Say the word “Coke” and your mind probably conjures up the refreshing image of “a cool, bubbly drink.”
Now say the name of your store. What image comes to mind? More important, what image comes to your customers’ minds? If the picture is as compelling as the one for the world’s largest beverage company you have succeeded in creating a “brand” that can add real dollars to your bottom line.
As attractive as a shiny store brand sounds, chances are your own could use a little polishing. Or maybe you have not given the idea of building your brand very much thought in the first place, given that you are not a giant corporation like the Coca-Cola Company. When it comes to working on your public image, though, size is not an issue. “Branding is not just for big businesses,” says Ken Banks, CEO of KAB Marketing, a consulting firm in Florida’s Tampa Bay area (kenbanks.com). “It also helps small operators stand out and get noticed. Indeed, a strong brand can help any retailer compete with the big box stores.”
A store apart
What makes a successful brand? The best way to answer that question is to start by busting a common misconception. Creating a brand has nothing to do with dreaming up a creative advertising campaign. “When business people think about a brand they often equate it with a logo,” says Adele Cehrs, president of Epic Public Relations, Alexandria, Va. (epicprgroup.com). “But the best logo in the world means nothing without a larger strategy. Good branding is really about repositioning your business in the marketplace.”
In other words, the famous Coke logo would do the company no good if the soft drink were not known as a brand that promised a dependably refreshing experience. Coke has created and communicated a unique story. And that’s what makes a profitable brand.
“A brand differentiates you from all the other companies out there that offer the same products and services,” says Banks. “Branding is the essence-- the DNA--that makes up your business.” And that DNA is of necessity all your own.
So how do you go about engineering a unique DNA? Start by finding out where your store is currently positioned in the marketplace. While market position can encompass many factors, Banks suggests starting with two that are of proven potency: your price and service reputation.
It’s important to get insights on these factors from your customers rather than relying on your preconceptions. That’s because the two can be in conflict, and only by understanding and modifying the public perception can you increase sales.
To find out customer perceptions, just ask. “Here is the amazing thing about customers,” says Banks. “Most are honest and will tell you how they feel. As a result, they can be your best source of information on where you stand relative to your competition.”
Ask your customers questions that help to reveal their perceptions of your store’s image when it comes to service and price, and their desires for the most attractive shopping experience. Here are some examples:
- What brought you to our store?
- Did you find what you wanted?
- Did you buy something else? Why?
- Were our prices as low as you desired?
- Did you receive the service you needed?
At the same time, ask questions that uncover unstated customer shopping expectations. Here are some examples:
- What are the three top things you consider when you shop for ABC merchandise?
- How important is price?
- How important is service, and what service in particular?
Then ask questions that help you measure where you are relative to your main competitors. How do they compare with you in the customers’ minds? Here are some examples:
- If you are shopping for ABC merchandise, what is the first store that comes to mind?
- What is the first store you would choose to shop?
- Why ABC Store over XYZ Store? Price? Service?
You can pursue this same customer-centric research in areas beyond price and service. Some examples are merchandise selection, stock-outs, and staff attitudes. “From your customer surveys you can discover your strengths and weaknesses,” says Banks.
Exit interviews are great vehicles for this purpose because the customer experience is still fresh. “Two weeks after shopping people tend to forget their impressions,” says Banks. It’s best to interview customers as they walk out of your store, while their memories are strong. And exit interviews need not take long, adds Banks. “It’s amazing what you can learn by talking with people for as little as five minutes.”
Your interviews may show that customers most value selection and price, and feel—rightly or wrongly—that you are excelled in these areas by your competitors. Or maybe they are looking for more engaged or knowledgeable employees, or better service in specific areas. Or perhaps they don’t even realize that you already offer those services they most desire.
Whatever the results, you can get a firmer grasp of your market position by tracking them in a visual way. “Start by creating a perceptual map with two parameters,” suggests Banks. “Put service on one axis and price on the other. Then use customer feedback to position your operation on each.” Banks offers an illustrative example: Walmart would be positioned low on the price axis and not too high on the service axis, since the chain is a self-service operation. Draw up similar perceptual maps for other factors covered in your customer interviews. Then enter your competitors’ positions on these same maps.
A visual view of your customer data helps you recognize where your business stands in relation to the competition. “Now is the time to ask: ‘Based on the results of our surveys, where does our brand need to go to gain market share?’” says Banks. “Perhaps, for example, you are not perceived to have as high a level of service as other stores. If so, your next step is to ask customers, in more exit interviews, what you need to do to change that perception.” Watch especially for insights into where your competitors are falling down. Maybe the buying public wants a certain service that no one is offering. There’s your chance to fill the gap.
With your findings in place, follow your customers’ advice: Get your performance up, the word out, and watch the results show up in higher sales. In the process you will be creating a unique store brand that conjures up in the minds of consumers an image of your store that is just what the public ordered—literally. “By creating a story that moves your store to a better place on the perceptual maps you will build market share,” says Banks.
Keep it up
As valuable as all that customer research is, keep in mind that it is not a one-shot deal. “You don’t just do some research one year and then wait for 10 years and wonder why sales are declining,” says Banks. “You have to monitor where customer preferences are and where you are going on the perceptual map. If you move up or down, ask ‘What did we do to cause that?’ Or maybe you moved because consumer tastes are changing. If so, you have to keep up with them.”
As the preceding comments suggest, creating a brand takes a lot of thought and effort. “Too often retailers are tempted to throw money at the problem, dreaming up an exciting advertising program that creates more customer confusion than money for the store,” says Bob Phibbs, a retail consultant based in Coxsackie, NY (www.retaildoc.com).
Instead, obtain a deep understanding of customer desires and modify your business to meet them, says Phibbs. “Ask ‘What do we need to do to build our brand? And how do we communicate the brand to the market?’” The result of your work will be a compelling image that rises up in the minds of consumers when they hear the name of your store. And that can only mean more sales and greater profits.