A Guide to Retail Branding: Finding Your North Star

Your to-do list is growing longer. In the midst of essential tasks like placing weekly orders, managing invoices, correcting payroll and dealing with your credit card processor, there’s a hand-scribbled note that says, ‘Do more marketing.’ Perhaps due to its nebulous nature, this item gets continually pushed down the list, often causing anxiety and trepidation for many retailers.

In an interview for the American Academy of Achievement, Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos advises, ‘Stress primarily comes from not taking action over something that you can have some control over. […] I find, as soon as I identify it and make the first phone call or send the first email message or whatever it is that we’re going to do to start to address the situation, even if it’s not solved, the mere fact that we’re addressing it dramatically reduces any stress that might come from it. So, stress comes from ignoring things that you shouldn’t be ignoring, I think in large part.’

Bezos’ message is straightforward: don’t let the task overwhelm you. Take one step toward solving it, and the stress will dissipate. So where should a retailer begin when it comes to the big, hairy, often scary topic of marketing? It’s really about your brand.

Branding is one of the most challenging aspects for small businesses. Often, it is different from the core tenets that make a retailer great at other aspects of their business, such as training staff, working with customers, and managing profitability. For many, branding remains a mystery.

What Is Branding?

Your brand is not just a logo or a catchy tagline; it is the soul of your business. It embodies the essence of who you are, what you stand for, and the unique value you bring to your customers. Defining your brand requires introspection and a deep understanding of your mission, vision and values. Managing your business becomes more straightforward when you’ve fully defined your brand and the other core tenets that support it. It offers a template against which to train your staff, build your social media strategy, and, in truth, accomplish your goals.

Before You Begin—Understand Your Customer Needs

The most influential brands are built with customers’ centricity in mind, positioned to help customers achieve their goals and solve problems.

Consider what problems you most often solve for your customers, ranging from lifestyle and personal/professional goals to family and long-term and short-term goals. Another perspective is to categorize them into social, emotional, and physical goals.

Create a list of these consumer needs and develop a strategy for how your store helps consumers accomplish them. For instance, a physical goal could be ‘improve cardiovascular health.’ Your store might offer live blood cell analysis and expert staff trained on ingredients like the enzyme nattokinase. While specific goals help differentiate you from competitors, addressing overarching needs allows you to reach a broader audience. Don’t be afraid to go big!

How Do You Know What Consumers Want?

Consumers often don’t know what they want. As Steve Jobs once said, “People don’t know what they want until you tell it to them.” The secret to discovering consumer opportunities is to focus on the problem rather than the solution. As a brand and retailer, your role is to have the education and capability to provide the solution.

Henry Ford had a similar quote, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, then they would have said a faster horse.”

For example, if you were to survey American car-buying consumers about what they want in an automobile, they would tell you things like price, safety, gas mileage and the number of cupholders. However, Americans buy more SUVs than any other car type. SUVs are more expensive to buy with higher maintenance costs, less safe (prone to tipping), worse gas mileage, etc. Why pick an SUV over a station wagon? An SUV is cool. Consumers often act irrationally, and what they say they want isn’t always what they really want.

While not every bit of feedback will unearth new opportunity, customer insights are important. Seek to collect consumer feedback through suggestion boxes, post-purchase surveys, and single-question surveys on social media. These efforts can help you better understand your impact on customers and the problems you can solve for them. Leave the solutions up to you!

Three Phases to Build a Brand

Numerous brand-building models exist, but I’d like to share a relatively simple approach to building your retail branding with three phases: Discovery, Activation and Measurement.

Phase 1: Discovery

In Phase 1 of discovery, we must identify your brand’s Who, Why, What and How. When these elements combine, you’ll have built a comprehensive yet approachable understanding of your unique selling proposition (USP), i.e., “that which makes you different.”

