Branding in 3D: How Edited Retail is Catering to the Attention Economy
Technology and new expectations have made confident, purposeful ranging a more valuable asset than ever before. In the attention economy, edited retail rules!
Utah is, perhaps, one of the last places you might expect to find achingly trendy sneakers and urban wear. Yet for KITH, the arid terrain of Canyon Point UT is much more than a lookbook location.
The most recent capsule to be issued under the retailer’s sport-tech EEA (Element Exploration Agency) imprint is aggressively visual and exotic. More than that, it’s a container for improbable, extraordinary products from Columbia Sportswear, adidas, Oakley, G-Shock and Tumi. Each is an artefact that blends seamlessly into the collection’s indigenous, sun-baked palette.
It’s doubtful that KITH’s influential guru, Ronnie Fieg, needs outside endorsement to sell out his sixty-piece Utah capsule in days, but these brands’ investment in Fieg’s creative vision brings flair and intrigue to the equation. They are touchstones for a collection that might otherwise have been just another trendy take on nineties sportswear nostalgia. But their baked-in collaboration makes it tangible and – to use a term from Seth Godin – remarkable. ‘Did you see that KITH Tumi case?’ is so much more compelling than ‘Did you see that KITH suitcase?’.
Only weeks before Utah’s release, Bloomingdale’s leveraged a cultural meme called MAR10 Day by launching Super Mario-themed corners aimed at grown-ups. Pixel-heavy, selfie-friendly zones featured exclusive items created by fourteen brands under sublicense, and a curated selection of on-topic products from unaffiliated labels. In February, Nordstrom used a near-identical format to connect Snoopy to the advent of Chinese New Year.
Concept stores and directional labels are notorious for using extraordinary – often audacious – products to illustrate elaborate, escapist concepts. But in spite of their obvious magnetism, batch-drops like KITH’s are often too readily dismissed as indulgences of brands with access to some kind of elite fashion bubble.
For the likes of Bloomingdale’s – and the vast majority of more than ninety similar campaigns launched by retailers during Q1 2018 – elitism was well down their list of objectives. Instead, most of them shared a common commitment to generating a strong and explicit editorial context.
Edited retail is the art of purposefully curating products to be discoverable and discernable to a wide audience seeking thrills and trophies.
Edited Retail is Like Branding in 3D
Hyper-connectivity is creating a world where the need for self-expression and the ability to discover perfectly personalised forums, ideas and products are turning all of us into little connoisseurs. A few years ago, we might have talked about feature collections like those above as generating surprise and delight. But their growing frequency and spread point to a climate in which campaigns are less directed at capturing upside, and more about avoiding averageness and anonymity through lack of editorial relevance.
Alongside product and place, editorial intrigue provides a crucial third dimension that enables products to shine in today’s cluttered landscape.
Since the beginning of time, shopkeepers’ ability to curate relevant offerings for their customer base has been turning the wheels of commerce. In recent years ‘curation’ has become a rather abused term, but few would deny that shoppers are growing fonder of the idea of hand-picked selections. With reputations built on curation, brick-and-mortar retailers have the ideal DNA to respond to this evolution, but need to adapt to the speed and heuristics of the attention economy in order for their talents to be valued. For retailers, an important success factor in the brave new world is the ability to connect product ranges to culture by thinking like editors.
Encoding ranges with references and terms favoured by media and social media puts brands in the path of discovery-seekers. By offering the exclusive Tumi suitcase or the special Mario backpack, the searchability of these terms offers exposure to a whole tranche of consumers that didn’t even know they were shopping.
Without an editorial approach, brands not only miss opportunities to develop and grow, they face having their market incrementally chipped away by others with a more recognised flair for curation. Over recent years, the number of vendors set up to sell the exceptional rather than the ordinary has risen steeply – both in physical and, especially, digital retail.
There has been an explosion in concept store openings – Colette may have bid adieu, but H&M Group has green-lit several new multi-brand concept chains. Specialist brands and eCommerce exist for practically every category and interest. Publisher and blogger eCommerce platforms like Hodinkee have transitioned from community to commercial platform with spectacular success. Meanwhile, buying clubs like MassDrop, as well as custom and aftermarket shops like ColorWare are banking new sales and margins from obsessive shoppers. Besides taking revenues from conventional sellers, these disruptors are also helping to expand common perceptions of value and redefine consumers’ expectations.
Over the same period, exclusive and special-batch products have become much more prevalent. As consumers have become more informed and attuned, so too has there been a broadening of perceptions as to what constitutes value in an exclusive offering. Consumers are increasingly inclined to perceive retailers as creative originators and the driving force in the relationship between brand and store.
The Storytelling Gap: When Content Ignores Product
By now, most brick-and-mortar retailers have responded to the rise of the internet by building eCommerce and investing in digital content. While the opportunities that digital platforms offer to grow sales, build communities and tell stories have been well heard, across the retail spectrum we see many more examples of brands talking product or telling stories, than of brands using products to tell stories. Yet, for decades, consumers have been giving retailers permission to do precisely that.
Content that informs and entertains is a positive force, but retail mustn’t lose sight of consumers’ expectations for it to come up with exciting product propositions. No-one is demanding that KITH release a hip-hop mix tape, or to play a custom version of Mario Kart at Bloomingdale’s. Both campaigns comprise visually stimulating products with multiple, baked-in story hooks – brain candy that attracts, engages and entertains.
