A Lesson From Three Top Retailers: How To Create a Valuable Identity Through Retail
According to Inc., there are more than 500,000 brands worldwide in more than 2,000 categories. Wow! As a retail brand, how do you create value in a very saturated and quickly evolving market? It can often feel like an abstract – and sometimes unachievable – mission. But it can be done! Whether you’re the new brand on the block or a longtime legacy retail brand, there’s always an opportunity to continue building your identity at retail to make your brand more valuable in consumers’ (and investors) eyes. In this article, we’ll take a look at how three brands at different stages of their retail journey have crafted their experience to create value and further their brand identity with consumers.
Different Brands. Different Phases. All Leading to Brand Equity.
We’re going back to branding basics here, but to achieve long-lasting equity, your brand should be more than your company name, product, or trademark. True value lies in how you differentiate from the competition, what your reputation is in the marketplace, and how you retain consumer loyalty over time. From your colors, logos, and fonts, to your social media strategy, customer service approach, and overall experience online and in-store, every factor must work together to create a unique brand identity.
It’s important to keep in mind though that brands aren’t always created equal or in the same phase of the branding lifecycle. Your brand identity may be different if you are a start-up or new-to-market brand vs. if you are an established retail player. Nick Fabian, VP of Brand Strategy at wowbrands, says:
“The evolution of a brand often takes shape in three key stages. Emerging and lesser known brands have a story to tell, a reason why they exist, what problem they are solving, and an expectation to uniquely position themselves within their market. During this time it’s all about learning who the brand is and what sets them apart. As customers become more familiar with a brand, the story begins to mature and focus on results and outcomes to showcase value. And finally, once a brand has become established as a ‘household’ name, the story no longer serves the original value it once did. The focus quickly turns to innovation, loyalty, and reputation, while continuing to build on their unique promise of value. The brand story at this stage still has merit, but the engagement and customer experiences are what truly begin to shape the evolution of how the brand will continue to grow.”
So, let’s take a look at three retail brands that each started at different times, who have established a unique identity and create value over time.
10 Year Old Retail Brand: Warby Parker
Although Warby Parker started out as a direct-to-consumer (DTC) brand online, the company recently opened 64 brick-and-mortar locations in major U.S. markets, proving that there is still value in brick-and-mortar retail.
Warby Parker has been so successful over the past 10 years due to its amazingly convenient online shopping experience, in which consumers can order five frames online to try on at home with no strings attached. When you’re done trying on the frames, you can simply put them back in their box and ship it back to Warby Parker. By doing so, Warby Parker improved the online shopping experience and helped consumers feel more confident in their purchase decisions.
The brand took that successful experience-driven model and applied it to their new store footprint. As they began testing out different markets with pop-up shops and ultimately opening up brick-and-mortar locations, they realized that “that physical retail was far from dead – it just needed a creative makeover that enabled a fun experience for shoppers. Each store has its own design and personality reflective of the local market and audience, and the company created its own unified POS system.”
The interactive design of their stores combined with their innovative customer experience, socially conscience mission, and quality products at affordable prices have further enhanced the original Warby Parker value proposition and increased their brand equity. Warby Parker’s VP of Real Estate & Development, Kelly Radford, sums up the brand’s unique experience of combining technology with human elements by saying:
“We have to find ways to allow technology to help bolster the retail experience. We also pay a lot of attention to the actual customer experience. It’s really important that that human moment remains. The right staff who are trained properly, making sure that however customers reach a brand, whether it be online or through social media or walking into a store, they all have the same quality of experience. All of these touchpoints are equally important to us.”
Above all, Warby Parker’s brand identity is more than just a hipster-eque aesthetic – they’ve created value by prioritizing the entire customer experience and have built the roadmap for other direct to consumer (DTC) brands to follow.
According to Melissa Burke, Director of Marketing for BDSmktg, “Warby Parker is just one example of many brands that started out as an online DTC brand and have grown to expand their reach by establishing a retail presence in a brick-and-mortar retail setting. We’ve been seeing the retail trend reverse with native online brands who have been massively successful, take their next step by going into retail. Even Amazon isn’t immune as they purchased Whole Foods and have tested out Amazon Go. Other brands on this growth path include: Minted, Casper mattresses, Harry’s razors, Fabletics and even Etsy pop up shops.”
60 Year Old Retail Brand: Trader Joe’s
Since 1958, Trader Joe’s has grown from a local California grocer to a renowned retail brand with 488 stores nationwide, taking the grocery industry by storm with its unique experience. Simply put, the retailer has transformed a mundane chore into an all-out epicurean adventure. With seasonal favorites like Pumpkin O’s Cereal and Bûche de Noël Ice Cream, as well as its Everything-But-The-Bagel seasoning that has a cult-like following, Trader Joe’s knows how to make grocery shopping feel like fun.
How do they set themselves apart from the competition? According to Vox, “Trader Joe’s does not participate in traditional advertising, never has sales, and is known for frustrating product shortages. Despite all this, it’s one of the most beloved brands in the U.S.” Their stores have the strongest brand identity compared to other grocery chains, from the way that their employees act, to their product assortment, to their visual merchandising and more. Trader Joe’s employees are known for being super-friendly, and you can find them sporting Hawaiian-themed shirts and leis in every store. They happily hand out free samples, walk down the aisles asking customers if they need help finding anything, and even ring quirky bells at the cash register if they ever need assistance or a price check. It also doesn’t hurt that Trader Joe’s is notorious for actually paying its employees high salaries, providing great company benefits, and offering ample opportunity for internal promotion. This leads to happy, satisfied employees that in turn take care of customers and provide a great experience.
