brand building retail apparel

As legacy brands strategize and reinvigorate to stay competitive in the market, younger and more agile companies are withal undergoing transformation. Retail and branding experts have noted dramatic shifts in both consumer behavior and brand dynamics, leading companies to either fine-tune or overhaul their approach to customer engagement.

Saffron, a global consultancy specializing in brand experience, innovation strategy and design, has worked with LVMH, Goldman Sachs, Google, Coca-Cola and Swiss Re, among many others. Here, Saffron’s Keith Miller, the vice president of the Americas, and Alfredo Fraile, the managing director for North and Latin America, share their insights on the current state of retail and “strategic brand positioning.”

WWD: Retail is experiencing massive disruption. How are fashion apparel brands and retailers adjusting to today’s consumer preferences, expectations and spending behaviors?

Alfredo Fraile: The huge suburban shopping malls where the so-called “mall rats” would spend their weekends and even find their love in the Eighties and Nineties, are increasingly a thing of the past. They are now being transformed for other uses; for schools, universities or community centers. Therefore, unfortunately, for the retail sector, disruption also means unemployment and many stores being forced to close down — at least with regards to these traditional retail concepts.

Consumer habits have shifted from strolling through physical stores to browsing the infinite catalog of retailers online. On the Internet, the entire world is at your fingertips; in a physical store it’s only a limited amount of choices. Even the most powerful brands have suffered and have had to learn the lesson. Online shopping is king; physical stores seem second best. That is, physical stores in the traditional sense.

Brands are using the retail space to define their brand positioning and create experiences that people cannot have in the digital world. To champion this shift, the most successful brands leverage physical spaces as their experience cathedrals; where their brand ethos truly comes to life. In those flagship stores, product is secondary; experience takes the center stage. It’s not about shopping there anymore; it’s about a form of entertainment, a way that people choose to spend their time.

This explains why so many people do actually go to these hot spots yet might end up ordering online. The key here for brands is to leverage this to their advantage. Omnichannel is crucial and, if executed correctly, bricks-and-mortar should be complementary to online. Even digitally native brands like Amazon are using pop-up stores or opening flagships to create this immersive experience that online does not reach.

WWD: What does “rebranding” entail, exactly?

A.F.: Rebranding is a very extensive concept. For Saffron, the most important part of a rebranding or a branding process is to define what you want to stand for. This means, essentially, defining why you exist independently from your specific product and how your reason for being is relevant for your audiences, the internal and external ones. The process starts inside-out and is then complemented outside-in, understanding the competitive environment.

It’s about discovering a brand’s authentic and unique motivations that make it connect to people in a way that competitors can’t. This will provide what differentiates the brand from its core and also, most importantly, why people will want to relate to your brand. In a nutshell, it’s about answering the question: What is the story that makes you special and connects with your audiences?

After that, we have the fundamentals. Now it’s about bringing the brand strategy to life defining a holistic experience. That entails a distinctive visual and verbal expression; experience mapping and implementation across all channels and for all audiences. Internal audiences are especially important in this process, as employees and leadership are brand ambassadors that should embody the brand spirit. This is especially relevant in retail. Employees interact directly with the final consumer; they have to carry the brand flag as high as ever. They are the first ones to bring the experience to life and to connect with people.

WWD: Many brands and retailers are on the verge of rebranding, or have already begun the process. Is there any specific retail sector undergoing significant change?

Keith Miller: Due to the change in consumer behavior globally, rapidly evolving spending habits and the way people relate to brands; all retail sectors are in a process of change or they are forced to be. Either you understand what is happening with people’s lifestyles and with society as a whole so you can evolve alongside the tides; or you die.

WWD: What are the differences between “classic” rebranding and “emotion-based” rebranding?

K.M.: All brands stand for something. All brands have an emotional element. The distinction might stem from the traditional “misunderstanding” that rebranding is mainly a visual renewal. In reality the visual change is only the visible manifestation of a deeper revitalization process around what the brand stands for. Therefore, we do not see a difference in this.

We have clients whose product is commoditized and their brand has to have an emotional component to matter, too. At the end of the day, brands are managed by people, speak to people and are bought by people; there are emotions across the board.

WWD: The “rebranding” process for more established brands and younger, more agile companies must look very different. What are some of the differences you’ve noted with rebranding for older brands versus newer brands?

A.F.: What really changes here, is defining the gap in the audiences’ perception of the brand vs. how the brand has defined itself. More established brands have a longer track record to deal with and potentially have gone through many vital phases that might have diluted what they stand for and, therefore, they have an unclear spirit now.

When going through a rebranding process we have to understand what you want to stand for today and how that relates coherently to your history. You cannot overpromise. A brand is the promise of an experience delivered. Therefore, what you deliver is key. The brand strategy has to capture exactly what makes you unique.

With this in mind, the rebranding process for a more established brand has many more moving parts than for a younger brand that has a shorter legacy to weave into its reason-to-be. In turn, for a younger brand, the major challenge is creating something distinct and credible, despite its shorter existence. In essence, the difference lies in “continuing to build something” versus partially “rebuilding” a long-standing spirit.

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