Brands of all kinds fail to take opportunities to connect products and stories. Often a root cause is the relationship between marketing and buying/design functions. Editorial concepts can originate in any of these departments, but seamless execution needs a clear plan and coordination of responsibilities. Whether the resulting product range is large or – as in the overwhelming majority of cases – small, each contributor to the creative mix has a role to play in framing and telling the story.
Among retail brands, more common causes may be internal policy or lack of information. Some may believe that zooming in on a narrow range of products misrepresents the broader assortment, or risks cheapening the brand. In making these assessments, management should take into consideration the rising proclivity of consumers to seek out remarkable experiences at the expense of average ones. After all, for close to twenty years now we have watched society emphatically prefer singles over albums: consumers are curating their lives and identities with a select mix of hits and rare grooves.
Which select tracks did you rely on to drive traffic last season? Whose mental playlists did they make it onto? Retailers often struggle to take the actions needed to answer these questions convincingly. Perhaps they see themselves as outside the elitist fashion bubble (or outside fashion) and fail to notice how widespread edited retail offerings have become. Or perhaps they are aware, but aren’t informed about the tools and models available to boost their editorial mojo.
In a highly competitive information landscape full of increasingly meticulous consumers, what supports do retailers have to realise more discoverable offerings?
From Curated Retail to Edited Retail
When it comes to the task of crafting easily discoverable products, vertical monobrand stores have a head start on other retail formats. Over the last decade, many brands – from luxury to grocery – have discovered how micro-innovating with small capsules and special editions energises their brand and inserts it into conversations.
Across all sectors, collaboration has become a particularly important platform for realising remarkable, personalised offerings. In my work as a brand innovation consultant, I track around 250 power-users like Converse, MAC Cosmetics and Rimowa, who rely on collaborations between three and fifty times a year to tell stories and leave their mark.
Collaborations use popular names and terms as editorial markers and offer a simple visual/verbal language that gives consumers tiny puzzles to discover and solve. With the vast majority of collaboration campaigns based on limited edition products, distribution is often concentrated on eCommerce and preferred outlets – meaning that the brand’s own locations are often best positioned to convert high editorial appeal into impressions, traffic and sales.
Despite the advantage monobrand retail holds, multi-brand retailers have more freedom to merchandise around editorial ideas and have more credibility as curators. To create editorially engaging product campaigns, multi-brand retailers have two key avenues at their disposal:
- Boutique Collaboration – developing exclusive products with key suppliers and (for extra editorial intrigue) auteurs and/or outlier brands. The best examples use strategic market units sourced from different suppliers and coordinate them around a theme that resonates with internal values, cultural factors, or current trends;
- Direct to Retail (DTR) licensing – licensing is a turnkey resource for cultural connectivity. Offering a vast range of cultural content, licensed material can be used to boost private label product or, via sublicensing, to create a red thread between products from different sources. As with boutique licensing, editorial appeal and exclusivity are heightened when iconic intellectual property is fused creatively to a specific story or theme;
In both scenarios, a common technique stores use for continuity is to superimpose their own vision onto familiar brands, properties and products over time – using, for example, store identity (like the Hudson’s Bay Company Collection), brand values (like Shinola’s rootsiness or Elevenparis’s irreverence), or abstract themes (like Bucherer Blue Editions).
The New Market for Discoverable Products and Brands
Exclusive styles and licensing can hardly be considered new additions to the retail brand management arsenal. What is new, however, is an information ecosystem increasingly geared to favour remarkable, extraordinary ideas. Also new are the disruptors and progressive retailers gaming the system to command attention and showcase their curatorial skills to an audience far beyond the shop window.
Edited retail campaigns that use multi-lateral relationships are particularly good at showing creative leadership, and make exclusivity easier to preserve. They can bring about great efficiencies too: in the Peanuts x Nordstrom example cited above, media attention on just one of the campaign’s minor participating brands complemented – and possibly even exceeded – the store’s own PR effort.
In their role as editors, retailers also have the freedom to bring designers, artists or celebrities into the creative/storytelling mix. Establishing a three-way dynamic between store, brands and extraordinary talent is a popular way of giving reach and originality to editorial ideas. A high-profile exponent of this is Uniqlo, whose recent fusion of Doraemon and Takashi Murakami provides brain candy to fans of both camps – and a memorable trifecta of Japanese pop culture.
The Way Forward
The fast-evolving information landscape has changed consumers’ behaviours and expectations, and created new advantages for vendors who make their products easily discoverable. By adopting an editorial mindset across the creative process, retailers can create special product offerings to command attention, tell stories and show their curatorial savoir-faire.
Boutique collaboration and DTR licensing are models that expand retailers’ creative options and increase the chances of in-house ideas and values gaining traction beyond the store walls. Both models are being used with increasing frequency, originality and sophistication in market sectors and strata far beyond the elitist fashion bubbles they began in. But then again, as Seth Godin points out, we’re all in the fashion business now.
About the author:
Gavin Brown grew up far from anywhere, longing to own the stuff featured at the back of magazines like MAD, SHOOT! and NME. Today, he channels his lost childhood and 20+ years in brand and licensing management into helping European companies appeal to consumers’ urge to own. Find out more about brand innovation via his monthly newsletter or by getting in touch via email.