Polo Ralph Lauren – Adventures in Brand Architecture

Polo Ralph Lauren flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New YorkA New Take on an Old Story

In 2004, Ralph Lauren launched Rugby, a new brand to appeal to a new customer. The company was serious enough about the brand to attempt to trademark the use of the name in apparel and related categories. The Rugby brand had less to do with the wide striped, white collared shirts associated with the sport than the desire to appeal to a new, younger customer who may or may not have been familiar with the Ralph Lauren brand. Or brands, because there are several in the Lauren stable. More on that later. [Read more…]

Old Power Brands Are Asleep

Old Power Brands Are AsleepSephora Leads a Wake Up Call

One thing the overly heralded tech-driven start-ups do not have is brand recognition. They do not have the indelible consumer connection that has taken the “old world” power brands years and millions of dollars to nurture, build and maintain.

Brand recognition aside, the techie entrepreneurs do have three advantages over established brands that afford them the ability to launch and quickly ramp up their businesses:

  1. Creative new way to market a product or service.
  2. Understanding how technology can facilitate the concept.
  3. Limitless funding from “casino playing” investors, allowing them to scale without making any money.

[Read more…]

At Your Service: Two Case Studies

TOP Shop John Lewis combo FinalIn the developed world, retailing remains under siege. As we know, a steady flow of new Internet competitors vie for consumer dollars, frequently undercutting prices of the brick-and-mortar stores. Meanwhile, amidst a sea of sameness with parity products, traditional retailers too frequently compete merely on price. In-store service levels have evaporated in all but the most high-end luxury houses or new entrepreneurial and tech brands, further propelling the “race to the bottom,” an industry trend Robin Lewis coined back in 2012. [Read more…]

Staying Hot (AKA The Other Kind of Sustainability): Can Frédéric Fekkai Get His Mojo Back?

lead_frederic_bioIf you’re older than a minute, and in the beauty biz in any way, shape or form, you will remember the epic hotness of one Frédéric Fekkai.

There was another guy named Oribe who was equally epically hot at the same time, circa 1995, and we’ll circle back to him later. But in the spirit of serving short Internet attention spans, our task today will be to focus on Monsieur Fekkai, and how his once ground-breaking product and salon business has changed hands more times than a blackjack whale on a bender in Vegas.

While much has been made of Fekkai’s swarthy good looks and devastating French accent over the years – and there is zero question that both factored mightily into his early success – the fact of the matter is that the guy is really smart and incredibly driven. You don’t get from Aix en Provence with a pair of scissors in your hand to acquisition by P&G for north of $400 million simply by trading on your own charm and pulchritude. The beauty industry isn’t Hollywood. (But then again, judging by all the A-list actresses launching lifestyle brands, Hollywood isn’t even Hollywood anymore…) [Read more…]

Home Stores are Living Large

big_stores_ikeaWhile everyone and his realtor knows all about McMansions and the oversizing of the Great American Home, hardly anyone is paying attention to the fact that the stores where people buy all the home furnishings products to put into those colossal-sized homes are also getting larger and larger.

In a retail landscape where market share is slowly but surely moving online and one-time physical store powerhouses like Linens’n Things, Circuit City and, just recently, Anna’s Linens, are now just mall memories, some retailers are moving in the opposite direction. Seemingly counterintuitive: Why would you move to larger stores with more inventory and higher breakeven points when many national chains are downsizing?  The surge to the square-foot splurge is happening with surprising frequency.

Furnishings operations like At Home (the retailer previously known as Garden Ridge), RH (the retailer previously known as Restoration Hardware) and Nebraska Furniture Mart (same name, but no longer confined to Nebraska) are opening bigger stores, with more to come. All of which raises the inevitable question: Is bigger better? Not that this is exactly a new question. Home furnishings stores have traditionally been larger than their apparel brethren, which of course makes sense given that sofas, big TVs and major appliances are larger than skimpy tops and short shorts. [Read more…]

By Design: The Studio Xfinity Experience

xfinity_studioWhen the Department of Commerce began tracking online sales in 1998, e-commerce made up about only 0.2 percent of all retail sales. By 2013, online sales had increased 50-fold. If that’s not enough to rattle brick-and-mortar retailers, note that at the height of the Great Recession in 2008-2009, online sales was the only retail category that kept growing. Today, with every imaginable product just a click away, retailers need to offer more than attractive wares to get shoppers back into the offline store, and the majority haven’t come up with a great solution.

