothbrush that travels well and does a better job of cleaning our teeth?
3. Brand ethos
The steep rise of direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands requires a brand to think carefully about their broader impact on the world. Great design is an excellent start, but what else keeps this brand up at night? Think environmental sustainability (Reformation, for example), democratising what is otherwise unaffordable (Indochino, for example), helping the homeless (Bombas, for example), encouraging fair wages and social entrepreneurship (The Citizenry, for example), and delivering the best physical experience (Leesa, for example). When consumers have a choice of brands to address elastic needs, a relatable ethos and higher purpose can go a long way to differentiate the brand in the eyes of the socially minded consumer.
Relevance, design and ethos are key ingredients to getting discovered by new consumers, but how does a brand keep them coming back for more? By offering a consistent and dependable experience — clothes should fit in a consistent manner, comfort should be as good or better, delivery and returns need full transparency and ease of use, and customer support must be as helpful as it was the first time. Allbirds does an excellent job of building trust with its customer base through reliable quality and consistent service.
Relevance, product design, brand ethos, dependability — check. Can I go to market now?
No matter how fundamental these four pillars, they won’t stand for long without the glue that holds them together: a stellar consumer experience.
A brand needs to invest heavily in an exceptional consumer experience from day one. Consumers have come to expect this and successful brands are delivering. Take Lyft for example: following the very quick and painless resolution of a fare dispute, I received an email from its customer support stating “Lyft is meant to be an amazing experience so we do hope this didn’t taint your expectations from us”.
Note it’s not a product, and it’s not a service, it’s an experience.
Controlling experience end-to-end is the only mechanism by which new brands will accelerate the path to lasting value. Consumers are unforgiving in this day and age and one bad experience with quality, delivery or delayed returns can easily truncate that customer’s lifetime to just one purchase. The outsourcing or de-prioritisation of key elements of the customer journey is death for a brand trying to make its way in a world of experiences.