AT RETAIL LEVEL, BRANDS MUST ENTERTAIN, INVOLVE, INFORM

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Ask a marketer why brands are dying, and brace yourself for a well-rehearsed harangue about corrosive price promotions, the nightmare of media fragmentation and the scourge of private-label brands. Persistently ignored is perhaps the most important reason-the sorry state of the shopping experience itself.

At best, it's boring. What could be a form of entertainment is instead a chore. All that brilliantly creative, brand-building television instantly evaporates amid a grim assortment of cans, boxes and bottles, perched above unswept linoleum floors and pungent pickle barrels.

The average shopping trip is now 22 minutes long, down from 28 minutes in 1983. Consumers are losing patience with the shopping experience and their attitudes toward brands are not helped by the association.

Indeed, the way consumers feel toward brands likely will only worsen with the introduction of technologies that permit shopping by television. Brand image too often will be reduced to a UPC bar code that the home shopper selects by remote control. No more opportunity for an interactive impression at point of sale; no more personal exposure to new products.

If television is to become a shopping venue, then brand marketers must turn stores into entertainment venues if they hope to remain competitive. This is not so difficult as it sounds. Consider the record industry. In 1988, HMV Shops, a U.K. retailer, entered the Canadian market and reinvented the record store. Like many of today's supermarkets, record stores at that time were sound asleep-dusty bins, tacky merchandising and a painful dearth of customer service. Every store carried an almost identical product assortment, leaving retailers to fight it out on the basis of price.

Tony Hirsch, then president of HMV Canada, installed soft lights and lush carpeting. Giant video screens flashed music videos. A small studio was built for local garage bands to record demo tapes at bargain-basement rates. Visiting recording artists could promote their new material in live performances on the store's sound stage.

Within 18 months, total annualized sales for HMV Canada increased 140% from $35 million to $84 million. The concept worked mainly because it gave shoppers a reason to go to the store, and once there to become interested in the branded products being sold.

The example translates readily to other categories of branded goods, especially those sold in supermarkets. What's required is a strategic partnership between the retail trade and the package goods marketers. The tactical, price-based relationships of the present, in which marketers essentially pay for the right to be on a shelf, is precisely the wrong approach. Access to the consumer is achieved, but it is not proprietary access and it is not long-term.

To achieve proprietary consumer access the marketer must change the retail environment into a brand environment. In the HMV spirit, package goods companies can improve the fortunes of their brands by co-sponsoring entertainment-based marketing at the point of sale that involves and informs the consumers.

If it's not rock stars on video, maybe it's famous chefs. The "recording studio" might be a test kitchen at which local restaurants showcase their best work. The sound stage could be a lecture hall, with presentations by nutritionists and even storytelling for kids.

The record industry provides good guidance on the important issue of providing brand information as well. Perhaps you've read about the I-stations, these video kiosks that enable shoppers to listen to recordings of their selection, and locate names of lesser-known artists that are similar in style to the superstars. The same technology could help consumers discover new brands.

Wal-Mart, which is testing a "beauty boutique" concept, grasps the fundamentals. Inspired by trendy "body ecology" shops, Wal-Mart envisions a department store-style configuration, complete with upscale fragrances and clerks offering assistance.

The Wal-Mart experiment is said to have been initiated by Procter & Gamble. This comes as no surprise, because changing the nature of the shopping experience demands a truly cooperative partnership, or "co-marketing" between retailers and manufacturers. Retailers might propose funding r&d for similar concepts out of trade allowances, while package goods company "co-marketers" provide the marketing expertise.

The package goods company could then commit a team of experts-from sales, marketing and periodically r&d-to function on-site, with the retailer, for three to four months. The marketer's team would work with retailer personnel to develop a consumer-based marketing plan that fundamentally changes the environment in which brands are sold.

The shallow breathing of branded products is not likely to end soon. It certainly will end-with eulogies-for brands that fail to entertain, involve and inform consumers at the point of purchase with a proprietary point of difference. Brands need not die, provided the shopping experience is alive.

Mr. Hastings is a principal of Ryan Management Group consultancy in Westport, Conn.

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