Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Big Retail Can Get Local - A 5-Step Approach

While conspicuous consumption is out, people are still buying stuff, entertaining (mostly at home), and traveling (more, shorter trips closer to home). The newly cost-conscious are still in search of interesting social environments and diverse shopping, consuming and learning experiences. What’s changing is our perceptions of who provides them.

In the '90s, Starbucks tapped into a collective search for the third place - there was home and work, and then there was Starbucks. The chain grew like topsy, and now has over 11,000 stores in the U.S. alone. It’s not surprising that the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, is trying to recreate the local coffee house experience. He is tuned into the trends of our times, and has publicly lamented the "commoditization" of the retail coffee experience. What’s surprising is the clumsy approach he has taken with 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea. Launching another brand in the same category, and trying to distance it from the Starbucks mother ship follows solid brand management theory. But it misses badly on the reality front. It seems “everyone” knows that Starbucks is behind the veil, and the effort is reflecting badly on the brand that’s badly in need of a pick-me-up. See the July 28th Harvard Business article by Peter Merholz for one of many on this topic.

What’s a national brand to do to try to get local? One approach is to give local store management greater authority to support local causes. By becoming a visible and active member of the community, big brands demonstrate commitment to the issues that matter to their customers. This puts the spotlight back on employees as an important part of the brand’s personality again.

Whether it’s sponsoring a “float” in the annual Memorial Day parade, or getting store employees to walk in the parade and hand out goodies along the route, or supporting flower planting or fund raising or other community initiatives, neighborhoods afford ample opportunity for store personnel to get involved. And let’s face it, it’s the people that are hardest for another brand to copy. Peet’s people are different from Starbucks people. Not better or worse, but different. For Starbucks to get local, it’s going to be the people who work in the stores in a particular town that make it so.

Here then are 5 steps to help national brands get local:
  1. Create loose guidelines for store managers to follow
  2. Give them a budget to do something meaningful
  3. Let them find the local causes or events they and their teams want to support
  4. Show them how to measure their impact
  5. Get out of the way
I wonder what they’d come up with. Whatever it is, it would be more relevant, Starbucks brand-enhancing and customer loyalty-building than 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea.

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