Clive Woodger on making a destination brand
Kaleidoscope Shopping Center in Moscow where SCG International was responsible for the brand, architecture, interiors, graphics, signage and marketing
Woodger's business philosophy is as simple to formulate as it is difficult to implement in practice. He argues that any complex retail entity, such as a shopping centre, will only become a destination brand if there is a central, overarching brand message and engaging customer experience.
It is therefore necessary to harmonise all aspects of branding, the brand name, identity, marketing platform and communication. This includes exterior/interior signage, wayfinding and ambient graphics, together with the design of all public and circulation areas ‒ reception, lift lobbies, corridors, staircases, cafeterias, landscaping and car parks.
This sounds perfectly logical, but there are so many vested and often contrary interests involved in the financing, planning and building of big retail projects such as shopping centres that it is a wonder they are ever built at all.
From a purely German perspective, we remain astonished at how well shopping malls continue to do abroad, where they seem to enjoy a considerably higher status in the eyes of the customer. They are certainly opening at a faster rate. But perhaps their success is also due to the fact that they have inner cities which still function!
Clive Woodger in action
His practical, cost-effective ideas to create an unmistakable retail brand were and are obviously highly relevant to the extremely budget-conscious retailers here in Germany, so our publishing company asked him to write a book on the subject: ”Erfolgreiches Handelsdesign ‒ Der kostensparende Weg zum unverwechselbaren Handelsprofil”.
Clive Woodger then founded his own company in London 24 years ago (recently renamed to SCG International), but has remained a frequent contributor to our newspaper on retail and design issues as well as an entertaining speaker at the venues of our sister company dfv Conference Group.
Recently, we solicited an essay from him which, regrettably, we were not able to feature for reasons of space.
Rather than let this practice-oriented piece go to waste unnecessarily, we should like to share it with our English-speaking readers because we believe it shows how creativity can enable optimum commercial advantage.
Centre Branding ‒ Rethinking Asset Management
Festival Shopping Center in Moscow: SCG's first centre project in Russia in 2005, updated in 2012
More progressive centre managements and developers are starting to use the "b" word, having only relatively recently discovered that they need to think and act like any other retailer brand when it comes to creating a clearly differentiated added-value proposition for their 'customers' who represent diverse vested interests.
These range from the business partners and tenant retailers to end-user consumers, visitors and shoppers. Then there are the retailers and the centre's own staff, suppliers as well as the key stakeholders, i.e., the owners and investors. Last but not least, local community pressure groups, the media and politicians can all exert influence on centre policy.
Successful branding is the effective management of image and reputation in order to positively differentiate one's self in a competitive market. The challenge for developers and centre managements is to consistently deliver what marketing media has promised across the many potential physical, digital, and human touchpoints involved when visiting a centre.
Creating a centre brand experience that meets and ideally exceeds visitor expectations is the responsibility of everyone involved directly and indirectly in achieving the desired perception ‒ and not just the marketing department! This demands an aligned vision, ethos and behaviour across every activity from briefing architects to managing outsourced suppliers and contractors.
Unfriendly, unhelpful security staff, a parking nightmare or a dirty toilet can destroy months of carefully developed image building. Equally, the way problems and complaints are dealt with, as every marketing person knows, can turn a negative experience into a brand building opportunity.
A simple test I use with any organisation is how they say sorry. It can be very revealing of a company's culture; and centres, as service brands, should reflect best practice across all their contacts and communications.
The problem for many real estate professionals and also consultants is their property-based training mindset which can give them a limited understanding of what strategic branding should entail as a basic business principle. Many still just think in terms of visual packaging components: logos, signage and marketing media traditionally produced by an 'agency'.
This misses the point. Branding is a key management principle and the business driver which should inform and direct every activity and decision. For shopping centres this starts and ends with achieving the brand equity that will attract targeted end users, visitors and shoppers again and again in order to provide the sales and income that ultimately drives capital value ‒ the figure that everyone understands in the real estate sector.
