Only the shortest sighted retailer will focus purely on selling products. Modern forward-thinking retailers recognise that their consumers are not just buying their products, but they are investing in their brands. James Fox of RBH looks at how integral to a person’s entire being brands are becoming.
Retail used to be simple. People liked the look of something, they bought it. But times are changing. We’re not just buying brands anymore, we’re investing in them. We’re investing financially, emotionally, ethically. We’re investing our time and our social reputations.
A brand invested in says many things to many observers. People will piece together a complete socio-demographic profile of you based on where you buy your socks. Our brand investment portfolio is in our wardrobe, our cupboards, our magazines and our smartphones. It is constantly at our fingertips and is influencing our lifestyles on a level never seen before.
The marketplace is crowded and confusing, but the best brands will make this investment process as easy as possible for the consumer. ‘This is who we are’, ‘this is what we stand for’, ‘this is what we’re selling’. These are the things we, as consumers, need to know before we can begin to trust and believe in a brand. And as communicators, we have a multitude of channels at our disposal to deliver convincing and compelling reasons to invest.
The pitch for investment may start on a busy high street, or in among a congested social media feed. Regardless of channel, a brand needs to make a meaningful and personal connection with its audience. But to do so, it first needs to be clear about who it is and what it wants to say. Audiences are getting savvier; they see through false claims and have no time for the generic. Bombarded with brand messages at every turn, consumers crave substance and voices they can identify with or believe in.
Every brand has a story to tell, every brand has a reason to exist. For some brands it is obvious. For others it may have got lost or confused over time, but dig deep and it will still be there. Some brands need the help of an outsider to articulate their story, bringing clarity, creativity and cut-through to their brand communications, which is where we as agencies come in.
But how do we successfully tell a brand story? Often this requires focusing on the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’ and the ‘where’. We can easily communicate what a brand is selling and where to get it. But why? Why should a consumer invest their money, their time and, most importantly, their trust?
Many brands are finding that it’s getting harder to be all things to all people. We find it difficult to trust people when we’re not really sure who they are or what they stand for. However, if a consumer can begin to understand why a brand exists and how this brand may complement their lifestyle, a connection can be made.
To engage their audience all brands need to establish an authentic voice. They don’t need to be our best friends to succeed, they might be a trusted expert, a caring helper, or an exciting encourager, we just need to be able to believe it.
They might like the same things that we do, or fight for the same causes. If we can believe in them, we are more likely to want them to succeed. If they want any chance of winning our trust, their authenticity needs to be evident and consistent throughout every aspect of their business, from the design of their store to the tone of their Twitter account.
While the ultimate aim of any retail strategy used to be the transaction, this is now often the starting point of a meaningful brand investment. Keeping open the lines of communication between brand and consumer is vital. The number of channels and mediums through which we can continue to tell our story are vast. Before we take on a new brief we don’t know if we’re going to be enlisting a graphics guru and a print buyer or a blogger and a videographer. As agencies we need to be more flexible and more open. We can’t just think as art directors, account handlers, designers or developers anymore, we need to find the solution that best fits the brief, not our business model. Keeping our audience engaged and creating relationships long past the point of transaction creates trust, and trust inspires loyalty.
And loyalty means continued investment. There is no standard fit for brand success. Being authentic as a brand is being honest to yourself and your values. It is about embedding a culture that must be believed both internally and by its audience. It can’t be faked. To make connections with their audiences, brands must truly understand their needs and desires, reaching out to them in the manner most appropriate to tell their story, whatever that may be, at every point of communication.
A great agency will understand this and a great client will embrace it. The days of selling products are over. We are now in the business of selling trust, truths and authenticity: nothing else will cut through.
James Fox is senior art director at RBH.