New George Wine Bar
at Disney Springs

For many years now, I have used Disney as a great example of an excellent brand that keeps on improving itself.  Living only 90 minutes from Walt Disney World has not only been convenient but it also affords me the opportunity to visit regularly and observe first-hand how the company improves those things that just don’t seem to work or appeal as well as the standards that we’ve come to expect from Disney.

A few days ago, I decided to visit Disney Springs—the new and improved version of the Downtown Disney area near the Orlando theme parks.  To be sure, Downtown Disney was pretty exciting when it first opened over 20 years ago, but after a couple visits it never seemed to hold the appeal or excitement to warrant a return visit whenever we visited the other attractions at Disney.   Well, welcome to Disney Springs—what an improvement.


UNIQLO Opens at Disney Springs

Disney has not just updated the area, it has re-invented it and made a new destination for central Florida visitors and residents alike.  Great new restaurants, a market place that competes with some of the best in the country, new attractions and plenty of parking make this an exciting stop for a great time and outstanding marketing.  One of the highlights in the Market Place was the UNIQLO store—the Japanese fashion store that has aggressively become one of the top retailers in the world and definitely the largest fashion store of its kind anywhere.


UNIQLO has grown world-wide to almost 1800 stores with over half of them in its home country of Japan.  There are 45 now in the US as

Merchandise Greets You Immediately

the company has moved toward larger stores in larger markets and has grown its sales to over $16 Billion (if my yen/dollar conversion is accurate).  These are exciting numbers, but what’s really exciting is the in-store experience.  UNIQLO’s theme for its Life Wear is “Simple Made Better” and the simplicity of the store is apparent the minute you walk in.  With merchandise displays that make an immediate statement of volume and color that only exceeded by the neatness that is a constant.  The training of employees on how to fold the clothes is legendary and is only superseded by customer service commitment that provides friendly faces who seem to be everywhere straightening and colorizing while helping anyone in sight.


Love Those Quilted Coats in Central Florida

I was surprised and impressed by the overpowering display of foldable winter quilted jackets and coats as I walked in from the Central Florida heat. They came in a variety of colors, they light-weight, warm and fold up easily to fit in one’s purse or backpack.  And…they are priced to make you stop and say how can they do that for such a low price.  Well, maybe it’s world-wide production or maybe the “Made in Vietnam tags”!  I asked one of the staff if they really sold that many of these coats and jackets here in Florida, and she said “Oh yes.  We have a lot of Brazilian and other South American tourists here and they buy them to take back where winter is coming soon.  The company knows its markets and has partnered with its suppliers to develop state-of-the-art fabrics that fit the lifestyles.  I don’t wear many turtlenecks anymore, but when I felt the light-weight, super dry HEATTECH fabric and then looked at the $18 price tag I was sold.


UNIQLO builds its brand at store level every day.  Its flagship stores in major cities, are not just revenue producers but they are brand

Merchandise Folded and ready for the customer

communicators that say a lot about the company’s culture and its strategy.  When CBS Sunday Morning did a feature on the store a few years ago when it opened in New York, the company’s COO demonstrated a mirror that could show you the various colors of whatever garment you were wearing without ever having to take it off.  UNIQLO plans to be at $50 Billion in sales in the near future.  With stores that build the brand and make shopping exciting, there’s no doubt they’ll exceed that and their customer’s expectations.





Usually, my first blog of the year is dedicated to reviewing the holiday marketing efforts and commenting on those who missed the target again.  Again, this year I could focus on the news of closings at stores like Sears, Macy’s, and the latest disappearance of The Limited which for years failed to communicate a reason to shop any of their many branded stores.  Instead, let’s take a look again at what one great company did at the holidays to build its relationship with its customers and communities by going above and beyond promotion and doing something great…and building it’s brand in the process.

Once again, WestJet, the Calgary-based economy airline, took a look around and found a reason to do something really extraordinary at the holidays.  This time it was to bring the spirit of the holidays and send a message that it’s more than  just good business to do the right thing for the people in your markets.  This year, WestJet decided to do something big for the people of Fort McMurray, Alberta, which was devastated by wild fires last spring.  In case you might not remember the tragedy, here’s a summary from Wikepedia on what happened:

“On May 1, 2016, a wildfire began southwest of Fort McMurrayAlberta, Canada. On May 3, it swept through the community, destroying

Record fires destroys Ft. McMurray

approximately 2,400 homes and buildings and forcing the largest wildfire evacuation in Albertan history.[7][11] It continued to spread across northern Alberta and into Saskatchewan,[12] consuming forested areas and impacting Athabasca oil sands operations.[13][14] The fire spread across approximately 590,000 hectares (1,500,000 acres) before it was declared to be under control on July 5, 2016.[4] It is the costliest disaster in Canadian history.”


