Simon Graj

Build it and they will come. A picture is worth a thousand words. Seeing is believing. Familiar phrases to be sure, but Simon Graj, a principal and co-founder of brand consultancy Graj+Gustavson, has taken them to heart as the guiding themes in his...

Build it and they will come. A picture is worth a thousand words. Seeing is believing. Familiar phrases to be sure, but Simon Graj, a principal and co-founder of brand consultancy Graj+Gustavson, has taken them to heart as the guiding themes in his work for clients like Levi’s, Sears, OshKosh, and Carter’s. By using a technique called “stage-setting,” Graj helps apparel marketers test brand strategies, develop brand extensions, clearly disseminate a brand’s essence to company employees, and create work processes that encourage idea-generation.

This story first appeared in the November 17, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Stage-setting is the art of sculpting your vision into reality,” explained Graj, a former design director at Gap.

So how does it work? For Levi’s, Graj helped the jeans giant clarify what the brand stood for — not to consumers, but to the company’s own employees, in order to clarify its platform for licensing. “The goal was to come to an understanding about what Levi’s is as a brand, and more importantly, what its potential is as a brand,” said Graj.

But rather than just using words, which can be interpreted differently by different people, Graj+Gustavson created a physical, visual representation of the brand — a stage set full of artifacts, pictures and objects that represent the Levi’s brand and lifestyle.

“We immersed ourselves in the brand, and became archeologists digging for nuggets of truth, through history, culture, and spirit. Adding each truth to the mix, we built the set and arrived at an ever more truthful portrait of the brand. A physical snapshot that you could walk up to say, ‘Yes, I see it and I get it.’”

The result? Levi’s employees could clearly understand the direction and vision of the brand. “We presented these brand stage sets to large groups of Levi’s management and, for the first time, they were able to make decisions together, simultaneously, because they were all experiencing the same things as a group and could really get a feel for the big picture.”

Besides facilitating “team buy-in,” as Graj terms the benefit of “getting everyone in the company on board and aligned with your vision,” stage-setting also has other uses. The technique is a good way to get the most relevant and useful data from focus groups — as was the case when Graj+Gustavson helped OshKosh reposition by expanding on its brand proposition as America’s family brand.

“One of our goals was to create a new retail concept that would be the ultimate expression of the new platform,” explained Graj. To do so, the company built a life-size model of what the store experience might be like, including prototypes of adult, children’s and home product, packaging, fixturing, signage, advertising, lighting and in-store music. Once the mock-up was completed, it was packed up and sent around the country, allowing focus groups to walk through the model and provide feedback.

“The model helped us confirm and validate ideas before financial commitments were made,” said Graj.

This ambitious act of stage-setting allowed OshKosh to eliminate 30 percent of the fixtures, find out which products worked, and discover new product categories, he said. “Home, in fact, was one of their favorites. We even learned which type of music people loved to hear in that environment. We were able to implement these and many other discoveries and changes, prior to the final design, engineering, architecture or product commitments were made, and most importantly, before rollout money was spent.”

But even before ideas are tested via stage-setting, the technique can be used to create work environments that help draw ideas out, which is what Graj+Gustavson did in its work for Carter’s, the children’s wear maker.

“Winston Churchill said we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us. What that means is that [physicality] has space, it has a great deal of power, and the idea is to use this to your company’s advantage. Too often, when a process is just rules on paper, it gathers cobwebs and people go back to their old ways.”

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