Companies like Apple and Prada solve the problem with stores that invite customers to participate in a brand experience that encourages emotional connections and associations between consumers, the store and their products. These contextual retail environments are not only responsible for showcasing how the product works, they’re also stages for events and larger group experiences. These retail environments transcend the buying experience beyond a basic, primary function to gateways into a community, collective experience. [Read more…]

Birth, Life and Death: A Retail Cycle

murraysRob Kaufelt walked into Murray’s Cheese on Bleecker Street in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early ’90s and noticed a sign saying the store was closing after a 50-year run. The owners were tired, the neighborhood was changing, and the lease was up. Rob came from a family of grocers. He was a deli man who was used to getting up early and, at that moment, was out of work. His latest store had failed. On a whim, Rob made an offer on the business and was shocked when it was accepted. He moved it across the street for cheaper rent and started cutting cheese.

One thing led to another: Cheese classes, catering, wholesaling to restaurants, an e-commerce business, an outpost in Grand Central Terminal, a Murray’s Cheese Bar restaurant, and a deal with Kroger. By the end of 2015, there will be some 250 Murray’s Cheese outposts in Kroger stores across the country. Rob and Murray’s are evangelically getting Americans past Vermont cheddar and Wisconsin flavored Jacks. Whoever Murray was, he probably couldn’t imagine cheese becoming so chic, and his family is likely regretting not keeping at least a piece of the action. Rob, needless to say, is doing very well and has more grown-up toys than any man I know. [Read more…]

Retail Design: Much More than Meets the Eye

retaildesignThe character of the places where we live, work, and, of course, shop, have a direct effect on our thoughts and emotions — whether we are aware of it or not. Everyone is reminded of this when we enter a majestic cathedral or a grand department store. Or when we feel so vulnerable as we navigate the unfamiliar underground passageways of a subway. It is extremes like these that make us fully aware of the impact of space and place. Our acute sensitivity to our surroundings is always influencing our behavior — often unconsciously. When we shop, every aspect of the store’s design is acting on our emotions — whether we want it to or not. One could argue that these largely unconscious emotions are no match for our conscious reasoning when it comes to guiding our shopping behavior and purchase decision-making. Right?

Not so fast. The growing and compelling body of behavioral research popularized in bestsellers like “Predictably Irrational,” “Nudge,” and “The Power of Habit” all point to the unconscious as the unseen master of our frequently irrational behavior. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” argues that the unconscious is firmly in the driver’s seat. He says our “thoughts and behaviors may be influenced by stimuli to which you pay no attention at all and even by stimuli of which you are completely unaware.” Surprisingly, he found that in many cases we are, in fact, more strongly influenced by such subtle stimuli when we are not aware of them. He concludes, “The main moral…is that our thoughts and our behavior are influenced, much more than we know or want, by the environment.”

Space and Place

So what does this all mean for retail design? It tells us that every aspect of the retail environment matters because it directly influences behaviors and decision-making, and, therefore, has a direct impact on business performance. Yet many retailers do not consider the effect of store design a key metric. Consumers know the power of a place intuitively just by recalling various shopping experiences. Think how specific thoughts and emotions surface when shopping at edgy Urban Outfitters versus optimistic Uniqlo; or cheerful Target versus austere Costco; or at impeccable Chanel versus flamboyant Versace.

In each case, the retail environment is made up of a multitude of design components: light, color, materials, sound, scent, the shape and size of the space, etc. There is endless variety within each design element. Think of color, for example; each color affects us differently. To complicate matters, the ways these design elements can be combined is truly infinite. So how do we begin to make sense of the design possibilities?

retaildesign_2The Power of Storytelling

Before we choose and compose the elements of retail design, we need a story to tell. For branded retailers, that story is an expression of the brand identity. Sometimes called brand vision, brand identity is perhaps the most important concept in retail design because it serves as the inspiration for, and framework on which, a retail concept is developed. It is key to the success of the design, but brand identity is a concept that is often poorly understood.

When you or I, for example, think of the brand Burberry, various impressions come to mind. Some of those impressions might be quite simple — like its signature red, black and tan plaid or its classic trench coat. Some of these impressions might be more complex, likely inspired by some notion of Britishness. All of the impressions that exist in our individual minds can be thought of as “brand images.” They are the images that form in our minds.