WestJet greets citizens

Needless to say,the impact of this disaster on the people of Fort McMurray was indescribable and the holidays would only serve to remind them of their losses– both physical and emotional.  WestJet and its employees decided to make this Christmas special in the town and created an event that its citizens would remember.  The stories that they recorded from some of the townspeople are moving, the personal contribution and spirit of the employees is exemplary, the gift of a free flight for each citizen was above and beyond.  Then the marketing of the event once again proves that a big company can act as a close friend or family in an authentic way.  Take a few minutes to view the story at this link and I think you’ll see what I mean.  Be sure to scroll to the interviews which are best ROI a company can achieve on something like this:

Click on :

Employees share gifts

Santa visits Ft. McMurray for WestJet

This isn’t the first time that WestJet has won over the hearts of its cusomters at the holidays and I doubt that it will be the last.  This is a company that gets it.  It’s growth continues by running a good airline but its brand is stronger by being a good citizen.  The companies that have downsized or closed failed to realize that branding is a culture that must be sustained and nurtured all year with every transaction and through every communication.  With that kind of commitment, we can all look forward to a great 2017.




Season’s Greetings from Cincinnati, Ohio.  Being back in the Queen City on the Ohio River, brings back memories of my first career job  pg-logoin brand management on Folger’s Coffee.  Back then, going to work at P&G was comparable to getting your doctorate in marketing and the strong foundation for a career in branding.  One of the first things I learned was that SHARE OF MARKET was the most important measurement of a brand’s success.  In my time on Folger’s, we never looked at a sales report like I did when I moved to retail a few years later.  It was all about share and analyzing Nielsen reports every other month by market, by brand, by product and then analyzing what we did that worked to improve share or what the competitors did to take away share.  Did a special promotion work?  Did a change in campaigns have a positive effect? (Although we never change our ad strategy in my time there.)


Looking at all of the holiday campaigns that have broken this past couple weeks makes me wonder whether anyone is watching their market share or is all about the next big promotion.  I’ve talked about Black Friday the past few years, and I won’t waste any time going into that debacle.  Nor will I spend any time lamenting the thick sale inserts in the Thanksgiving day newspapers which have less readership than the papers themselves these days.  Rather let’s look at a couple examples of companies that still believe that the key to holiday sales is to make this time of year truly special and that visiting their stores is a special experience.


macys-logoMacy’s continues to run its BELIEVE campaign for the ninth straight year and it’s better than ever.  If you’ve been reading my blogs for a while, you know that I’m not a big fan of any department store marketing for quite some time.  However, Macy’s still has a commitment to making its store an important part of their customer’s holiday season.


The benchmark of the campaign is its Make a Wish program where the company donates a dollar for each letter to Santa that’s mailed at macys-believe-logospecial store mailboxes. Yes, Virginia, they’re doing it again and it’s just as special as the first year with driving home the true meaning of Christmas giving and benefiting the community at the same time.


But that’s not all that makes Macy’s special during the holidays. Of course there is the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade which continues to be must viewing every Thanksgiving morning around our house and millions of others around the country.  Still a tradition that makes the store special.  Then, there is their Macy’s Santa Land in select stores that warrant a special trip by families who could easily go to the mall nearby, but there’s nothing special about that.  In Philadelphia, Macy’s continues the city’s 50-year tradition of the Christmas Light Show with tree lightings and story-telling. In Chicago, there’s Breakfast with Santa throughout the holidays while in Dalls, Texas Montly teams with Macy’s for a Holiday Fashion Party on Friday, December 2.  Add to these events, New York’s Holiday Fireworks Spectacular, Philadelphia’s Dickens Village,  San Francisco’s Winter Walk Holiday Entertainment on Union Square,  New York’s Holiday Window Unveiling, and a Hanukkah Celebration as well.


macys-store-imageIn short, Macy’s gives us a reason to make the season special besides their one-day sales, 12 hour sales, holiday specials, etc.   It’s all part of the Macy’s Brand that would hold true for any major department store as was the case in Christmas’s gone-by.    Let’s hope this tradition continues!


