Warnings of less brand-besotted customers and a growing cynicism towards the opportunist green-washing of retailers (reported in Shopping Centre, 14 November 2007) at the recent BCSC conference in Gateshead should not come as a surprise to those in the front line of retail. As brand consultants we have consistently advised clients – retailers and developers – that they must stop thinking of branding as just a marketing activity.
Shopping centres are destination brands, but they now must be considered as a synergy of business brands – ‘the brands behind the label’ – owner, developer, investors, management, tenants and the consumer brand – the centre itself. Now it’s more complicated – consumers are starting to ‘look behind the label’, and consequently the simple split of B2B and B2C audience mindsets and agendas starts to miss the point.
Branding must differentiate one centre from another in terms of whether you want to join as a tenant, work for them, invest or shop there. Now a potential range of ethical, environmental and commercial perceptions are involved. Interestingly, in Russia, we have been able to leapfrog the traditional marketing-led attitude to branding. Sharper developer clients there have quickly understood that branding is more than a media packaging exercise. They have started to embrace the logic that real branding is a management ethos which should inform and drive the architecture, trading and operational activities of the centre. In the west, we are still faced with branding limited to badging and promoting centres. The irony is that Russian consumers are currently relatively brand-obsessed, but they are learning fast and the disillusioning, or rather maturing, of customer brand perceptions will inevitably follow.
We talk about sustainable architecture, but we also talk about sustainable brands, i.e. ones that can continue to walk-the-talk and stay relevant to changing customer values and aspirations. As an architect, I have always seen creating the right architecture and environment as a vital component of a coordinated brand experience.
It seems strange that we are still surprised by consumers being cleverer, wanting better, safer, cheaper experiences. Branding is about creating added-value perception. It is an integral ethos not a cosmetic fix, as customers are telling us.