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A Brand is a Promise

May 17, 2016 | By John Cumbelich

Successful businesses of all kinds have to work hard over years or decades to develop the respect of their customers, vendors and peers.  The hard work of forming a reputation for quality and service is never ending, and provides management with a constant pressure to improve and evolve.

Brands from Budweiser to Berkshire Hathaway have carved out a position for themselves in the global economy, and consumers have a clear set of expectations about these firms, their products and why what they might produce next is worth a try.  Over time, the brand itself has meaning in the eyes of the marketplace and stands for something.  To the vast majority of consumers, Southwest Airlines means cheap, no frills air travel; Ross Dress for Less means reasonably priced good quality apparel, and Dunkin’ Donuts means great tasting coffee and donuts that are consistent from one location to the next.  The brand name is the promise of a desired result for the consumer.

Unlike other forms of commercial real estate, such as office buildings or warehouses, retail real estate provides the opportunity for brands to express their brand values in bricks and mortar.  The law firms, accountants and financial services firms that populate office buildings don’t convey too much about the essence or originality of their brand when you walk into the lobby of their office buildings.  Likewise, the companies that make your dishwasher, your flat screen or ping pong table don’t communicate much about their brands at the warehouses where they are based.  But the customer store visits that are at the heart of the retail and restaurant experience create a unique marriage between the brand and the buildings that they occupy.  In retail, the building, both inside and out, is a stage upon which the brand message is delivered to the customer in person.

Costco, the pioneer in giant, warehouse shopping, uses a cavernous big box to make a statement about its’ vast selection and commitment to low costs.  The glass, marble and gilt of a Tiffany & Co. store convey as much about its brand as the high tech steel and precision of the Apple Store.  Restaurants that want to get your food to you quickly and conveniently position themselves at busy intersections and wrap their buildings with a drive thru, menu board and two-way speaker so that you never have to leave your car.  We’ve grown to expect a green roof on our natural food store, and a community table at Starbucks.  Increasingly in retail, the building is the brand too.

And in a fast changing retail world, one in which an increasing share of customer dollars move to internet sales every day, the need for the physical retail experience to amplify the brand promise, to lure customers in and make converts of them, has become an existential requirement tied to a business’s evolution and survival.  Today, the building is as much a part of the brand and its promise as the burger, the bedroom set or the beer.

The intersection between a retail brand, its building, and its customers is truly what makes retail different, evolutionary and exciting.  And this dynamic provides fertile soil for entrepreneurs to imagine newer and more creative retail buildings and businesses to engage the customer.

Retail real estate is still about location, location, location.  But with the rising tide of internet competition, what the brand does with that location has greater import today than ever before.  At its highest level, retail real estate is about positioning.  Not simply positioning the store at the right corner, but creating an experience, delivering a product and making a place that can’t be replicated online, or anywhere else.  Positioning a brand today means delivering a product customers love, AND locating where customers shop, AND creating a physical experience in the store that keeps people coming back.

The entrepreneurial real estate developers, restaurateurs and retailers of tomorrow will have to position their offering where it’s more fun than shopping on the internet, more satisfying than eating at home, and more convenient than doing it yourself.  And none of that can happen unless the marriage between the brand, the building and the customer clicks.  But the brands that can, will deliver on a promise that will keep us coming back.