There are other companies that have the Christmas spirit as well.  Subaru’s LOVE campaign compliments their ongoing brand strategy and helps them stand out from the other car companies.  Bass Pro continues its Santa’s Wonderland which brings in large crowds every day to the store for more than just good gift ideas.    By adding special events to the Christmas advertising not only builds traffic but also enhances the brand all year long.


Have a Merry Christmas!img_0010




earth-fare-storefront-150x150Walking through the crowded aisles at the brand new Earth Fare store that just opened near me last week, I was impressed first by the amount of customers and then by the selection of organic and home grown products that were offered. It reminded me of my first trip to Trader Joe’s several years ago on the west coast or more recently to my initial visit to a Whole Foods in Detroit a few years ago, interesting, exciting, a sense of discovery. Not that we’ll shift our food shopping from our favorite Publix store, but this new store was a refreshing change in the shopping experience. Even though the store’s outdoor sign said it was established in 1975, the concept is new and refreshing and it capitalizes on the major trend in consumer preferences for natural and organic products in an innovative environment.

I was particularly impressed by the number of branded products lining the shelves and the coolers that I had never heard of before. Food stores have long been the home to Consumer Packaged Goods that have dominated the marketing media in the battle for market share. However, here the selection was based more on innovation and niche product benefits that the customer will seek out once they have loyalty to the store brand and what it stands for. In my branding articles and books, I always stress the need for communicate the products unique value and benefits in order to create a successful brand. However, sometimes you can’t afford the expense necessary to build awareness or be able to communicate your unique selling proposition. That’s when it becomes important to seek an established brand to help your brand by association.

Just as soft drink companies sign long term contracts with fast food restaurants to build their brands, lesser known brands seek preferred status in distribution. Certain wineries seek to be on the wine lists and popular restaurants to build awareness and preference. Electronics companies, like Infinity, supply the multi-media equipment in popular auto models. Bedding companies tie in with major hotel chains to add value to their brand as well as the hotel owner’s. In my drug store days, we sought out the support of Good Housekeeping to put its seal on our private label products to add credibility and value. JetBlue enhanced its service reputation by adding Dunkin Donuts brewed coffee on all their flights. Nike built its brand by sponsoring major sports teams and golfers to insure that their swoosh logo was visible with an implied endorsement.

This is what’s happening in Earth Fare where hundreds of homeopathic drugs and supplements line the shelves with the only sales pitch being “try this because we sell it here. So it must work.” We are reliant on the store to substantiate our choice of certain products. If this brand, that I believe and trust, sells it, then it must be good.

As the brands grow and develop a loyal customer base, the complementary benefits work both ways and the brands continue to grow successfully together.


ed-carrollWhen I started this blog some 12 years ago, my goal was to replicate the many Monday morning quarterback sessions by phone with a select number of my peers in the retail, ad agency, and supplier worlds.  Once the Monday am executive meetings were finished, there was always time for a call or two to get their insights on what was happening in our industry. We would talk about a new everyday pricing strategy at Sears, an acquisition by Saks, quarterly results for Walgreens, or what were they thinking with that spot on Super Bowl?

On many of those calls, was my good friend, Ed Carroll, CMO at Boston Store, Carsons, Saks, and BonTon at various times throughout the years.  Our conversations were always lively and insightful and there was always a good laugh as well news updates on our similar families.  We lost Ed last month after a hard-fought battle with pancreatic cancer and I immediately felt an emptiness after so many conversations and good times.  Our industries should also feel an emptiness for a true leader who set the standards high in a retail industry that didn’t always pay attention to branding while searching for the next best promotional event.  To pay tribute to this great guy, I think that there are some real parallels to the keys to a successful branding strategy and to what Ed Carrol stood for over four decades in the industry.

Key #1 CREATE A VISION.  Ed was always a big picture guy looking beyond the current hot trends to try to predict what was going to effect his company’s business 5 or 10 years down the road.  He did this because of his insatiable interest in the industry and trends and his understanding of the various market segments and what was going to happen to his customer bases-whether they were baby boomers or millennials, male or female, one ethnic group or another.  He’d always quote a recent article or study that gave some unique insights and then he was able to present it in such a way that it moved from opinion to fact-based predictions.  I saw this on a number of the trade association boards that we sat together on over the years.  He always had great questions for the presenter and always could start a good, lively conversation when the agenda had hit a lull.  Yet, he did all this while still making next week’s 3-Day white Sale more exciting than last weeks.

