Some retailers large and small do it right because they understand how to build communities around their brands. Take Abercrombie & Fitch. Started more than a century ago as a sporting outfitter, its transition from selling canoes and shotguns to selling jeans and T-shirts is making marketing history.
A quick visit to its flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan demonstrates perfectly how to link old and new. Half-clad greeters meet shoppers at the door. Inside, the lighting is low, more like that of a dance club than a typical retail establishment. Music pounds. Staffers (they're divided into "models" who strut and "impact" people who stock shelves) flit between wood and glass displays. In a nod to A&F's campfire origins, there's the recently iconic moose head. Models, lighting, music, even clothes are all icons that provide an amped-up sensory experience. It's not just shopping; it's lifestyle.
Up the block, Apple's flagship store provides a different experience. Whereas Abercrombie's back story is about an eastern-shore summer romance staffed by models, Apple's is something else again. The Apple Store's design is clean, friendly -- and swathed in white. In lesser hands, this same white would be a sterile, intimidating void. But since its first nanosecond, the root of Apple's positioning has been ergonomically and fundamentally human. If Apple veered, thousands of enthusiasts (bloggers) would set it straight.
That raises a point: Many retailers think the only thing worth listening to is the sound of ringing cash registers. But as Tom O'Guinn, executive director of the Center for Brand and Product Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Business, points out, don't forget the connections consumers have with each other. It's the bonds created between Starbucks drinkers, iPhone owners and Abercrombie shoppers that help create buzz, vibe and community. While ordinary consumers might drop you for something that's cheaper, better styled or just easier to get, they'll think twice if eliminating your product also means losing friends.
Evangelists can also help steer a company. An ice-cream shop named Izzy's in St. Paul, Minn., has a contest each year that asks customers to come up with their own ice-cream flavors. Some, such as Kalamansi sorbet (a bright citrus flavor) and Orca (licorice with vanilla swirl) come and go. Others, such as Squad Car (coffee with donut chunks) and Dinosaur Egg (malted vanilla with chocolate chunks), become lasting assets.
Lego enthusiasts have a direct web feed to the company's headquarters in Billund, Denmark. When Lego's direction veers, enthusiasts (thousands and thousands of them) set the company straight via e-mail, blogs and consumer-insight staff. Best of all, Lego management listens
Intelligent Nutrients, a new concept created by Aveda founder Horst Rechelbacher, designs New Age cosmetics with nutrients (coined nutraceuticals) such as flavor-aromatherapy oils that can also be added to drinks and desserts. Retailer Lush provides a sensory overload of colors and fragrances and soaps that don't come just in bars but in new shapes such as chunks, sprinkles and snowballs. A toddler clothing shop in SoHo turns a hassle into a pleasant rite by putting stroller parking inside its store. Izzy's puts a free ball of ice cream atop your double scoop. Samsung is considering adding a newly designed corporate scent to its boxes; open the box containing your new TV, and it hits you. And on and on.
Contrast these with the tired retail experiences at former leaders Sony, Toys "R" Us, Kmart -- and, yes, Gap.
New way to shop
This is not a shortcoming; it is an opportunity. Retailers today have it tough. In addition to deciding whether they are brands or simply destinations that contain brands, harried shopkeepers grapple with the fact that people don't shop the same way anymore. Instead of a few retailers enjoying a high share of wallet, today's savvy consumers shop opportunistically -- shopping up, down and everywhere in between. We pick up $100 bottles of wine, then rush to Costco for discounted steaks.
So how can you create a stage that attracts your very own brand posse? Looking at your retail operation as a community with a compelling and vibrant belief system is a leap forward in creating your own evangelists. Why? Belief systems create brands that attract others who want to share your beliefs. Whether you call them repeat customers or brand freaks, brand evangelists, just like your favorite pair of jeans, are connected to you in ways no mere transaction can account for.
Belief systems have seven elements that help make them believable: creation story, creed, icons, ritual, sacred words, nonbelievers and leader. When all seven pieces are engaged, they create primal theater -- and retail magic -- that engages all the senses and wraps consumers in a holistic shopping experience that buzzes, glows and attracts people who prefer to shop with you rather than at the other end of the mall -- evangelists.
Shopping is a rite filled with anticipation, expectation and fun. Shopping is release. Losers can become winners by adding energy and innovation to pieces of code. Enthusiasts are engaged by every nuance you provide in icons, rituals, lexicon and other pieces of a belief system that define the retail experience. Let others provide status quo; leaders show ingenuity.
Steering customers away from J. Crew, Lucky, Hollister and the rest and back to Gap, for example, is a battle Gap must win. By adding excitement to the missing and dormant pieces of primal code, new Gap leadership can begin attracting people who feel something about the brand.
An added characteristic of becoming a brand evangelist is saying "We're going to Target" instead of "We're going to buy dish detergent."
Final thought: Martha Stewart recently licensed her brand to build a housing development. No matter what this community ultimately looks like, we can all imagine what it might look, sound and feel like. Such is the power and dimension of her brand. We can also imagine what a Starbucks community might look and feel like. Same with Nike and Apple. Figuring out the physical dimensions of your brand can help foreshadow your retail experience.
Creating customer evangelists is what helps keep customers connected. The way to accomplish this effectively -- and keep customers hanging around -- is to design vibrant communities where they can live, play and buy. Whatever the reason, we are hardwired as human beings to respond when all seven pieces of code exist. What brought us down from the trees millennia ago also drags us into the shopping mall today.
Patrick Hanlon is CEO of Thinktopia, a branding consultancy with clients including Samsung, Barnes & Noble and Best Buy. He is also author of "Primal Branding: Create Zealots for Your Brand, Your Company and Your Future."