I had the privilege recently of helping a local non-profit art center think about their brand and develop a strategy for increasing the support and use of their facility. They were facing a significant problem: despite their 35 years of service to the community, funding sources and participation were not at the levels one would expect for such a world-class art center. Since our agency is deeply committed to the community in which we work and is also a champion of the arts, we undertook the work pro bono.
If you are like me, these are your favorite projects because you’re free from the tyranny of budgets and unrealistic due dates. You get to focus on doing what is right, and you feel an enormous sense of obligation to do great work for a group of people who are, in turn, doing something good for the community. Even though there is no monetary compensation, the agency is enriched with knowledge and insight. This project was no different, and in this case it also taught us that as shopper marketers, we actually have a lot to learn from the world of art.
Specifically, shopper marketing strategies can be based on some of the same principles that an art center should apply when sharing, teaching or enabling the act of creation. These principles can help you engage with specialty brand shoppers more completely, more deeply and with more relevance than ever before.
Applying an ethnographically based lens yielded three core insights for us to apply as a filter to the development of the art center’s brand strategy:
- Art can be any kind of expression, not just an object or "work of art."
- Everyone has a deep instinctual need to create and be heard.
- Art is as formative as it is reflective. It changes us by changing our perceptions.
Further, we learned that as we express ourselves in our own unique ways, we adopt different identities in the course of that expression (see Figure 1). While each of these identities has a unique set of skills and expectations that are required for successful accomplishment, there are three important commonalities among them:
- Art enables a perspective a person hasn't had before, allowing the viewer to understand something better or differently.
- The social experience around creating and viewing an expression is as important and valuable as the act of creation itself.
- Experiencing art is not only reflective but also formative. It helps the viewer grow or change in some way.
Uncovering these deeper insights and identities led to a different strategic path than we had anticipated and has interesting implications for specialty brands.
What Specialty Brands and Art Centers Have in Common
Our learning guided our strategy development for the art center away from traditional segmentation, targeting and positioning considerations toward broader cultural and social applications. We realized the art center brand must:
- Break through people’s misconceptions of what art is and that they should be good at it to make it worth their time. They are already doing something every day that is an act of creation, so they are already “artists.” The art center can bring the power of expressing themselves into other parts of their lives.
- Find opportunities for people to “get their hands dirty” and just start creating something. Let them experience the act of creation without any pressure, by providing an environment that is calm, peaceful and relaxed.
- Enable opportunities for interaction and sharing. Once people listen and talk to each other, they often discover they have more in common than they realized. A natural result will be that those who were seen to be “not like me” are, in fact, “a lot like me.”
Specialty brands can exploit these insights because they face the exact same set of issues.
- Many potential customers likely have a perception of the brand or its user as a result of their experiences and social environment. They see the brand or its users in a certain way that is outside of their day-to-day reality.
- The retail “stage” is all too often treated as just a selling environment. Shoppers fail to engage with a brand when overwhelmed by choice or clutter. They need an environment that allows them to experience the brand without pressure or confusion. If they don’t engage, they will not change their perception.
- Many people may be hesitant to try a brand because they don’t feel they have the knowledge, skills or ability required to appropriately use the brand. They see the users of a brand as “not like me” and are hesitant to try it because they don’t want to end up feeling like they don’t belong. Specialty brands must create opportunities for their target to interact and share with brand enthusiasts, so they can discover common ground and learn how the brand fits into their lives.
What Can Specialty Brands Learn From Art?
What are actions a specialty brand can take to address these issues, whether shoppers are conscious of them or not?
- When exploring why people consider or don’t consider your brand, always remember that there are usually deeper and less obvious reasons than the ones they articulate. If they give a reason, seek to uncover what is behind that reason. Explore the influences they don’t know how to explain, such as the culture in which they exist, their motivations and ideals or how they relate to others. You’ll almost always discover something that helps you think differently about segmentation, positioning or marketing strategy and tactics. Understanding at this deeper level will also help in developing strategies and tactics that resonate at an emotional or instinctual level and stand a much better chance of driving behavior. Ethnographically based approaches are by far the best methods for doing this, using a mix of observational, contextual and quantitative methods.
- Recognize the different shopper stories that exist for your brand. Any shopping story is in a constant state of flux that depends on the context of the social, technological and cognitive environment in which shoppers find themselves. Create a canvas of relevant content that connects your promotional message across the different environs that target shoppers inhabit, improving the probability that the right message will go to the right person at the right time. For example, when promoting a specialty or craft beer, content and delivery should be designed relevant to the shopping environment—helpful and instructive in a restaurant, encouraging and motivating in the retail setting, engaging and aspirational online—but also consistent and reinforcing across those settings.
- Identify category enthusiasts who love your brand and create risk-free opportunities for prospects to interact. Category enthusiasts are individuals with a strong intellectual or emotional affinity toward some activity, craft or purpose. Those who use your brand will love to share their knowledge and expertise with others. This provides an opportunity for shoppers to learn the story of the brand from someone who is “in the know”—someone who knows the brand inside and out and exudes an excitement and passion about the category. Shoppers will develop an accurate understanding of what the brand means and how it fits into their lives. Social media provides an excellent opportunity for this kind of story sharing.
- Consider the store environment to be the equivalent of a stage or gallery. Take great care in creating an environment that allows reflection, viewing and interacting while at the same time enabling a simple and convenient purchase. Treat every display as an opportunity to tell a story of some kind, creating an atmosphere that encourages interaction and sharing. Identify the right “talent” in your sales associates and rehearse and prepare them for the “production.” Listen to your critics and make adjustments when needed, sensing when it is time to change the content or direction.
Applying what we know about the need for expression in our lives, as well as how an art center can leverage that deep instinctual need, helps us to think about how to market specialty brands in new and different ways. A brand is an expression in and of itself, and the mere act of enabling others to experience and understand the brand’s story through enthusiasts changes the consumer’s perspective. It helps them make a more informed choice and gives your brand the best possible chance of being adopted by those with whom it is truly a good fit.