everything you ever wanted to know about retail

Last week, Interbrand Design Forum the retail arm of the global consultancy of the same name released The Most Valuable U.S. Retail Brands 2009 report and it is a must-read for anyone who wants insights into the retail sector.

The actual most valuable brand rankings in the report are, as with all brand valuation lists, a bit misleading as the list omits privately-held companies, so retail gold-standards like Apple stores, Trader Joe’s, and REI aren’t ranked.  But the reason to read the report is all the supplementary content.  In addition to a brief analysis of each of the top 50 retail brands, the report includes educational and provocative research and editorial on a range of brand topics.

Some excerpts:

  • from “Lessons from the Most Valuable Brands“:  Initiatives will always need to be built around shopper frequency, loyalty, margin, relevant assortment and top-and-bottom line growth. The notion that’s new to most [retail] companies is that brand — one great idea that generates value — drives them all. An overarching retail brand strategy can align these initiatives, making them more effective in total.
  • from “Where are the Department Stores?“:  The [department store] format is still distinguished by a high level of departmentalization, which presents a challenge to the brand experience.  Its functional and merchandise specialization needs to be guided by the master brand to prevent a muddle of sameness between competitors, and to halt the loss of brand equity.
  • from “The Misnomer of Specialty Apparel“:  Fashion retail presents great opportunity and great risk — the ability to generate high margins with the uncertainty of the duration of trends.  However, the lack of differentiation among the top brands suggest that the field is suffering from risk avoidance.
  • from “Scale Alone Does Not Make a Grocery Brand“:  Traditional grocery earned the weakest customer loyalty scores.  Over-reliance on discounts, rewards and promotions undermines any move towards a meaningful proposition and results in low brand strength…As long as their vendors continue to pay for play, supermarkets may see no need to understand and serve the shoppers in their stores.  Brand thinking begins with the idea that addressing shopper needs increases frequency and basket size.  Without it, a store is simply a box full of other makers’ brands, and a master of none.
  • from “Every Brand Tells a Story“:  According to our research, about half the population does not believe retail experiences are delivering against the promises made by the brand advertising.  They find innovation in both merchandise and experience is lacking across all retail…Shoppers will always need a reason to buy, but a branded shopping experience can help build long-term equity that will matter in an up or down economy.
  • and the best points of the report (from “The Curious Case of Walmart“):  There’s a difference between “selling” and “branding.”   Selling is putting great deals on the shelf and promoting them.  Branding puts an idea into the customer’s heart and mind by selecting great deals that are relevant to people’s needs and desires…You can’t just out-operationalize the competition anymore.  Now that the low-price bar has been set, an emotional connection is the strongest bond a retail brand can have today.

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  • I love this self-serving nonsense from Interbrand. Most of the ‘findings’ rely on making things happen in the real world — focusing on experience, differentiation through service, and actual functional benefits — and then the last bullet says that businesses can’t “out-operationalize the competition anymore” but, rather, need to have “an emotional connection.”

    Huh? Talk about the cart preceding the horse…didn’t they just argue for operations — real things, real actions, real systems, etc. — as being the tools for gaining advantage? Emotions COME from such behaviors; they don’t precede or compensate for it if there’s no THERE there.

    I’m consistently amazed at how these brand gurus are allowed to talk out of both sides of their mouths, not to mention use a veritable devil’s dictionary of metaphors, incomplete or conflicting statements, and imprecise or downright opaque definitions.

  • good catch, jonathan — i think i did a disservice to the report by excerpting that comment from the full article — what i believe the authors were trying to say is that the assets and operational proficiency a company may have is not sufficient enough to create a strong consumer connection — specifically they were lauding Wal-mart for transforming an operational advantage (scale) into a brand advantage (size matters to customers when it means lower prices, bigger impact in environmental efforts, etc.) — i found this a compelling point — but maybe i just drank the kool-aid???

  • LOL. I get it now. But I’m still not clear on what creates that ‘strong consumer connection if it’s not the very operational qualities you/they mentioned. I sometimes wonder if all the presumptions and associative squishy language about brands is no different than somebody ascribing engine performance in an automobile to some ‘magical force.’ The miracle is in the reality, and from it emerges imagination, not the other way around?

    I dunno…hey, pass the Kool-Aid…