Humans are naturally drawn to innovation. We are quick to adopt new technologies and we’re attracted to new, shiny things. Nowhere has change been more obvious than on the high street.
As the old made way for the new, we waved a fond farewell to trusted brands such as Woolworths and BHS and welcomed a parade of discount retailers like Sports Direct and B&M. Local businesses – greengrocers, butchers, corner shops – went bust, their vacant units quickly filled by coffee shops, pound shops and betting shops.
So far, so new. A visitor from the 1980s would find the average high street truly alien, not only in terms of recognisable names but in terms of format and context. However, ultimately, retailers must still sell brands: both their own identities as retailers, and the names of the products they sell. And here, perhaps some things have not changed.
I wrote recently about how to create a successful, popular and enduring brand: ubiquity, familiarity, willingness to adapt. But I also spoke a little about reputation and image, looking especially at social responsibility, and it’s on that side of things that I want to stop for a moment. How do you get a good brand name, and how do you sustain it?
There are myriad “new” contributions, of course: advertising is evolving all the time as an art form, often dependent on technology, and the way in which we absorb information of all sorts is changing too. But there are some methods which remain valid despite their venerability, and which it would be foolish of retailers to overlook.
What I’m looking at today is word of mouth. How can retailers leverage, monetise, people’s satisfaction with their products to sell them more widely? It needs more than a large billboard saying “This washing powder was mildly satisfactory. J. Powell, Glamorgan”. People want an authentic story, and they want it to be relevant.
Authenticity is absolutely crucial. To misquote George Burns, once you can fake that, you’ve got it made. But, in all seriousness, word of mouth promotion does rely on customers believing it is real. If they do, I firmly believe that it works. Nothing convinces consumers quite as effectively as their family and friends saying, “I bought this new shampoo…”
In the world of mass information technology, this kind of campaign, which almost isn’t a campaign at all, can invade social media and go viral, transforming what 30 years ago would have been a conversation over the kitchen table into a worldwide phenomenon. Someone in Singapore can like a new kind of ground coffee, and before the sun has risen on the rest of the world it can be trending in western Europe. That’s an ultra-modern example of how advertising can work, but it’s also based on a centuries-old premise. We will, in general, follow advice from people we know and trust.
So what can retailers do to benefit from this kind of movement? Be alert and agile to how social media works. Watch Twitter hashtags, and popular Facebook feeds, and Instagram content. Understand how they work, each of them, and work for, not against, the grain of the technology and the behaviour that goes with it. Be on the lookout for celebrity endorsements, which may come in the most unexpected places but have a potency all their own.
In short: stay sharp, stay flexible, and stay smart. Word of mouth might just be enough to push you over the edge towards success.