Basic instincts

I’d be mistaken to use this opportunity to trot out my top ten list of the most obvious contemporary challenges facing retail brands – that task has been done better, many times, by experts in the media. To any brand director or creative director, such lists always appear daunting at face value, especially when they turn into soundbites in the national press – ‘lowest sales on the high street in a decade’, and so on.

But, the mistake would be to ignore a growing number of brand owners and experts describing, sometimes in a roundabout way, a common truth when outlining their future plans or revealing their assessment of positive results. This truth is that the governing principles of brand ownership haven’t changed at all and, in fact, those principles have never been as important as they are now. This is a time when we need to shore up our strategies to withstand whatever the current market throws at us.
Much of our working life is dedicated to creating contingency plans in response to the market. We face fickle, choice-rich, multi-channel consumers with constantly changing behaviours. We also face growing competition, rapid technological advances and fluctuating economies. These are constantly keeping us awake at night. But, despite the mass of important trend information, the messages we’re hearing remind us of the essential need to address emerging challenges, and never to become distracted from the long-established foundations of brand-ownership.

The main principle – of listening to what the consumer and the market is telling you – can easily become clouded, resulting in an underestimation of the simplicity consumers really need. We can’t go far wrong if we work to a belief that the consumer has landed from another planet and needs absolutely straightforward, clear navigation and descriptors situated in an ordered environment, if we are to facilitate happy shopping. We, the brand owners, are used to our environments or products, but it can be a complex and frustrating exercise for a rushed consumer (on-line or in-store) who soon becomes a confused consumer, and turns on his or her heels to head for a place where they can understand the environment and the offer.

We know well that, when consumers are treated as they expect to be treated, and their experience of a brand is uncomplicated and honest, they embrace the brand. Common sense? Maybe not. The basics include ensuring that a brand promise – tooled with so much time, care, research and budget at the top of a company – is explained and upheld throughout the organisation and, most importantly, at the point of contact with the consumer.

You should never forget research which has shown that ‘the least-paid member of staff can have the highest impact on a consumer’s perception of a brand’. It is extraordinary how forgiving some consumers can be with brands, while others can be merciless. A consumer will desert a brand if they decide that one member of staff’s attitude has been inappropriate, or will be completely unprepared to seek out a brand if it isn’t located conveniently within their desired routine. Others will happily tolerate unmodernised, cluttered stores, but they seem to be just waiting to be given reasons to love that brand. This cardboard clutter is a key villain in the value game – many retailers design and implement exemplary signage systems for their stores, while sending truckloads of hanging cardboard promotional material to those same stores, blocking consumer sightlines of those nice, new signs.

While enjoying the excitement of change for a brand in today’s world, and the promise of more dramatic changes in the future, it is worth remembering another basic truth: however complex our world becomes, retail sales are still hugely affected by something as simple as the weather. Also, our moods can easily be altered by colours and clever lighting design, to positive – as well as negative – effect.

The challenges facing brands within the beauty and healthcare sector are just the same – it is essential that we develop constantly, that we retain and improve classic offerings, that we extend successful ranges and deliver new products, and that we always provide good value. Consumers tell us they want packaging to be honest, they want the product aspirations to be achievable and they also now expect corporate social responsibility credentials. They want convenience, and they want it 24/7 – hence, midnight pharmacies.

I wish I could put my hand on my heart and say I’d welcome having my work judged against these principles, but it is never easy in reality, with projects progressing at breakneck speed from every angle. But, simply by standing back and stripping away the surface, it is easy to see if the basics are in place, and if they are understood by all parties.

Jon Turner is creative director at Boots

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