Key #2 DO THE RESEARCH.  Ed Carroll did research that many larger organizations had never even hear of and often knew more about their customers and how they shopped their stores as well as his, than they will ever know in time to make an impactful decision.  He wasn’t a numbers guy any more than I was, but he sure knew how to find value that would have an ROI by understanding what those numbers meant and having smart people around who would provide the analysis.  In our years on the National Retail Federation (RAMA) board, Ed was a champion to conduct membership studies so we could learn what attendees liked, didn’t like or just what they really wanted to know more about.    The result of his dedication led to growth there just as it did at his home store in gaining market share.

Key #3 COMMUNICATE YOUR VALUE WELL.  All of this led to some of the best retail advertising in the business.  Sure there were daily ROP’s, the weekly inserts, but they were supported by creative executions that reached both the heart and the wallets of their customers.  He figured out ways to develop ongoing programs that benefits the communities where the stores were located that continued to be successful even after the promotions had faded away.  He always said: “Sometimes you just have to do the right thing!” His soft spoken demeanor belied his passion for excellence and also his creative spark for coming up with really “wow” events and messages.  Yet, he was practical and knew that there was an important balance between price promotion and brand development.  His presentations at many industry events were always well done, concise, humorous, and dead on with the point he was trying to make.

Key #4   IMPLEMENT YOUR PLAN EFFECTIVELY.  With his passion for the preceding steps, Ed was a master planner and his teams reflected that efficiency at all his management positions He clearly knew where the “Desired Future State” was and what they needed to do to get there effectively.  He was organized not so much on the details, but more on the key steps that needed to be done and that helped prevent many of the distractions that come into the retail marketing offices on an everyday basis.  He always took the helicopter view and could make big things happen with small distractions.  Working with him on some media taskforces over the years, his value the groups was always to bring clarity to what needed to be accomplished and insure that it was done before we went out enjoyed some of the fun of those retreats.  If someone got off track, he wasn’t afraid to let the meeting organizer know that they missed the point on that one or it would have been better if…

Key #5 LIVE UP TO THE BRAND EVERYDAY.  Consistency is the key to a successful retail brand so that whenever a customer comes in your store, you store, its associates, its selection and its service are disappointed that you couldn’t deliver on what your marketing promised.  Ed worked as key member of management bring his expertise to everything from Human Resources and Training to Logistics and Supply Chain accounting.  As a successful executive, Ed Carroll had a brand to live up and he did that without exception.  His relationships with his organization, his agencies and suppliers, his trade organization and his friends, was consistent and without exception that of one who enjoyed his craft, share his expertise, led by example and made life enjoyable.

The industry lost one of its icons last month.  I lost a friend and I’ll miss his inspiration more than anything.



Driving around Sonoma County again this month, I never cease to be amazed by the number of vineyards that  cover the landscape in valleys, hills, and canyons almost everywhere you look.  Going up the narrow, winding road to our rental home, I was surprised to find small vineyards with no signs or identifications around every bend and I started to wonder how some of these wine growers and makers survive in this ever-growing competitive industry.  One only has to walk through a Total Wine & More super store or even the wine aisle at Publix to see that wine brands far outnumber the brands of cereals or frozen foods that make up so much of the revenue of today’s grocers.  In an industry that has been dominated by large wine conglomerates like Diageo, Constellation, The Wine Group, or Gallo who now make up more than half the wine business nationally,

img_4688I wondered how do small vintners succeed in gaining shelf space and share of market.  I asked Wayne Fieldsa, a small, family-owned Sonoma vineyard owner, who stopped bottling his own wine a few years ago and now supplies grapes to other winemakers, what it takes to succeed in today’s wine market.  He conceded that the large companies will continue to grow and acquire small wineries that have developed successful brands just as the major breweries have taken over many craft brewers around the country.  However, he said that there still is plenty of room for wines that create a niche for themselves and a brand that is distinguishable.  For example, he specialized in Syrah grapes and produced some award-winning varietals that helped gain
distribution and loyal customers.  One only has to glance at the labels on the endless shelves at the aforementioned retailers to see there are some interesting names and designs on most of the bottles.  Yet, there are some that continue to grow by building their brands with more than just a nice tasting room or marketing campaign.  Much of it is due to the obsession of the winemaker to produce something unique that their customers want and will go out of their way to keep in their wine coolers at home.  Wineries are some of the most successful CRM marketers with their wine clubs and special mailings that keep customers ordering often and in large quantities.

