Branding: The Integrated Shopper
No, I'm not a woman. But I do shop for women's clothing. Huh? Let me clarify. My wife hates to shop. She simply refuses to buy things for herself (weird, I know). I, on the other hand, love to shop, especially for clothes (even weirder). So I end up doing all the shopping for her. I love the entire experience — comparing styles, watching trends, seeing who's wearing what, flipping through catalogs, browsing online, and especially walking into a store and experiencing the retail environment firsthand. Over the years I've gravitated toward my own favorite brands for men, but never really took a good, hard look at women's apparel brands.
For this fifth installment of The Integrated Shopper, I do just that. I take a critical look at the various selling channels of Coldwater Creek, Chico's and J.Jill to see how each brand integrates the consumer shopping experience.
I've admired this brand for years for its name recognition and solid reputation. It seems to be respected in the industry and has maintained a strong presence through its catalog, website and retail stores, which isn't an easy task these days. However, I must admit, I still don't know what the brand stands for. Maybe I just haven't looked hard enough. I started my search for the answer by reviewing Coldwater Creek's shopping channels.
First up was its catalog. The cover shot was a clean presentation of a happy model wearing a floral-patterned trench coat tossing rose petals into the air. The headline read, "180 New Spring Styles." The back cover showed another model wearing a light sweater holding a bright pink flower standing against a backdrop of flowers. I get it, this is Coldwater Creek's spring book.
The inside of the catalog offered a nice, clean presentation of brightly colored apparel items set against a sea of solid pastel backdrops. Mixed in were images shot in a studio against the same pastel backdrops of smiling models holding flowers. The book felt organized, open and airy. It was easy to shop, the pacing was interesting, and the overall impression was fresh and polished. There was certainly high production value here. However, there wasn't one mention of what the brand was about or why you should buy from it. Not one. It never once described what makes Coldwater Creek unique — unless it was the flowers.
Next I went to Coldwater Creek's e-commerce site to see if the experience was similar. It was. I was greeted on the homepage by the same smiling model, once again holding flowers. There were blocks of the same pastel colors found in the catalog, along with the same font treatments, making for a very consistent presentation. The homepage was visually well done. However, the only messages that greeted me were promotions: "All jewelry 30% off," "$30 off your order of $150 or more," "All jackets and coats 30% off" and "Free Shipping." Since the first impression I got when I arrived at Coldwater Creek's homepage was "discount, discount, discount!," guess what impression I have of the brand?
That afternoon I took a trip to Coldwater Creek's local store with my wife in tow (yes, I made her come along as a decoy). I wondered what impression the brand would have on me when I saw it live and in person. The second we walked into the store we were greeted by a very friendly 60-plus-year-old woman who couldn't wait to tell us about the store's promotions. She immediately steered us to the sale section. The store felt like the catalog had come to life. There were large posters of the same happy models holding flowers, as well as graphics everywhere of the same pastel colors (with more flowers).
The shopping experience from Coldwater Creek's spring catalog to its website to one of its retail stores was completely seamless. Clean, well organized, polished. One channel fed right into the other perfectly. As we left the store holding our bag of clearance items, however, I had an empty feeling. I still didn't know what the brand was all about. Coldwater Creek never once told me what it stood for or what made it special other than perhaps discounted items and flowers. Despite the tight integration across all channels, the lack of a strong brand story earns it a B+.
Chico's catalog makes it very clear what the brand stands for: bold style. On the cover the brand's signature model (who appears in all its marketing efforts) is shown next toChico's "style expert" Sher Canada. The large-print headline across the cover reads "Style Secrets!" As you work your way through the book, page after page of large headlines and quotes from style expert Canada emphasize that Chico's is there to help consumers create and show off their personal style. The design and layout of the pages resemble a fashion magazine, with clean white backgrounds, trendy typography, tips on how to wear its clothing, color trends, dos and don'ts, and an emphasis on your entire wardrobe.
This is more than a catalog; it's a guidebook to style. Chico's clearly understands that today's catalog must be more than just a transactional tool. It has to work much harder than that. It has to be a window into the brand. If your catalog is still simply a presentation of products — i.e., a way to buy stuff — you've got some work to do.
How well does Chico's translate that style story to the web? Quite well, actually. The retailer's homepage is a perfect reflection of its catalog. It feels like a fashion site. The typography treatments are hip, the backgrounds are clean and don't compete with the merchandise, and the models look fun and engaging. There's an editorial sensibility about it. You can even get live help from a Chico's stylist right on the homepage. Chico's did miss an opportunity on its site to integrate the tips, fashion advice and trend watching that was present in its catalog, however. Doing so would have further supported its brand positioning as style experts.
The brick-and-mortar shopping experience is where Chico's lost me. Walking into one of its stores was like walking into a chaotic bazaar. There were racks and racks of clothes not organized in any particular way. It was a jumbled mess with no focus, and it didn't resemble Chico's catalog or website at all. Where was the hip fashion aesthetic? How about the style experts? Not to mention the tips and advice on how to put together an entire wardrobe? A huge missed opportunity and a huge disconnect from an otherwise great experience with a bold and unique brand. Chico's, you had me at hello, then lost me at your front door. What could have been a solid A is now a C+. Unfortunate.
The folks at J.Jill have always done a good job of keeping things simple — simple clothes and accessories presented in a simple way, wrapped in a very simple aesthetic. I admire that. In fact, if I were to give one piece of advice to any brand today, it would be simplify. Simplify everything, from your merchandise to the execution of your catalog and website to the entire shopping experience to your brand story. Trim the fat, get rid of any excess baggage, weed out the stuff you don't need and simplify. A good lesson in life as well.
On the cover of J.Jill's catalog I was greeted by a friendly model in a natural pose along with a cute puppy. Who doesn't like puppies? The J.Jill brand has always had strong photography — natural-looking models in comfortable settings with soft, natural lighting. There's a natural ease to it. When I opened this particular catalog, I saw more of the same. Nothing over the top or groundbreaking, just simple apparel presented in a simple way.
J.Jill's website is a nice extension of its catalog. There's no question that you're on J.Jill's site — same photography style, same color palette, same typography treatments. One of the things I liked about the catalog — the J.Jill Wearever Collection, a guide to getting dressed in five minutes and looking great — thankfully appears online as well, although it's a bit buried. J.Jill announces sales and promotions on its site, but does it a bit more tastefully than Coldwater Creek. It tells you about the sales and promotions without screaming about them. The result: a more upscale feel.
J.Jill's retail store was my favorite of the three I visited. It truly felt like the brand had come to life. The store design was very tastefully done with the signature neutral color palette and simple furnishings that I've come to expect from J.Jill. The sales associates who helped us were even a nice representation of the brand. The way they dressed, talked and carried themselves was very J.Jill. Even the music playing softly in the background felt like there was some thought put into it, and it certainly helped create the overall experience that I'm sure J.Jill wanted you to have. I left the store thinking that the experience I just had was pleasant, natural and simple, just like the brand. These things don't happen by accident. Are you paying this much attention to your brand's total experience? Well done, J.Jill. You get an A!
The lesson here? There's no detail too small or too insignificant to overlook. Everything you do, everything you say, everything you are — and I mean everything — is a direct reflection of your brand. All of these things need to be managed and controlled, but in a way that doesn't seem managed and controlled. Sound difficult? It is. That's why so few brands actually do it well. A quick nod to my late, great hero, Steve Jobs. He was often criticized for being a control freak. He wanted everything to be perfect, down to the last detail. And he made sure it was. The result was the greatest brand ever created. Lesson learned.