Industry experts on the art of reinvention

by Karen Alberg Grossman

We all know that retailers and brands are (or should be) in an accelerated process of reinvention. What’s needed for stores or brands to reinvent themselves?

SIMON GRAJ, GRAJ & GUSTAVSEN: It’s no longer about learning the right approach to brand building; it’s now about observing, listening and acting on intuition. People are no longer buying “stuff;” they’re not listening to marketing messages for things they don’t need. They’re looking for solutions, for products and experiences that enhance their lives. With the emergence of so many new digitally derived brands, it’s much harder for big brands. Today, you have to be a little bit of a rebel, an activist. If you’re authentic, it’s a good time to be in this business. If you’re just selling stuff, it’s not a good time.

ROBIN LEWIS, THE ROBIN REPORT: Everything starts with the consumer, which is now the newly dominant next-generation culture. Using AI and machine learning, it’s now possible to know, and even predict, what each and every consumer wants (and will want) when and where. (Think Amazon and StitchFix.) All channels of distribution must be seamlessly integrated as one. The physical platform (the store) must promise a compelling experience and personal touch, and anything BIG is a big turnoff. Small, intimate, special, constantly new and highly personalized—this is the winning formula.

STEVE PRUITT, BLACKS CONSULTING: What’s needed for reinvention: desire, brand capital, strategy, financial capital.

ERIC JENNINGS, E2 BRAND MANAGEMENT: Reinvention can produce great results if you reinvent while still staying true to your core. Deviating too much from your brand DNA can alienate your customers and leave them puzzled, which can hurt sales. As long as brands remain true to what author Simon Sinek calls their “WHY” (why they exist, or their reason for being), then reinvention is exciting and creates desire.

Some easy steps you can take:

■ Visuals—It doesn’t have to be complicated! I’ve seen a fresh coat of paint work wonders on many occasions. Visual reinvention by creating breathtaking displays and adding modern fixtures can make a significant impact. Crisp visual consistency online and in social media will have significant impact too.

■ Technology—When incorporating technology as a way to reinvent yourself, keep in mind, it should create a show-stopping “wow” moment, or it should create an invisible behind-the-scenes process that helps your customers get exactly what they want as quickly as possible. Today, capturing and utilizing data is the name of the game. Be sure you know what value you’re giving your customers and communicate that to them clearly. No one wants to appear too “creepy.” People are willing to give up data about themselves, as long as they see the value given back to them.

■ Partnerships—An unexpected partnership with like-minded brands and influencers can up your “cool-factor” and create a whole new perception of your brand. The Saks Fifth Ave x Fox’s Empire partnership a while back comes to mind; it had a lasting effect on reinventing the Saks brand image for a younger, hipper customer.

Who’s reinventing themselves well and what are they doing right?

PRUITT: Gucci has got to be the greatest turnaround in the last five years. Their ownership is very smart, reinventing twice in the past 20 years. They understand brand capital as well as any company.

LEWIS: Walmart is changing at warp speed in all the right ways, ironically even “debigging” itself by acquiring a long tail of small businesses and turning its physical stores (supercenters first) into social community gathering places with small boutiques, parks, skating rinks and on and on. Target, Kohl’s and Nordstrom all understand they must do the same (in the appropriate configuration for their models); some are further along than others and speed is of the essence.

GRAJ: One example: We’ve just developed a new plus size women’s brand for Kohl’s. They had the option to buy an existing plus size brand but they opted to launch a new one. We’ve announced it but have not officially launched it but I think it will do great: It’s a respectful destination space for plus size women who have had few positive shopping experiences in the past.

JENNINGS: Nordstrom did a great job with its new men’s store in NYC. The layout of the store is a bit quirky, and the brand adjacencies are sometimes dubious; however, it’s still quintessentially Nordstrom. They added just enough new and unexpected and paired that with the great classification merchandising for which they are known, so it all works. Moreover, there always seems to be a broad range of customers shopping: young and old, locals and tourists, urban and classic.

Can you give any examples of failed attempts and why they didn’t work?

PRUITT: The best example is Sears: It was a bad strategy and was run by bankers, not merchants.

LEWIS: I agree: Sears and Kmart because they were run by a financier who didn’t have a clue about how to reinvent them and JCPenney under Ron Johnson circa 2012. He had the perfect vision of what needed to be done but his implementation was a disaster because he refused to test his ideas and he eliminated all promotional pricing on Day One, thus alienating all of his core consumers who fled the store and never came back.

JENNINGS: Agree! JCPenney was built around great sales and discounts; when they tried to sell their customers on an everyday fair price business model, it had a terrible impact on their bottom line. Another good example is Brioni, a business built around classic, elegant Italian tailoring. When they hired an edgy creative director and put Metallica in their ad campaign, they strayed too far from their core brand DNA.

Can you comment on the future of pop-up shops, collaborations, product drops, bloggers/influencers? What will have the most impact on future shopping?

LEWIS: It’s no longer about siloed distribution channels: The new point of sale is consumers wherever they are. Today’s consumers are channel- and brand-agnostic. Marketing too is being fragmented: We are “de-massifying”—no more marketing to mass markets, which is why even the advertising and publishing industries are being squeezed. Most importantly, physical stores and online sites are no longer the only two distribution points. All we have are “platforms”—and Amazon’s platform is one on which any product, brand, other retailer, essentially anything and everything in the world can operate.

GRAJ: I think there are many big opportunities today. We’re in a moment of less inventory, fewer SKUs but more raison d’être. I also believe that art is the new fashion, food is the new fashion, drinks are the new fashion. There’s a new little shop downtown in the Bowery called MaMaCha that’s a matcha tea café and art gallery; the art changes frequently so it’s a fun “selfie” experience combined with a detox beverage.

PRUITT: The world is small. It’s all about both spreading and sharing information. Pop-ups, collaboration, product drops, bloggers/influencers are the execution of information spreading and sharing. There will be more: Just wait until AI and 5G technology gather deeper followings.

JENNINGS: Pop-ups, collaborations, limited product drops, and influencers are here to stay because…they work! Not every brand can do all of these options, so pick your partnerships wisely. Make sure they push the envelope enough to surprise and delight your customers while staying on-brand to your core mission.

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