So size isn’t the only factor for success here and it’s not in many other competitive industries.  I think about the hamburger shop in a non-descript strip center in my neighborhood.  Despite having all of the national hamburger chains within a tenth of a mile of their hidden location, the shop has a loyal family business–built  on a brand of fresh beef, grilled to order, with hand-cut fries and  fresh fish and chips.  The owner runs the place and grills the burgers, too, but understands that his brand is based on the fresh, family-run business catering to quick eat-in or take-out.  Another example is a small, family-run investment/wealth management firm tha
t I’ve worked with, who have built a successful business despite offices of all the major investment firms and banks on the same road (including Raymond James corporate HQ down the street).  The couple that started the business developed a brand strategy based on personalized, family service based on Christian principles.  Sure, the firm isn’t going to compete with Schwab or Merill Lynch, but they have a loyal group of clients and have diversified into a couple other business services companies based on the same principles.  reds-eats-lobster-roll-in-meFinally, there are plenty of places to get lobster rolls in Maine and all of them are pretty good, but Red’s Eats in Wiscasset on the Back River not far from Bath, ME, has created a brand that brings customers by the hundreds to stand in line for their lobster rolls (a pound of meat in every roll is the brand promise) and fried clams, served out of a small, food trailer right on US1 and the bridge over the river.  Across the street is a lovely restaurant with A/C and windows facing the river.  On a Sunday, there’s no wait for a table, but across the street the crowd at Red’s is testimony to a brand that brings them in from all over and bring them back again for more.  The list can go on and I’m sure you have some small brands that have big-time loyalty near you.  It’s all proof that the important factor in a successful brand is to determine a customer need that other similar products or services don’t provide or provide as well, and then communicate that value in an honest, consistent manner in everything you do.

So, let’s raise a glass and toast the brands that may be small in size but big in loyalty…and success.



One of the last Sports Authority Stores

I was saddened—though not surprised—to read about the closing of The Sports Authority and its pending liquidation.  While a letter from the CEO says that only 140 of the 463 stores would be shuttered now, public statements from the company’s attorneys and financial releases indicate that the company will soon disappear. The agreement (announced today) that the stores have been sold to a trio of liquidation firms confirms the fact that this once respected brand will  soon be a memory.

As I said, I was saddened because about 20 years ago, I was offered the top marketing job at Sports Authority and except for what seemed to be a better offer (can’t tell a book by its cover) from Circuit City, I would have accepted the opportunity.  I was impressed to say the least.  Having just broken way from the grasp of Kmart (another brand in jeopardy now), Sports Authority had a lot of good things going for it at the time.  A great brand name that personified its brand strategy.  Well-merchandised stores that brought great selection at lower prices to categories that were booming at the time.  Well-positioned locations that provided excellent traffic and visibility in well-targeted areas.  A strong management team, led by the company’s founder, with a focused vision on where it wanted to go, also developed an effective marketing strategy that mixed great positioning with strong promotions.  Plus, it was based near Ft. Lauderdale, just across the state from where I was living so commuting was possible until I got settled.  I have to admit that when the Circuit City deal didn’t work out, I had a lot of second thoughts about that career decision!

Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver


Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver

The company built itself on an effective positioning campaign using well produced, effective broadcast and timely promotions.  More importantly, it had aggressively sought to have the Sport Authority logo placed in highly visible locations in sports venues in all major sports.  Shots of the end zone for NFL, there was the logo.  Sideline scorer’s table shots at NBA games, Sports Authority was right there.  Baseball outfield walls, NHL boards, college stadiums—the company’s presence verified that it was the authority on sports gear.  Even as the company grew and stumbled, its sale to Gart Sports in Denver seemed like another smart move.  The company was consolidated in Denver and changed names to The Sports Authority since there was so much equity in the brand.  Unfortunately, that’s where it ended.

The company’s marketing became dominated by nothing more than boring sale ads and promotions.  It’s website was developed, yet not much more exciting than its print with little or no promotion driving customers online.  More importantly, the stores were boring as well.  Selections of athletic shoes were no better than most athletic footwear stores. Golf was sub-par to Golfsmith.  Cycling failed to capitalize on the growth of this activity.  Fishing was meager compared to Bass Pro and Cabela’s.  Camping ditto.  Traditional sports like baseball, football, tennis, soccer were not much better than Wal-Mart or Target.  Then, there was the in-store experience.  The only authority was on the sign outside the store.  Sales help was disinterested and about as knowledgeable as your neighbor.    Inventories were obviously being cut back and selection and sizes were insufficient to meet demand.

