Why only customer-centric companies have profitable retail brands

Hans Hulsbosch

Hans Hulsbosch is one of Australia’s most influential brand designers and the executive creative director at Hulsbosch – Communication by Design. Over the past 31 years, he has been involved in national rebranding and repositioning projects for Woolworths, Virgin Australia, Masters Home Improvement and national sports retailer, Rebel.

Profitable retail brands only come from customer-centric organisations.

There is sheer power in a strategically crafted master brand. Not only can it be used as a guide for all your brand communications, but the brand intelligence invested in it can be leveraged to completely transform your business. The purpose of a strategic branding program is to meaningfully, logically and visually communicate your brand’s offer, ultimately driving profitability.

In the midst of economists justifying consumers’ trepidation by broadcasting grim retail sales forecasts and falling profit margins, and then putting forward solutions that aggressively earmark staff and operational cost cutting, marketers are losing their footing - and dare I say their voice - in the business of brands and branding.

This is the discussion that should be taking place right now. While retail brands are investing so much time and energy in survival, some are missing opportunities due to ill considered or hastily made decisions that result in only temporary yet highly visible, multi-channel brand marketing activity.

It comes to you in perfect, social-sized chunks and work commute portions on each of your enabled devices. It winks at you on the train platform, inspires your next weekend’s plans and provides 15- and 30-second, often muted gap-fillers during your evening viewing of MasterChef or Wonderland. We can tick multiple communication boxes here, but it’s fair to question the real long-term effectiveness of much of this activity if it is widely recognised that it delivers on short-term objectives only.

Let’s reboot our understanding of brands by putting forward workable solutions for business success that puts strategic retail brand thinking back on centre stage, or at least on the stage.

So where does watertight brand thinking all start?

A good place is from within your organisation. Executive buy-in and leadership is crucial for a business to manage itself through change of any magnitude, especially when a cultural shift is required. It becomes a way of doing business, but the underlying message here is that your brand has to be central to your business if you’re chasing profitability.

Ensuring all employees have a basic understanding of the relationship between brand marketing and business performance is really no more complicated than understanding that the quality of your customer service significantly affects brand perception. We’ve all been on the receiving end; we all have a customer service story to tell.

Businesses that want their employees to live their brand, not just sell it, have a responsibility to empower their staff through mentoring and sharing of information. It’s always a useful reminder that employees are also consumers and not exempt from marketplace cynicism so involving them in your business where appropriate is not only good for them, it’s great for your brand too.

So you’ve put in place the right people and the right teams, which are led by the right marketing heads – but are they? I ask this question provocatively, but necessarily.

Your brand’s health goes beyond the above-the-line short term fixes such as TV campaigns, seasonal promotions and event sponsorships. Your brand marketing team should be able to articulate what your brand means to them, as well as when and how branding as a discipline fits into the business marketing plan.

If you acknowledge consumer cynicism yet ignore consumer demands and how to deliver on these, thereby actively demonstrating disdain, your market share will inevitably slide.

Vodafone’s delayed response to disgruntled customers has served Telstra well. It’s extraordinary that in the first half of 2013 Vodafone continued to lose another half a million customers. Didn’t this drama start to unfold back in 2011?

Also take note of Donut King. In September this year, the business announced its impending rebrand would focus on the in-store experience and make buying and eating their donuts fun. Whether you rate the rebrand or not, the point is the brand acknowledges the control that customers have, and are aware of the role technology and social media specifically, are playing in the mix. The rebrand talks to the repositioning, which is to be supported and communicated at all levels of the business. High street convenience food retailing is a highly competitive and cut-throat sector. Kudos goes to Donut King’s management for staying in tune with the company’s customer base, and responding strategically.

Then, there’s girls’ high street fashion retailer, Sportsgirl, which rebranded to Sg in 2009, and ask how it could possibly have survived 65 years without it having made some good brand decisions along the way.

Australians love value. We are natural bargain hunters and as marketers and brand owners we allow this to sabotage what’s actually best for our retail brands. We permit consumers’ ‘best deal’ mentality to drown out the real values, personality and quality of a product or service. We see this around us daily.

When brands miss the mark in their communications and resort to talking down or patronising audiences, consumers don’t engage. When brands slap together a brand logo without clear strategic objectives you achieve the same null result.

Dick Smith backed ‘fashtronics’ concept store, Move, which launched in October, fuses fashion and electronics and serves as a great example of a well executed branding program that speaks directly to its communication and assumed business objectives.

The combination of the subtle strength of the brand marque, the store design and impactful merchandising creates the promise of a potentially positive and interesting experience even before you’ve walked in-store.

Move adopts a customer service style usually experienced in high-end retail boutiques which I’m figuring will be a winning brand differentiator; and while 360 degree marketing isn’t new, Move stores use aromas to match music choice and selects music as appropriate to the time of day.

Tactical executions such as these ring true because of the application of common sense, but also and importantly because they respect the consumer, strategically. This sort of retail innovation is exciting and necessary in Australia if we want happy customers.

Customer service may seem like an obvious focus, but it’s given greater resonance if it’s built into and helps define a brand, rather than being an after-thought.

Your store is the physical manifestation of your brand, not just a sales channel, so the branded experience opportunities your brand presents should be uncovered and exploited for your consumers’ indulgence, at every opportunity.

Tags: customer experience management, brand insights, retail strategy

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