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The consumer marketplace is undergoing an unprecedented redefinition, making it much more difficult to chart a true course toward the millennium. As a colleague put it, "The future just isn't what it used to be."

The ways consumers perceive products, define product choices and purchase products are fundamentally shifting. They are becoming more discriminating overall, while demonstrating a willingness to experiment with new expressions of traditional products.

Here are some trends to consider:

Channel of distribution will continue to be the dominant force shaping the retail industry. Consumers, increasingly finding value in simplicity of choice, are less willing to trade their time for long lines, undifferentiated product offerings and stock-keeping-unit overload.

Unless changes in thinking and design are initiated -- toward consolidation, not diversification -- shoppers ultimately will bypass supermarkets and mass market outlets and increase spending in nontraditional outlets.

Destination shopping will grow. Smaller "mom and pop" outlets, offering selected inventory, personal service and higher quality, will see a further resurgence.

And as computer literacy increases, shopping will continue to evolve from in-store to in-house.

TV/Internet/wireless shopping will skyrocket. Products will increasingly be delivered to the home -- from both "take-out" sections of stores and through catalog shopping associated with multilevel marketing programs.

Consumers will also look for more sensory and emotional reinforcement from products. All the senses will come into play. Fragrance selection, and the imagery it invokes, will become a primary consideration in the evolution of a product's deliverables. Emotional reinforcement through advertising will continue to be critical, specifically portraying the benefits received not just the functionality offered.

Durable products may take on an expanded role in this area, acting as "air fresheners," filling the home with scents that trigger emotional responses. Examples would be using the microwave oven to fill the kitchen with traditional cooking aromas, the vacuum cleaner filling the home with a just-cleaned freshness or the alarm clock dispensing sleepy or energetic scents.

As the government moves to reduce healthcare costs, there will be an increase in the transfer of prescription pharmaceuticals to OTC status. Consider here also the blending of both therapeutic and cosmetic characters. Products will no longer just make me "feel good," they will also make me "look good." It is also crucial for marketers of drug products to communicate the benefits and emotional rewards of their products, not just the inherent technical features.

Important to consider in this context is the role supermarkets can play as an extended healthcare provider, re-engineering themselves from a distribution center to a wellness center, initiating the trend toward mass-market, therapeutic retailers. The retail environment will offer education and lines of functional foods, most notably nutraceuticals, designed to blend nutrition with preventative or curative components.

Amid all the changes taking place, consumers still reach for a brand. And they reach for strong, clearly differentiated brands before they reach for weak or confusing brands.

This behavior, driven by relevance, comfort and trust, will most certainly continue to influence the growth of products and services as we move toward the millennium, whether in-store or online. However, the conditions for creating this behavior, and for successfully creating a long-term consumer relationship with a brand, have changed radically in recent years.

The long-term relationship must begin with a focus and single-minded emphasis on the "essence" of the brand. This is especially true in today's saturated and confusing markets.

The future of every brand lies in ensuring the ongoing reinforcement of the consumer-brand relationship. Consistent use and expression of unique equity, identity and imagery elements will provide the reinforcement.

The essence of the brand must be strategically defined, then tactically expressed in everything that is presented under the brand umbrella. The very survival of the brand is at stake. Longevity and consumer loyalty will depend upon nurturing the specifics of the brand's identity, not in the proliferation of unfocused or unrelated variants.

The aim of marketing should be to generate and propagate a brand image expressed with consistent, vivid and juicy sensory signals -- unique and "ownable" signals that anchor the emotional and objective advantages of the brand in the consumer's memory. Signals that express the tangible and intangible essence of what the brand is or stands for.

And these imagery signals should be supported by a longer-term strategy of using consistent brand "codes," such as sounds, colors and graphic elements. Any modifications and further developments to the product, package and advertising campaigns should always refer back to these specific brand codes in order to make long-term use of these codes uniquely familiar to the consumer.

The future offers the retail marketplace many challenges and many rewards. The distribution, technology and sensory shifts noted above are changing the very definition of how we conduct and will conduct business for the rest of the decade.

An unprecedented potential for growth is being offered to those companies that can see, understand and then act upon these fundamental shifts. While the future may not be what it once was, it certainly can be better than it has ever been.

Mr. Posten is managing partner, Icon & Landis, West Palm Beach, Fla., a research

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