The stores in fact were boring.  They did strike gold with buying the naming rights to the Denver Bronco’s stadium at Mile High just in time for the Super Bowl championship season, but by then it was too late.  The brand had awareness but not much value.

 Bass Pro Shops–Brandon, FL

bass-pro-brandonBefore writing this article, I visited the newest Bass Pro Shop location in the Tampa Bay area and it was obvious why Sports Authority was fading fast.  The Bass Pro shop was an exciting experience.  Huge displays, interesting experiences, valuable in-store events.  Then there is the selection from more fishing rods than I have ever seen to more cammo gear than in a military post.  From boats to ACV’s and with a restaurant that’s worth making the trip just for the menu, Bass Pro gets it.  And it’s always supported by an effective, on-target marketing campaign.  Across the road was a new Dick’s Sporting goods and while not as over-powering as Bass Pro, it was everything that Sports Authority should have been but wasn’t even close.    And Dick’s marketing is as good as Gatorade or Under Armor in creating a relevant, adifferentiated brand of stores.

So, it’s strike three on Sports Authority and a good lesson learned that you have to consistently cover all the bases, outsmart the competition, and build a great team to keep a strong brand alive and well.



storefront_024A few years ago, while spending some of my career on the advertising agency side of the business, I had the pleasure of working with the marketing people at Beall’s Department Stores in Bradenton, FL. The company had been in business for several years and had become of favorite shopping place for “mature” customers in Florida and Arizona by understanding who they were NOT trying to be. Beall’s (pronounced Bells) was not trying to be Macy’s, nor Kohl’s, nor JCPenney, nor Ross, nor TJMaxx. For that matter they weren’t trying to be just like any other stores competing with them in their select markets. The company understood the casual lifestyle of its customers. They understood that they were looking for a lower prices. They wanted quality brand names. They were no slaves to fashion. And they wanted a pleasant shopping experience at the store.

Well, it really seems to be working. Now with over 530 stores doing over a billion dollars in sales in relatively few markets, Beall’s recently opened a brand new store near me in Seminole, FL, so I decided to take a trip over to see it during its soft opening the week prior to its big Grand Opening. Not so soft. The lot was full. The stores were as crowded as any Black Friday experience I’ve had, and bealls-interiorthe registers were line up down the aisles with shoppers taking advantage of pretty much the same promotional offers that Beall’s offers regularly to its customers. The store was well organized and contemporary, but frankly not much different than the store that was demolished just 6 months earlier when the mall was torn down in favor of a new town center concept. Beall’s was the first to open this week. The store wasn’t exciting, and that’s the point. Beall’s brand isn’t necessarily exciting. It just works for the customers that they have targeted in over 100 years of doing business. Consistent, clean, well-merchandised, effective graphics all living up to the brand promise. A solid mixture of national brands like Columbia, Gloria Vanderbilt, Skechers and Dockers mixes well with Beall’s own Reel Legends, Guy Harvey, and Carribbean Joe.

The company has recognized the value of the mature customer. Notice I did not say senior or retirees. While these demos are loyal shoppers, the styles and fashions fit a lifestyle more than a demographic. So young mothers are just as likely to be there next to a grandmother. I find there collection of sports and golf shirts as good as any around and better priced. Home décor and appliances are fit for the casual home but work well in the other 14 non-tropical states that the company operates in. That’s the point of brand—be consistent and understand what customers like about you more than the other stores offering similar merchandise. While the company has expanded to include an Outlet division and a robust online marketplace, the offerings and the commitment to the customer and the communities that they serve is consistent and one of the unique selling propositions that Beall’s has maintained steadfastly over the years. Simply put, they succeed by being themselves and doing it well. And the brand continues to succeed and grow.


This year marks the 12th year that I have been sharing views on branding, marketing, retailing, internet…and whatever else pops into my head as I scan the American marketplace for successful ideas on winning more loyal customers. During these years, I’ve talked about a lot of different types of businesses. Some are real success stories. Some have failed and have disappeared from view—never to be shopped or purchased again. Most of the time, I feature brand concepts that are communicated via outstanding creative executions that win over the hearts and minds of the customer as much as their wallets. To be sure it is the stories behind the brand strategy that make for memorable marketing and loyal customers.