Brand identity, on the other hand, is what the brand is saying, or trying to say. It is based on the brand’s core values, fundamental substance, and essential character. Brand identity is that unique combination of attributes that define the brand’s aspiration, promise or dream. It is “the center of the universe” that serves as a frame of reference and inspiration for everyone who works on the brand, not the least of all the designers of the retail environment.

So does every brand have a brand identity that can serve as the basis of great retail design?

When a painter sets out to create a portrait of a mythical figure, such as an ancient Greek god like Poseidon, Aphrodite or Dionysus the task is already halfway done because there is so much existing material with which the artist can work. For example, the nuanced character of the wine-loving Dionysus has been richly revealed in countless stories. The artist’s task is to interpret and then depict the character and temperament of Dionysus in a recognizable form. In the same way, the task of the retail designer is to interpret the brand identity and bring it to life in many dimensions. While every brand has a brand identity, it is not always as clear and accessible as the legend of Dionysus. Sometimes it is concealed, or worse, misunderstood.

Branded Environments

The character of the brand is also sometimes ignored by narcissistic retail designers who are intent on placing their own imprint on the store design, rather than serving as an interpreter of the brand. The first essential step in creating an engaging and powerful retail environment is a clearly articulated view and deep understanding of the brand identity.

Indeed, to maximize a brand’s economic contribution, all manifestations of the brand — retail environment, product, logo, promotion, service and even corporate policies — must reference the same “center of the universe.” In other words, the consumer-influencing power of the brand can only be fully realized when, as they say, everyone is singing from the same hymn book. Within luxury, we can see this coherence most clearly realized by Chanel, where a quietly elegant modern “less-is-more” sensibility is systematically applied across all product categories and promotional campaigns. The store is the physical manifestation of this sensibility where refined luxurious materials are consistently composed and applied with impeccable craftsmanship.

A different approach is Tommy Bahama’s brand identity. This brand is based on an idyllic, refined, tropical island lifestyle where one is more likely to wear silk shirts and tailored pants than Speedos and a T-shirt. The store design reflects and reinforces this vision through the use of sophisticated tropical references. In keeping with a refined aspirational aesthetic, there are no fishing nets draped across the ceiling, no faux pirate chests or Tiki totems. Instead, the island references are subtle, the materials refined — finely woven grass cloth, white bead board, wide-plank wood floors and ceiling fans. Caribbean wooden shutters are used throughout to evoke the memory of tropical sunlit days and balmy breezes. The store layouts are regular and ordered with a formality of design to reinforce the notion of a stately home. The result is pleasing, accessible and casual but also sophisticated.

At the Millennial end of the spectrum, Anthropologie’s bohemian “flea-market chic” stores have irregular layouts, mismatched furniture and fixtures, and authentic-looking folk-inspired art. The stores are celebrations of the strange beauty of imperfection. And, by inference, they acknowledge and allow you to celebrate your individuality. The coherent artisan store design actively brings the brand to life. It complements the eclectic merchandise assortment and helps imbue the product with cultural meaning — which ultimately justifies its price.

As consumers, we instinctively recognize retail environments as different as Anthropolgie, Chanel, Tory Burch, and Giorgio Armani, where the designs actively reinforce and reveal each brand’s identity. These retailers are exceptional. They have an integrated strategy that communicates their position and personality to consumers. Too many branded retailers fail to fully extend their brand identity to the store. This is a major missed opportunity. The store, as the center of the omnichannel universe, represents the most compelling opportunity to influence customer choice, leveraging consumers’ high sensory sensitivity to every aspect of their environment.

Solomeo, the Italian Medieval hill town surrounded by the fertile countryside of Umbria, is the headquarters of cashmere brand Brunello Cucinelli. The architecture, landscape, history and culture of this special place are a rich source of inspiration. This place, interpreted through a romantic philosophy, is at the center of the brand identity — which is beautifully revealed in the product and promotional campaigns — but not in the stores, which are generic gallery-like spaces. While the neutral retail environment focuses attention on the product, there is more to the brand than the product. And this is clearly demonstrated simply by looking at the rich Brunello Cucinelli digital presence. It won’t be easy, but it is time to bring this beautiful brand to life at retail.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for retailers to focus on using good design to bring the brand to life at retail is to satisfy the human heart and mind’s ongoing search for a coherent story. As humans, we are, to a fault, pattern seekers. We jump to conclusions and are wired to see a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Our natural instinct is to connect the dots, making visual and emotional sense of the seemingly disconnected threads of a story. Retailers can make our job as customers infinitely more satisfying by creating an integrated plan with coherent design that touches every part of our experience with their brand. It is not just pleasing; it is profitable.

