Branding: The Integrated Shopper
Retailers must make a concerted effort to get consumers' attention in today's fast-paced environment, where prospects are subjected to hundreds of adverting messages a day. When it comes to brand recognition, integration is the name of the game. For consumers to really connect with a brand, they must have the same brand experience online, in-store or with the catalog.
Are retailers making strides in this direction? To find out, over the past 14 months I've scrutinized the brand integration efforts of a variety of retail categories in a four-part series in All About ROI. (The first three were written with George Hague.) For this fourth installment, I've taken a critical look at three outdoor adventure brands — Patagonia, REI and Cabela's — to see how well each delivers a consistent customer experience.
The Patagonia catalog does a superb job of integrating authentic stories and "product-in-use" photography with more typical lay-down images. The lifestyle images and client testimonials provide an element of authenticity and credibility.
In evaluating the digest-sized Holiday Favorites 2009 catalog, I assume that Patagonia has gone to this format to save on mailing costs, like many retailers. The smaller page size would cause many brands to reduce or even eliminate full-page lifestyle images in favor of more selling space. But Patagonia is savvy enough to understand that its customers identify with these "real-world" scenarios and envision themselves in those environments. These inspiring images and stories are a way for Patagonia to tell its customers, "We understand you. We're just like you. We're the real deal." The same action-oriented outdoor photos greet shoppers at its website for a consistent message and seamless shopping experience.
When you set foot in a Patagonia store, you get the sense you've walked into a local shop in a mountain town. As the door creaks behind you, you're greeted with a friendly "hello," and the warm, cabin-like atmosphere makes you want to stay awhile. The company has managed to bring the authentic feel of its brand to life in the retail environment.
One small disappointment: I wish Patagonia would have carried over the customer star rating system from its website to the pages of its catalog. Shoppers love these product reviews, and they're just as useful on the printed page as online.
Overall, Patagonia understands how to deliver a consistent and unique experience at all touchpoints. I give it a solid A.
When you think of outdoor outfitters, you most certainly think of REI. A group of mountaineering friends founded this company in 1938, and its commitment to outdoor adventure hasn't wavered since. REI has done what all brands aspire to: created a real community around its brand. In fact, as the largest consumer cooperative in the nation, REI serves more than 3.7 million active members. You get a real sense of belonging when you connect with this brand. Fans speak passionately about it. REI's more than 100 stores have become destinations in themselves. In short, it's a major player in the category because it walks the walk.
Unlike Patagonia, REI carries a variety of other brands: North Face, Under Armour, Marmot and, yes, even Patagonia. This is good and bad. It's good because people can view REI as the ultimate resource for outdoor gear. It's bad because it dilutes the exclusivity and loyalty for the REI brand name.
After viewing its catalog, browsing its site and roaming its store, it seems REI has chosen to embrace its positioning as the ultimate resource. It offers a wider variety and bigger selection than Patagonia, and because of that comes across as the big guy on the block, although perhaps not as special. REI also uses lifestyle photography throughout its catalog and website, but it feels a bit staged and too polished compared to Patagonia's snapshot, real-life execution.
REI has done a commendable job of establishing a unique face for the brand — a very identifiable look and feel that, at a glance, sets it apart from the competition. There's no mistaking whose catalog you're flipping through or on what site you're shopping. The tighter you define this visual vocabulary, the easier it is to execute across all channels. With well-defined brand standards — typography, color palette, graphic treatments, etc. — you more easily translate your brand's personality to all touchpoints.
REI's catalog and website are clean, well-organized and easy to shop. As I was looking at both the catalog and site at the same time — which is how most consumers do it — I encountered no inconsistencies or problems. The website offered further details and made the shopping experience pleasant.
But its stores have always been what REI is known for. They allow you to experience the products and try them out — strap on the gear and tackle the climbing wall. The enthusiasm of the employees shines through, too. If REI could bottle that store experience and somehow translate it to the pages of the catalog and website, it would have a perfect trifecta. But until then, I give it a B+.
Cabela's targets a different kind of outdoor enthusiast. It focuses on hunting, fishing and outdoor gear. It also claims to be the world's foremost outfitter, and when you browse its catalog and website and walk into one of its stores, you can see why. Cabela's has more products, more choices, more categories … more of everything. It's a bit overwhelming. Selection is a good thing, but I actually got lost on its website and in its store. Not good.
An advantage Cabela's has over many brands is that it understands its customer like no other. In fact, many of the friendly, knowledgeable staffers at the stores and on the phone are actual customers who love the brand so much they've chosen to work there. Chances are, if these folks aren't working, they're standing in a stream somewhere casting their reels, wearing gear they bought at their own Cabela's. All brands can learn something from this: Know your customers intimately, and then invite them to be a part of the experience.
Cabela's has many catalogs for a variety of categories, but I focused on the Christmas '09 catalog. It does a good job of grouping items within themed categories: gifts less than $100, gifts less than $50, gifts for her, etc. But the arrangement and organization of the products within those categories seem haphazard. What's more, every page has a multicolored border combined with a textured background. These pages are crowded enough with dense product. Don't make it worse by adding more elements!
The products are displayed far too democratically. Every item is given equal treatment, rather than selecting key hero products and giving them more space. This made the book too bland. Every spread looked exactly the same.
Cabela's also ?missed an opportunity that both Patagonia and REI used so well — rarely, if ever, did it remind customers why they're buying the products. Cabela's spent all its time (in the catalog, on the website and in the store) presenting what it had to sell, but little reminding the shopper why to buy it. These guys love the outdoors, fishing, the thrill of the hunt. Surround them with an emotional experience that creates desire. Cabela's can do better. I give it a C+. ROI
Brent Niemuth is the vice president/creative director at J. Schmid & Assoc., a multichannel design, branding and marketing firm (firstname.lastname@example.org or (913) 236-8988).