Does anybody remember retail theatre?
It was a concept that first came to prominence about 10-15 years ago and promised to bring an element of excitement to the previously dispiriting trudge around the shops. A shopping trip would no longer be a purely functional experience, but something that would allow shoppers to engage with brands on a different level.
We would learn to expect exciting brand activations in-store, witness in-store media beam content at us, and no doubt be thrilled by street performers acting out branded entertainment for our delectation.
But then grocery retailers had other ideas. Rather than turning their stores into brand playgrounds, they opted for a clean and stripped down strategy. Out went promotions and their cumbersome and messy point of sale materials, and in came a dedication to category management, or even captaincy, in recent versions. Sod in-store engagement – it was all about the bottom line.
This was all well and good while the good times rolled, but in recent years they have ground to a shuddering halt.
Brands no longer cast the same enchantment over consumers. Some doom mongers even go as far as saying that brands are dead. Indeed consumer seem happy to choose mainly on price, which locks brands into vicious cycles of discounting with their rivals – the deepest pockets win. Consumers are also happy to choose unheard of brands from the discounters, something that Aldi and Lidl have made great play of in their own advertising. Why spend good money on something that tastes practically the same as a ‘me too’ brand that costs a third less.
Brand equity that has been decades in the making has been destroyed in a few years. Of course, it’s not just branded goods that are suffering, as retailers themselves have been struggling, with 'the big four' reeling from one profit warning to the next. Shoppers have fallen out of love with them, and it’s hurting big time.
However there is one area where brands are thriving and that’s in the world of entertainment where we no longer think in terms of ‘hits’ but in franchises. Entertainment brands such as Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek, Frozen, Batman and Assassin's Creed are massive properties in their own right. And they don’t have consumers, they have fans.
These committed and passionate people actively search out their favourite entertainment brands and consciously decide to spend their time consuming this content, whether that’s in the form of TV (linear, time-shifted and on-demand), film, or games. They have a level of engagement with their fans that most FMCG brands would kill for. For evidence, you only have to look at the hype and impassioned reaction to the season finale of Game of Thrones, or to the late night queues at Game stores for the latest Grand Theft Auto release.
Brands can borrow this kind of devotion in the form of licensing, and it’s no longer just for kids. Many character properties have adult fans aplenty as photographs from events such as Comic Con demonstrate. These fans dress up as their favourite characters, have tattoos of them, and buy brands that are associated with them.
Are British retailers missing a trick? Retailers can utilise the existing intellectual property of entertainment brands and tap into their existing devoted audiences and convert that passion into action – online and offline, physically and digitally – with the retailers’ own brand getting emotional engagement.
Today content is the new currency, and where in the past a retailer would have gone down the well-trodden premia route (branded gifts with purchase or mail in offers), they now have the opportunity to offer something a lot more compelling to fans of entertainment properties. Consider the pull of unlocking exclusive content to a loyal shopper – visit three times in a month and get access to something new from a favourite property. Technically it’s simple to do, it doesn’t interfere with store merchandising policies, and shoppers will really go for it.
Smart retailers would do well to consider how they could benefit from a bit of drama in-store.
Professor Leslie de Chernatony is a board director at LIFE Agency