Redefining Affordable Luxury For Millennials

Affordable luxury is a slightly baffling concept, especially for the Millennial generation. Defining luxury itself is a challenge since we are talking about a service, location, experience or item that is of the highest quality achievable, irrespective of price. But what does luxury mean? For some it’s time. For others, it’s a five-star hotel in Myanmar. For Millennials, prevailing opinion may lead you to believe that we think it’s not a necessity. Or worse, that it’s a rip-off. But truth is, luxury in no way equates to a rip-off; in fact, it’s often quite the opposite. For us, luxury is about achieving quality, tailored to our taste, at a price we can afford.

Affordable luxury is what we seek. Affordable doesn’t mean inexpensive, but rather an attempt to grab hold of that bespoke existence and invest our money in items that will age well and be used frequently. On the experience side, we look for affordable luxury in activities that elevate us out of our everyday routines and let us taste a lifestyle that is normally out of reach. [Read more…]

The Grooming Boom: This One’s Gonna Stick

Martial Vivot at his salon on West 39th Street in Manhattan, Friday February 11th, 2011.

Mampering. Manscaping. Guy-brows. There are lots of lame new monikers attached to a bonafide beauty movement with big-bucks potential: The rise of guys as committed, trend-savvy – and, dare one say it, glamorous – consumers of product and services.

Have we been here before? Kinda. Since the mid-Aughts, there have been a handful of ship-on-the-horizon upticks in the men’s grooming market, enough to embolden such establishment brand behemoths as L’Oréal Paris and Dove to roll out initiatives like Men’s Expert and Men+Care, respectively.

But while L’Oréal SA and Unilever (the corporate papas of L’Oréal Paris and Dove) can afford to take a flyer on a new product range that may or may not jibe, here’s how you know when the rising guy tide is poised to lift all boats:

A) When tiny niche brands gain traction right out of the launch gate; [Read more…]

I’m Worth it!

Worth Summer Campaign_My House is More Than a HomeBrand’s High-Touch, High-Tech Service Business Model Attracts Busy, Fashion-Conscious Women

As the apparel sector gravitates toward cheaper products, relentless promotions, and declining service, a very different microtrend is taking hold. Direct-to-consumer luxury apparel company Worth Collection Ltd. is providing hands-on service with a high-tech twist — and no discounting.

When she answered the door at the Worth New York showroom on New York’s West 57th Street, Dana Kendrick took only a few minutes to size me up — literally and figuratively. “You’re a size 2,” she announced, “and you like classic, updated styles and dark or neutral colors.”

The stylist ushered me into a beautifully paneled room lined with racks of clothing samples from which she began to pull a selection of items. Then the questions started. Was I looking primarily for clothes for work or for social events? Have I thought about wearing color around my face? What are my most urgent wardrobe needs? [Read more…]

The New Normal: NORMCORE

PrintFirst it was Nikes replacing ballet flats. Then it was Birkenstocks replacing Nikes. Then Patagonia and Tevas became a thing. Then George Clooney’s fiancé was wearing mom jeans. Baseball caps, sports jerseys, mall chic, Jerry Seinfeld. What can we make of the anti-fashion trend that has bypassed hipsters and has translated into real market value (as we saw with this winter’s L.L. Bean boot selling out nationwide)?

More than any style trend, “Normcore” is a pervasive movement among Millennials to appear as bland — and as normal — as possible. It first surfaced in late 2013 in New York-based brand consultants K-Hole’s report “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom.” In the report, K-Hole described an evolution of Millennials’ legacy in defining themselves as individuals, moving towards “liberation in being nothing special.” This is a very new concept for the second Generation Me — to find freedom in the commonality of underachievement, and lowest net worth. And while this sentiment may come from the Occupy’s I-am-the-99%, it is a decidedly non-political statement, but rather one that is a bellwether ofthe predilections of the Millennial consumer.

[Read more…]