Times Square covered with illuminated billboards during the 'blue hour' period at dusk, with tourists on the streets.

Product is no longer the consumer drawcard it once was and retail businesses should focus instead on building a strong brand to ensure success, writes Kate Smith.

Once upon a time, retail brands were defined by the product they sold. They took pride in offering unique products to fill a specific consumer need. Nowadays, competition in the retail sector is fierce. As soon as a new product hits the market, businesses clamour to capitalise; developing their own versions, saturating the market with copies and spoiling consumers with unprecedented choice.=

As retail brands are increasingly discovering, when it comes to a product, there is only so much differentiation they can make. Increasingly, what people are investing in as consumers is the entire retail experience. This “whole experience” certainly involves the product but it also incorporates how it makes a customer feel, the time invested in researching and investigating the product, the process of buying it and any post-purchase interactions and occurrences.

The differentiation for retail brands – and, indeed, its success or failure – now hinges on that customer experience.

Take, for example, shopping for a new pair of shoes. Looking at the product objectively, a shoe is a shoe; it covers a foot and provides comfort and protection. But when customers go shopping for a new pair of boots, they are seeking satisfaction on a more personal and intimate level. They want a product that looks good but, more than that, they are looking for an experience that makes them feel good and enhances their perception of self while building their perception of the brand.

Your brand isn’t your tagline. It isn’t your logo, your font or your website. Your brand needs to be a lived experience and it needs to be represented in everything your business accomplishes, offers and communicates.

It’s no longer just enough for retail brands to list the features and benefits of a product. They must develop a brand promise and meet that promise at all stages of the customer experience; from the organic content posted on social media to interactions with sales staff. Likewise, it is no longer enough to merely communicate that brand promise to consumers. Retail brands must continue to invest in that promise, to invest in their brand.

When we talk about investing in brand, we’re not talking merely about money but a financial commitment is important. To really embed that brand memory association and to build that hook in people’s heads on which to hang their understanding, repetition of message is key so brands do need to spend money. More important, however, is investing in a brand promise and making sure all areas of a business mirror and deliver this promise.

The key to successful brand investment is consistency and repetition. It is not enough for a brand to make a splash and be present in someone’s life for two weeks then stay silent for the remaining 50 weeks of the year. Marketing requires repetition to be powerful so brands should not become disheartened if they don’t experience an immediate sales bump from one radio ad or sponsored social media post.

Advertising daily, weekly or monthly in the right channels will build awareness of a brand, a product and a value proposition so that when someone is in market, your business is on their list.

While product is important, retail brands should sharpen their focus on identifying the promise they make to their customers, make sure it is different enough to stand apart from competitors and memorable enough to impact customer experience.

By Kate Smith, Head of Marketing at Outfit