The Consumer is King ‒ The Social Media Challenge
So who are these consumers? Today we live in a truly customer-driven market. The internet and social media has empowered the consumer who now can dictate to retailers what they sell and how and where they should sell it.
In turn, developers must provide the retailers the right format and facilities now demanded by their shoppers and an overall visit experience, whether physical and/or digital, that best meets their needs and aspirations.
The Millennial generation, also known as Generation Y, is now seen as potentially the most influential consumer group defining the approach of virtually every sector, whether banking, shopping, leisure and entertainment.
As a tech savvy, highly social, internationally-linked group, with shared values looking for new ideas and ways of having fun, they search for best value and drive the social media strategies of retailers and therefore also centres.
Centres are now "place brands" where people can socialise, relax, indulge, work, play, eat and shop ideally 24/7 as a community destination. They are potential online retailers that act as a trusted brand and represent their tenants. They also provide click & collect pick-up facilities.
Selling experiences rather than just products is the basic mantra now espoused by retailers and shopping centres. These experiences then provide the content for social media strategies that have changed marketing from merely broadcasting and promoting to mass audiences via traditional media to personalised dialogue and interaction.
The good news is the direct measurability of results on digital media ‒ the instant viral leverage possible with consumers talking to each other as ambassadors and influencers. This includes the counting and monitoring of 'likes', increased databases, and tracking purchase patterns.
It is also possible to learn from valuable feedback and evaluating tenant sales increases. The bad news is the investment necessary to consistently achieve the right level and quality of content and to respond effectively to negative postings and complaints that can so easily become a viral disaster.
Retail Partnership ‒ Who Needs Whom?
Whatever mix of traditional and digital media is adopted, it is vital to achieve synergy between the retailer and centre brand equity in order to create an irresistible added-value offer. Unfortunately, this nirvana of mutual brand enhancement through proactive collaboration and the sharing of information is not so easily achieved.
This is particularly the case if one party thinks it is doing the other one a favour! Centre managements need to act as retail partners and move from seeing themselves as landlords and facility managers. Arguments about service charges and subsequent dissatisfaction as to having to contribute to perceived poor centre marketing efforts are still far too common.
This is because the view persists that retailer marketing professionals are typically more advanced than centre marketers. Interestingly, the changes in marketing dynamics brought about by technology and social media have meant that everyone has had to relearn and rethink marketing.
After all, marketing best practice is being constantly rewritten with new technology allowing instant customer data tracking. The challenge is what to do with the potential new knowledge and data overload, and how to interpret and action this to the best advantage.
Shared Visions and Values ‒ An Agreed Brand Strategy?
As any brand, a centre development needs to have a clearly defined differentiation strategy. This must articulate the marketing vision as well as the desired attributes and profile that need to be achieved for the offer, positioning and target audiences. The aim is to articulate the criteria that will make this a first choice as a business, consumer, and employer brand.
All brands should be clear about their commercial and emotional selling points for their respective audiences. The starting point of any commercial strategy is the market opportunity, the business plan, and the development metrics in terms of basic planning and logistics.
In parallel, this is encapsulated with a vision, values, and attributes that can form the basis of a brand platform with, typically, a name, narrative, themes and key messages. As the brand consultancy we would then develop an action brief ‒ we call it a "Brand Inspiration Presentation" for all the parties involved. Theswe would include the professional team, consultants, architects, property agents and prospective tenants, as appropriate.
The brand identity and design language, based on the name, desired theming and profile, should then be developed as an integral part of the architectural concept. But how often does this really happen in practice?
Typically architects are commissioned to design the scheme, and then an agency is asked to come up with logo signage elements which are often randomly stuck on elevations and brochure covers. This limited packaging approach to branding still prevails in a sector stuck in traditional procedures and comfort zones.
Smolenskiy Passage in Moscow: Providing the customer with digital information and exciting optics
Our People Make the Difference?
Centres are service brands. A key differentiation for any people-facing organisations is their people, and the internal culture of an organisation can be seen in the subsequent behaviours and attitude of management and staff.