Their stores incorporate design features based on the markets in which they are located, giving them a personalized, local feel for customers. This, along with so many other factors, has allowed them to flip the script on the typical regional grocery chain approach and rise to be the top grocery retailer in the U.S. According to Retail Dive, it’s winning 2019 ranking is due to “its strong customer service, small format stores, private label assortment and brick-and-mortar-only presence. Together, these components offer Trader Joe’s customers a convenient, cost-effective and rich in-store experience.”
So, a grocery retailer can win on offering a majority of private label products? That’s right – you won’t find Coca-Cola or Crest toothpaste at Trader Joe’s. Although “generic” or “store brands” have long been considered less desirable than their name brand counterparts, the opposite is true at Trader Joe’s. In fact, many consumers think Trader Joe’s branded products are better than the name-brand versions they often try to emulate. Mark Gardiner, author of the book Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s, said to Eater:
“People don’t think of [Trader Joe’s products] as generic. [They think] ‘it’s Trader Joe’s — that’s the brand,’ and it’s a special brand that you can only get here. The truth is that almost all of this is stuff that you can probably get at another store within a few miles of that Trader Joe’s in a different package with a different name.”
While Trader Joe’s is only 60 years into their brand journey compared to many grocery chain competitors, its unique grocery store shopping experience is a retail brand identity lesson to learn from.
100+ Year Old Retail Brand: Target
For being around since 1902, Target is still one of the most trend-setting brands you’ll see in the retail space. Over 117 years, it has reinvented itself time and time again to stay current with consumers. Now, Target is considered to be one the pre-eminent omni-channel brands, leading the pack when it comes to design, innovation, and experience.
Over the past 10 years, the brand has become so popular that millennials have coined a saying: “You don’t go to Target because you need something, you let Target show you what you need.” It’s a phenomenon known as the “Target Effect,” and it’s a major reason why the retailer has so many enthusiastic brand fans across the country. As psychologist Dr. Kevin Chapman told Refinery 29:
“One reason why Target in particular can entice unplanned spending is that the company has a long history of hiring and working with some of the best design minds.”
According to Dr. Chapman, Target’s bright lighting, exciting color scheme, and helpful store associates work together to create an atmosphere that makes shoppers feel happy and more inclined to spend money.
And obviously, it’s working. According to Retail Dive, traffic to Target stores is even stronger today than it has been in the past 20 years. With a design-centric approach and commitment to innovation, BDSmktg’s Senior Art Director, Shivonne Thurston, sums up why the Target brand has evolved to be a mainstay in the hearts and minds of consumers:
“Target stands out from a branding standpoint compared to Best Buy and other retailers because they made an early commitment to the idea that design matters—that has been a guiding principle for them for the last 20 years. Their idea that ‘great design should be accessible and affordable for everyone’ is what set everything in motion for Target to become what it is today. I can remember when Target, Walmart, and Kmart were all basically the same type of place to shop. They were just discount shops where you went to buy cheap stuff; there wasn’t really a compelling reason to choose to go to one over the other. In the late 90s, Target’s “Sign of the Times” campaign with Bullseye the Dog really stood out and made Target seem more stylish than I think it was perceived to be at that time. Everything they’ve done since has just continued to build up the perception that Target delivers well designed, high-end looking items with a great experience—all at low prices.”
To further enhance their in-store identity and differentiate from competitors, Target has been going through a major store design overhaul since 2017. According to Forbes, “over the past two years Target has remodeled 400 of its fleet of nearly 1,850 stores” in an effort to transform how they look, feel, and function. Specifically, Target is putting an added emphasis on its beauty department to compete with other retailers like Ulta and Sephora.
Target has also started to employ “category experts” who are passionate about everything beauty-related, who can offer advice and provide product recommendations to curious shoppers. To keep up in the changing and ultra-competitive retail environment, Target has recognized the need to create a brand identity that differentiates its stores from the rest, and design unforgettable shopping experiences that will keep customers coming back for more.
What do Target, Warby Parker, and Trader Joe’s have in common?
We can boil down the success of each of these retail brands to three main aspects:
- A unique brand identity and value proposition
- Putting the customer experience first
- Using technology when it makes sense to enhance the experience
Based on those collective elements, it’s easy to gather that all three qualities are intertwined. Target, Warby Parker, and Trader Joe’s have all done an exceptional job at paying attention to the changing retail landscape and acknowledging the needs of a new generation of mobile empowered shoppers who value experiences over things.
From investing in a major store design overhaul, simplifying the hassle of online shopping, and creating the ultimate culinary escapade, Target, Warby Parker, and Trader Joe’s have firmly established themselves as innovators in the modern retail industry, not only surviving – but thriving – during the so-called retail apocalypse
So, how can other brands create their own identity and value at retail? And what can they do to manifest their own loyal following of similarly enthusiastic brand fans?
Focus First on Improving the Customer Experience and Brand Value Will Follow
Whether your brand is young or old, to make it in today’s retail landscape, create a memorable brand identity, and build value, there are a lot of factors you need to consider. But what’s the one thing we recommend focusing on first? Building your unique brand experience. Ryan Smith from Fast Company sums up that to stay ahead of the curve and thrive in the retail industry, brands that prioritize the experience first will win:
“Disruption happens in the gaps. And no industry is immune. We see it in exercise with Peloton. We see it in commercial real estate with WeWork. We see it in financial services with Venmo and Square. We see it in logistics with Flexport. All of these companies were started in someone else’s experience gap. The race is on, and only experience brands are surviving.”
From Target’s design-centric omni-channel experience, to Trader Joe’s localized store environment and super-friendly store associates, to Warby Parker’s convenient at-home try-on option and in-store customer service approach, we’ve seen that all three have created a unique and memorable experience for the consumers who shop with them – and maintained it over time. That’s the key to building brand value through retail. With a strong brand identity and a great consumer experience to back it up, you’ll have the power to influence brand choices everywhere.