How a connected and engaging brand experience can help revive the retail sector

How do some retail brands manage to grow and thrive through turbulent times and compete with bigger online competitors?

Guest contributor Van Cameron, from Eastbourne branding agency Firebrand, believes the answer lies in building zealot-like customer loyalty by continually creating and consistently delivering exceptional customer experiences.

A perfect storm

I think it’s safe to say that traditional bricks-and-mortar retail, in particular, has been put through the wringer and suffered greatly during the pandemic, but if we’re honest, retail has been in the doldrums for quite some time. From small villages to towns and big out-of-town shopping centres, the story is pretty much the same nationwide. Footfall has dropped significantly, and for those who do visit shops, the social distancing measures create an alienated and disconnected experience.

A key driver for this was the rise of the internet; everything is now available online, often at lower prices and nearly always with next day delivery. COVID-19 has only intensified this trend recently; research from O2 business reveals that 47% of customers will increase the number of times they shop online.

Is online shopping the only answer?

There is no doubt that online shopping is slick and convenient — but it’s also cold and detached. It’s like watching a rock concert on TV; it’ll never be as intoxicating as a live performance. Customers still want a shopping experience rather than merely an opportunity to buy something.

We all have our favourite shops that we return to endlessly. These brands have worked hard to attract and delight us; they have cultivated our loyalty and deserve our hard-earned money. The hero is the bricks-and-mortar shop where they can go above and beyond by creating new experiences. It’s an opportunity to deepen the customer’s relationship with a brand, to cultivate those strong emotional connections and ultimately increase their lifetime value. It’s not to say retailers should reject technology, but rather embrace it to create omnichannel strategies that blend online and physical channels. Brands that can connect online shoppers to physical environments have a distinct advantage.

Viva la revolution

If your business can create a purposeful, connected and engaging brand experience, then you will win the hearts and minds of your customers and lay the foundation for success.

1. Use brand purpose to attract customers

Consumers are no longer making decisions based solely on product features or price; they’re assessing what a brand says, what it does and what it stands for. They act as advocates for brands they believe in and reject those they don’t. Some brands have a vision of how one day their products or services could change lives and save our planet. After all, if we are going to build a better future, the world needs great ideas – ones that matter and solve real problems for real people.

Define a genuine and overarching brand purpose. Look at what the world needs, what your customer wants and what you offer. It should be your North Star guiding everything your brand says and does. Remember you can’t simply declare that you have a purpose; you have to live and breathe it through consistent actions and experiences.

Get employees on board. Having a brand purpose is all very well, but if your customers are going to believe it, your employees must embrace and endorse it too. Your employees are your strongest and most visible brand ambassadors; they are crucial to increasing customer loyalty, building trust and authentically connecting with your customers.

2. Connect online to bring customers in-store

Technology giants like Amazon and ASOS have raised customers expectations, offering near-seamless experiences. But there are plenty of opportunities for smaller retailers to connect with audiences.

Brand narratives that unite. Audiences are actively seeking memorable, authentic and shareable brand experiences. Having a consistent brand narrative that offers a unified experience at every touchpoint will cut through the noise, increase engagement and build brand advocacy. Be sure to choose the right social media platforms to connect with your audience and invite them to be part of the story. Don’t bombard customers with endless ‘special offer’ emails; take the opportunity to share your origin story; this approach is an easy way to connect with customers on a more emotional level.

Make it personal. Not all customers are the same; treat them as individuals by creating experiences that offer them targeted rewards and benefits. For example, if they like a particular brand of dog food and generally buy it once a month, why not anticipate this and offer them a well-timed discount for their loyalty? Whilst larger organisations can achieve this kind of personalisation with highly sophisticated mobile-apps; there is still plenty of opportunity for smaller brands. Encouraging in-store customers to sign up for email updates means you can send tailored emails that will help build brand loyalty. Sending personalised emails is an effective and low-cost strategy, and it works particularly well for retail.

Free wi-fi in-store. It’s a fact of life that customers will always compare prices, read product reviews and browse deals. Don’t be afraid of this, but rather embrace it — why not personalise messages and offer incentives for those who log on in your store.

Photo: Joseph storefront, courtesy of Hello Flamingo

3. Create in-store experiences that delight

The real goldmine for retail stores is that they can interact with their customers directly. They can collect real-time feedback that enables them to test, learn and adapt more quickly than their online-only counterparts. They have more control over the customer experience and more opportunities to delight customers.

Create immersive multi-sensory environments. Physical retail has a powerful competitive weapon; they have the opportunity to engage shoppers through their five senses. Multi-sensory experiences tap into human memory and create a lasting impression with customers. For example, you immediately know you’ve walked into an Abercrombie & Fitch store by the smell and music alone, which is just as well because the dim lighting makes it difficult to see. Love it or hate it, the characteristically heady aroma of Lush will hit you well before you can see the store. Sensory branding is a powerful tactic for businesses; use it wisely, and it will evoke a memorable experience for your customers.

Turn covid barriers into opportunities. The pandemic has shifted consumer behaviour, especially when it comes to health and safety. Social distancing means regularly standing in orderly queues, and whilst a line forming used to signal something exciting was happening, it now indicates something entirely different. Make queues more useful by allowing consumers to scan QR codes to access exclusive offers or enable them to pay using Apple Pay. Why not be more imaginative by adding a little entertainment into the mix. For example, toy stores could install distorting circus mirrors or perhaps some fun facts along the route. If customers are apprehensive about visiting your store, allow them to book a one-on-one appointment with you; a personal shopping experience provides you with the opportunity to highlight your commitment to customer service and safety.

Focus on local and connect with your community. People are increasingly reluctant to travel vast distances and have a desire to support local businesses. Tap into this sentiment by making your brand relevant to your community. When the pandemic has passed, try creating a meeting place for likeminded individuals to come together, this is a great way to spread awareness of your brand. For example, record stores that have live music nights or perhaps food stores that offer cookery classes. Pop-up shops are an excellent low-touch opportunity to get in front of your customers and create alliances with other local businesses. One-off events with limited edition products are a great way to build excitement around your offering. Sharing teasers across social media will generate the kind of buzz that money can’t buy among your audience.

Affordable branded gifts. At the point of purchase, why not provide customers with an inexpensive gift that genuinely helps them get a bit more out of the product. For example, why not give a sample of shoe polish with leather boots to help them protect and extend their life. Or perhaps give customers a cool gift that speaks to their identity in the same way as your products do. The possibilities are endless and will always bring a smile to your customer’s face.

The future of retail

Consumer expectations and values are shifting; they increasingly want meaningful experiences over things. Retail brands must find new ways to connect with customers in ways that are more personalised, relevant, and meaningful. Customers won’t interact with your brand unless they can get a clear understanding of who you are and what you stand for. The future of retail is about having an authentic purpose and creating a connected customer journey through a combination of online presence and in-store experiences. Brick-and-mortar stores have a crucial role to play in creating a sense of place and community whilst working seamlessly with our digital world.

Firebrand is a small team of certified brand specialists who combine business-savvy thinking with creative excellence to help businesses of all sizes become successful brands. To find out more about branding and how it can help your business, visit


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