Centre managements typically outsource a wide range of activities from maintenance to marketing. So ensuring that suppliers and contractors and their staff share the same centre values and that they are also motivated and effectively engaged is a tough challenge for any business.
The alignment of nice visionary words and actual action is particularly difficult when you have many different parties and vested interests with often diverse priorities. Balancing costs and efficiencies, while offering improved service levels and an exceptional customer experience, is a huge challenge.
Mindsets that prefer to measure tangible operational criteria can have difficulty handling decisions on more intangible added-value initiatives. Using a space for renting a kiosk instead of offering more seating is a simplistic example. But it demonstrates the issues involved when evaluating guaranteed income return versus the unknown benefit from an increased dwell time and happier customers!
Great Architecture or Stimulating Experiences? Creating Conversations
Centres need to deliver exceptional fresh experiences again and again. As retail and leisure theatres, the architecture and interiors need to be seen as flexible stage sets to support different 'productions', events and the tenants.
As in every theatre, lighting and decor treatments, combined with exciting vistas and dramatic architecture, can clearly make a place special. But digital screen technology can now provide dramatic changes in mood and atmosphere.
So architecture and shopping environments need to leverage the full potential of the technology rather than invest in overcomplicated and expensive features, surfaces and finishes.
This particularly applies to upgrading existing centres that need revitalising but which have limited resources. The creative use of the latest graphic treatments can completely change a centre's personality and dynamise impact without costly refurbishments.
This is incredibly important because all too many centre developments still have no sense of ownership and uniqueness ‒ if you took the sign away from the entrance, you could be anywhere.
Centres can also date very quickly as they become less able to meet the latest consumer needs and lifestyles as well as changing tenant location and format criteria.
Smolenskiy Passage is a "reconception"
The challenge, of course, is money. With limited resources, critical path activities need to be objectively focused. Addressing marketing, people and environments in order to best engage key audiences is therefore critical. Defining and communicating a clear future vision is a starting point. People will accept that there may not be immediate dramatic changes, but they will know there is a positive strategy for the future.
An initial, relatively easy step could be creating marketing media communication synergies. These need to be based on a clear branding platform which can be signalled by an evolution or, if necessary, revolution of the brand signatures, message and imagery.
The next steps can be based on cost-effective graphic treatments in order to transform the look and feel of existing shopping environments. Decor, lighting and digital screen-based technology improvements can then follow as budgets and confidence grow with improved sales performance.
Significant remodeling of the building, including escalator circulation changes etc., can then be planned as potential returns on investment become clearer. Architectural make-overs are expensive, and a brand- and marketing-led strategy, supported by signage and graphic treatments, can provide cost-effective, "impactive", and flexible solutions.
A brand-led marketing communication strategy provides ongoing content and direction for social media and digital profile development. Creating a dialogue between the centre staff, visitors, shoppers and tenants is key to developing positive communities of interest and a real sense of place as a first-choice and vibrant destination.
Real Sustainability ‒ Creating Places Where People Want to Be
Centres need to be good community citizens and practice effective 'green' policies and environmental practices. But the ultimate criteria for achieving real sustainability is to create venues and places that are attractive to current and future users. That means being able to adapt easily to new uses and activities.
Staying relevant and being able to refresh and update the shopping environment will extend the economic life and commercial returns of existing developments. Obviously this will require more agile transformation strategies. A brand-focused management approach demands skill-sets at top management level that are often still lacking among property sector managers who still see assets in terms of easily measured components such as rental yield.
The challenge is to achieve a real synergy of brand-led marketing and centre activities and to provide physical and digital experiences that create the image and reputation which drive sales performance. This is the brand equity which creates the ultimate measurable asset – the centre's capital value.
When developers, investors, centre managements and asset managers see themselves as true brand managers, the sector will have finally caught up with the best retailers in providing the consumer-centric experiences that are so vital for today's market.
For further picture material readers are referred to SCG International Academy.