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Are convenience store owners ready for the millennials? If not, they had better be because the millennial generation — those born from roughly 1978-2000 — will become the largest generation in American history, with anywhere from 75 million to 90 million members.
In the first quarter of 2015, they became the largest piece of the U.S. workforce, at 34 percent of the total. They are becoming the engine of the consumer economy and they will form the bulk of your customer base, even if they don't do so now.
Millennials reject "business as usual," so you have to start coming to grips with their needs, which are very different from the baby boomers and other generations that preceded them. Millennials want experiential retail encounters. They're often in search of something exotic, adventuresome, memorable or new. They value the experience over the product.
Against that backdrop, the "sea of sameness" in retail design won't cut it anymore. You need to develop an environment uniquely yours to visually differentiate your brand. You need to produce an engaging customer experience that's informative, on-trend and distinctly entertaining (think retailtainment). In short, your c-store needs to create a "wow" factor and the buzz that goes with it.
Given the approaching millennial tsunami, perhaps it's time for c-stores to look at 3-D branding.
3-D branding is a strategy that creates a unique and proprietary environment and customer experience that differentiates a brand from its competitors. In doing so, it directly addresses the needs of the millennials described above.
We at King-Casey accomplish this by visually communicating the essence of a brand by integrating brand identity, positioning, trade-dress and architecture. This creates a three-dimensional interpretation of the brand. The environment itself communicates to customers the brand's personality and distinction in the marketplace. Leading retailers understand that great branding is much more than a good logo.
The Brand-Store Connection
With 3-D branding, the entire retail customer experience becomes a unique reflection of the brand. Here's why: Any retail store is actually a collection of many individual "customer operating zones" and customers behave differently in each of them.
Needs and expectations vary, but by understanding how and why customers behave in each zone, we can craft zone-specific design solutions that distinguish your c-store brand. The brand is integrated with each and every zone — inside and outside the store — so customers can see and feel what makes it unique. The architecture, decor, trade-dress and in-store communications all reinforce the brand.
A Five-Step Process
King-Casey has been creating 3-D brands around the world for more than a decade, for companies such as Buffalo Wild Wings (see strategy illustrated above), the U.S. Postal Service and Burger 8 in Saudi Arabia. In every case, we followed a well-defined, five-step process:
1. Assess What You've Got. What is the equity currently in your brand? What do customers say about you? About your identity? About your stores? What makes you different and unique? What is the personality of your brand? What are the words or phrases that best describe it?
In the case of Buffalo Wild Wings, brand attributes include “fun, excitement, social and casual.” It is not an accident that Buffalo Wild Wings continues to be one of the fastest-growing restaurant brands in the country and is particularly popular with millennials, its primary customer base.
In this phase, it is particularly helpful to get feedback from customers, lapsed customers and non-customers. How do they see your brand? Have them evaluate and critique each key zone (interior and exterior). Here’s where interviews, surveys and consumer research is critical.
2. Identify What Needs to Change. Based on your assessment above, what is it about your customer experience and retail environment that needs to change? More importantly, what needs to improve? Where does your environment fall short when it comes to reinforcing and supporting your brand attributes?
3. Benchmark Best Practices. Why reinvent the wheel? Someone out there probably can give you tips or insights on how to do a better job of 3-D branding. Identify them — don’t limit your research to your industry — and then find out what they do well and how they do it.
Benchmarking allows companies to make huge business improvements by adapting best practices that have already proven to be successful and “doable.” They’re not pie-in-the-sky. What you learn will guide your own 3-D branding strategies and optimize your retail environment and customer experience.
4. Develop a Brand Hierarchy. Start by prioritizing your brand attributes and key branding elements. This enables you to focus systematically on design strategies and solutions that result in a unique customer experience. They will be able to clearly see and feel what makes your brand unique.
5. Validate Design Solutions. Before making any design changes or building prototypes, it’s wise to validate your new strategies by getting feedback from customers, lapsed customers and non-customers. Conduct consumer research to review the new design concepts. Have participants validate whether or not your new strategies reflect and reinforce your brand attributes and brand positioning. After all, it’s about what they think, not what you think.
If you follow these steps, your c-store stands a good chance of getting favorable attention and trial from millennials. After all, they are very clear on what they want "their" brands to stand for. Do you know how yours stacks up?
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.