First, consider the question of “Who?” This is about who you hope to attract to your store as a retailer. This task has three simple questions: 1. What is the total available market? In other words, who would even consider entering your store if you cast the widest possible net?

Then, consider question 2, “Of that large spectrum of users, who are the most important people to get into your store to help you grow?” With a limited budget and capacity for consumer marketing, your store can’t be everything to everyone, so identifying a specific target segment will allow you to be more focused on your approach to marketing and the in-store experience.

Finally, ask yourself, “What is most important to these consumers?” This question should help you understand the purpose for which you’re designing your brand.

Then, consider the question of “Why?” This is about answering the key reasons your store deserves to exist. Ask yourself, what are the things that you value as a retailer? If this question is challenging, start with the opposite and ask yourself what you hate. Often, the opposite of hate are the things most important to you. For example, do you hate GMOs (genetically modified organisms)? A core brand value could be that you are a GMO-free store. Ultimately, this section of your brand development journey is there to help you qualify your beliefs about the world.

As your brand story develops, the following core question is “What?” This is about defining your brand promise. What is your purpose and mission? What strategic points of differentiation do you offer? Start to consider how you can build consistency for this vital category across all of your staff.

Finally, consider “How?” How will your brand appear to your customers? What is the attitude or tone of voice of your brand? Try to avoid generics here, like “friendly.” Imagine that you were describing your best friend. What are the traits and attributes you would apply to them? Use that type of vocabulary to describe your retail brand. This is also an excellent opportunity to consider the design elements of your store. Are you bright and optimistic or more clinical? What colors are you using? What fonts?

Phase 2: Activation

Now that you have defined many critical elements of your brand in the first phase, you need to activate it and make it come alive. There are two core elements to consider: internal and external execution.

Internally, consider integrating your staff with a shared understanding of your Who, Why, What and How.

Build an activation plan around these initiatives that target employees at different levels of experience and longevity in your store. For example, a briefing on these concepts would be helpful as part of new hire training. However, for your longer-term employees, find ways to offer constant reminders. Bring up these concepts during annual reviews. Create signage and posters for the break room or back office walls.

Ultimately, these core elements need to provide influence on your business decisions as well. Whenever you look to bring in a new item, change a policy, or create a new service offering, ask yourself if it is compatible with your brand’s vision.

Finally, your customers need to see these elements in their day-to-day experience. Externally, it should be evident in every possible touchpoint with your customers. Create large signage in high-traffic areas highlighting what you value most, your vision/mission and even testimonials from real customers that reference who you are in service of.

In summary, there are a few areas to hone in on this customer experience for purpose-driven brands. Create exceptional offerings that matter to your target consumer. Provide benefits to your community wherever possible. Don’t talk at your customers, talk with them. Build a community of engaged customers within your store. Finally, create alignment with your staff by implementing programs that implement this purpose in the everyday lives of your team.

Phase 3: Measurement

Where many great brands fall is a failure to continually align the unique aspects of the brand with the business itself. Develop a scorecard for your staff to ensure you constantly develop your purpose and elevate your overall branding.

In many ways, the answers here are subjective. First and foremost, are your employees committed to your business and consumers? Are they engaged? Are your customers finding you to be indispensable in their lives? Do they understand the value you offer? You identified a core segment of consumers you want to grow with early on. Are you doing so? Do those customers talk about you to your friends and family? How relevant are you to them? And finally, are you making a difference?

In Conclusion

Building a brand is a journey. Understand consumer needs, identify your brand’s Who, Why, What and How, implement branding throughout your store, and hold yourself accountable by measuring results.VR

Ryan Sensenbrenner leads retail marketing at Enzymedica, Inc. He is focused on developing programs to support independent health food stores and small chains across the nation. Passionate about the natural products industry, he has worked with retailers across the country to help them better market the strengths of their businesses, driving increased revenue and brand recognition within their communities. In addition to his role at Enzymedica, Sensenbrenner serves as a current member of the SENPA Board of Directors.

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