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Building image in the mind: What counts is what the customer perceives.

Creation, evolution, saturation, re-invention ... Scott Drummond knows the drill. As creative director for retail environments at Landor Associates, branding consultants based in San Francisco, he lives through the cycle of retail imaging every day, acutely aware of Landor's founding philosophy: "Products are built in the factory, but brands are built in the mind."

Building in the minds of shoppers is hard work, whether creating an entirely new image or maintaining a successful formula. It is harder to maintain image than to change it. The trick is to know when to re-invent and when to maintain.

"You can either capitalize on the strength of your brand," Drummond says, "or - the most viable option for most people - you can re-invent. Often, the only way to differentiate in a saturated market is to re-invent. That's a scary proposition because of the equity invested." Such an investment involves time, money and a business history.

"Look at the new Volkswagen Beetle," he says, by way of illustration. "They have created a new car category, the pop car - you can see that thing coming out of a box of Cracker Jack. The original brand was so strong, they were able to re-invent the brand using the same name. No one remembers what was bad about the original cars: They broke, they were drafty, the lights didn't work, the seats were stiff. But now everyone says, 'Beetles were great!'"

The essence of the image Surveying the retail landscape, Drummond cites Banana Republic as a retail equivalent. The company re-invented by going from funky safari to an upscale environment, and in the process went from being strictly a clothing store to a lifestyle store, taking care of the customer's home and body as well.

"What [Banana Republic is] really doing is what department stores tried to do but not well enough, which is to be a part of customers' everyday lives," he says. "Department stores missed because they tried to carry all the products anyone could want, but all the products had different viewpoints. Banana Republic says that its brand means certain things. If you've decided you are a Banana Republic person, everything in the store will fit your life: the plates, the placemats, the body oil, the jewelry, and the clothes to wear with them."

Banana Republic stores, in other words, are loaded with the Banana Republic essence.

"From a design standpoint," Drummond continues, "people are tired of cliched retail environments. They don't want to be tricked anymore. If the brand is strong and the products are great, the merchandising can enhance that."

Drummond points to another industry example: Starbucks, which is trying to get people to think of it as more than a coffee store. The Seattle-based chain's initial foray beyond its own shops took the brand to the local grocer's freezer - with coffee-flavored ice creams.

As Drummond says, "Starbucks Mocha Chip Ice Cream is believable because the brand is really strong."

In a more inventive enterprise to strengthen the brand, Starbucks is partnering with Sony, installing a kiosk at Sony's New York headquarters' mega-store. Here, customers can listen to the newest CDs - then buy them - while sipping their coffee, effectively creating a version of the Starbucks brand that's linked to entertainment.

"That," Drummond says, "is a really good example of trying to create a new functional proposition for a retail brand by using the brand in the same way."

The Wow! factor Starbucks' solution to growth is somewhere between maintaining and changing. But true change is not the time for halfhearted, halfway measures, stresses Chuck Stanmore, CEO of Creative Arts Unlimited, Pinellas Park, Fla. His firm fabricates everything from Warner Bros. cartoon environments to architectural environments for museum exhibitions.

"If you want to change your image," Stanmore says, "I mean if you really want to change your image, you need to have impact. If you do it too gradually, people don't notice it, and that's not what you're trying to do.

"Plus," he continues, "if you need to change the image - and needing equates to increasing revenues soon - you don't have six months or eight months or 10 months. You get a lot more bang - the Wow! factor - if you do it overnight. The next day, people walk in and it hits them right between the eyes. If you want impact, surprise people."

Maintaining a successful image, in contrast, is a more subtle process, and an ongoing one.

The design - merchandising and display - should not call attention to itself, but it is absolutely essential for creating the tone and the specialness of the brand experience. Fixturing displays the product to its best advantage, and props create visual excitement.

But, Stanmore cautions, "Keep in mind that the purpose of all of this is to sell product; it's not to make an art gallery."

Integrating the image The most difficult part of maintaining an image is staying on top of current trends. Obviously, what's current changes every year.

"One year mahogany is in style," Stanmore says. "The next year blond wood is in style. The next year, blond wood with metal is in style. The thing that's coming up now is different metals combined with lighter-color woods, the low-tech industrial look. If you already have a quality image, you may want to add some trendy elements. You don't need a lot of eye-catching elements, but you need them where people will see them immediately."

Columns are always elegant, as are arches, pediments, cornices and moldings, especially if they're carried out in white - paint, stone or faux marble. Big doorways with ornamental architectural pieces convey the experience of entering a palace.

"But you need a focal point," Stanmore says. "Fixturing is important because it can just blend into the walls and do nothing for you, or it can be a part of the whole scene. And it should be. It should all be integrated. If you're going to spend the money, everything should work together. It shouldn't look like an afterthought."

Stanmore points to one client whose image is integrated in a big way: toy giant FAO Schwarz. Creative Arts Unlimited recently completed an 11 1/2-foot-high Godzilla, hand-crafted of steel and wood and sculpting materials, for the Fifth Avenue flagship store in New York.

"It's fun working with FAO Schwarz," Stanmore says, "because there's constant change and it truly is visual merchandising. We enjoy working with them because we know it's always going to be over the top. The visual effects are just tremendous. It's what a lot of stores used to do; now everyone's gone to plain techniques."

FAO Schwarz is the ultimate example of the fantasy environment. But for most other companies, reality can lead to some of the most effective retailing images.

For example, Drummond cites A.G. Ferrari Foods (formerly Ultra Lucca), an Italian chain of high-end delicatessens that had no brand recognition despite being in business for 110 years. Landor Associates created a new image built around the company's founder, the current owner's grandfather.

Drummond explains that Ultra Lucca's business was based on a strong family heritage and a passion for authentic Italian food. "To express our client's spirit and clearly differentiate their store from others originating in the Italian town of Lucca, Landor's Branded Environments studio developed a retail environment that builds upon the family name and highlights the store's heritage," he says.

The firm's Brand Identity and Verbal Branding/Naming teams also contributed by creating a new name for the store along with an entire line of packaging to better present the repositioned A.G. Ferrari brand to its customers.

Thus, Landor was able to capitalize on real images and stories to turn A.G. Ferrari Foods into a gourmet shop that's trendy because it reflects its century-old origins.

Communicating the image Sometimes it is not a matter of changing a client's image but of effectively communicating the image to the target audience, says Scott Bevan, creative director of retail identity with Berkeley, Calif.-based Addis Group.

"Currently, we are working with a client that has great brand packaging," he says. "But the brand image attributes they have developed are not reflected in the facility." So a redesign of the facility was undertaken to re-emphasize the brand imaging.

For another project building a new image from the ground up, the Addis team developed elements from scratch to work in concert with each other. The client was Signatore, a new retailer selling fine writing instruments. The store's name, logo, facade, interior design and merchandising system were fashioned to communicate the rich, hand-crafted image of the product line.

A good image is simply good business. "If the homework is done up front, there's always a payoff," says Dale Hoover, managing director with Addis Group.

He offers this advice to retailers: "Objectively evaluate what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong in the eyes of your customers. The way to sell is to look at the operation from the customer's perspective, not just from a product standpoint but from an image standpoint. What is the customer interested in and how do you deliver it?"

As Drummond says, "People are expecting more thoughtful, intelligent shopping experiences. That applies to environments, to products, to store designs. The places that will be successful will capture the things people find relevant to their daily lives."

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