This month, however, I’m featuring a retailer who has been a real success story, selling stuff that’s not very special, to people who just want what they need for a specific task at a really low price. There are no Addy Award winning campaigns here. Nor are the stores harbor-freight-tools-storegoing to win any praises for design or emulation of graphics and displays. Just tools. Let’s take a look at one of my favorite stores—Harbor Freight (see

No, Harbor Freight isn’t special because yours truly is a great handyman or do-it-yourselfer. I found the store quite by accident when they opened near a Sushi restaurant that I used to visit frequently. I was surprised at how many things they sold that I had no idea what they were used for. Nor was I aware how many sizes and shapes of drill bits existed in this world. The stores are clean, neatly organized, well signed. The merchandise—most of which is private label product from China—is well displayed and designed. The prices–even for one who rarely shops for tools—are obviously deep discounted compared to Sears or Home Depot.


Then, there’s the advertising. Oy! Nothing special here. Except consistency. Always price promotions. Always a 20% discount. Always a free with purchase item or two that just happens to be something that you could really use (like a flashlight, or battery checker, or screwdriver set.   The discounts are real. The sale periods are limited and enforced. The offers are everywhere. In the newspaper every week. In ValPak mailers. In direct mail catalogues. Online. In Parade magazine or tucked into the freestanding inserts. The graphics are not exciting but are consistent with the store. Well organized. Strong pricing statements. Easily understood discounts.

logo_hftThe products are well made and tested in their own quality test labs called The Workshop ( warranties are real and the 100% Satisfaction promise is enforced. Returns are easy. The people are knowledgeable enough that you can find just what you need.

And it all works. Harbor Freight now has over 600 (with a new one opening every 3 days) stores doing over $2 Billion in annual sales. In the process, they have built a brand that may have surpassed in loyalty the Craftsmen brand that led to Sears’ success over the years. I believe the brand has thrived because of the consistency of the message, the stores, and the product every day. Check out their About Us video on their website (after the typical sale ad on the home page) to hear a great example of a brand strategy and how they live up to it every day.



MERRY CHRISTMAS. As we run off the days until Christmas, it seems like the holiday comes earlier and faster every year, and 2015 is no exception. Maybe it’s because there isn’t the significant change in weather down here in Florida so the days tend to be the same as they were in September and July and April. In any event, it’s time to get into the full-court press for us to make sure that we are ready for our favorite holiday. We did get a jump on a few things like the outdoor lights and Santas, setting up the tree and decorations and work on this month’s blog in advance. All done before we took off for a visit to the Christmas markets on the Rhine with stops in four countries and several cities to see how the holiday are celebrated in towns dating back to when Santa was just a young elf. Boy, were we surprised. Christmas is alive and well in Basel, Strasbourg, Mainz, Koblenz and Cologne.

img_2271As we explored the various Christmas market festivals in each city, we were taken back into memories of how the holidays felt many years ago. We tried to figure out what made it so special and we came to the conclusion that Christmas in Europe is not just a holiday selling season, but it’s a time of celebration for the entire community and all of the businesses (not just the retailers) go all out to show their celebration of the holiday. No political correctness here. This is Christmas with Nativity scenes, Santa Clauses, angels, and all of the other symbols. But most obvious is the happy faces of the people—whether they were visiting the markets or whether they were working the various businesses. It was a festival atmosphere and yet it was calming (“All is calm…”) and heartwarming. Yes, many of the booths in the Christmas markets sell the same items as those in other cities. Yet, there is enough local flavor to give each one its own personality and style. Sure there were special prices, but it didn’t seem like prices and sales were the key focus. The displays—whether in a small, cold hut or in a centuries-old building were as exciting as any that I’ve seen on Fifth Avenue. The crowds were there on Wednesday morning just like they were most evenings and on the weekends where families, seniors, and youth mingled and enjoyed the atmosphere and the offerings. There were women in burkas, men wearing yarmulkes, priests, and even some tourists! Everyone enjoying the special time of year.

Christmas season surely is the biggest sales period in retail all over the world and as such the brand of this season certainly needs to 2015-12-01-18-25-35constantly be refined while sticking to the reasons for the season that make it special. It’s not all about black Friday prices and one-day sales. It’s a celebration and a time for special memories. Standing in line in one of the many Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas stores (you’ve got to experience one of these!) I had the same feeling that I had each Christmas when my mother would load me and my brothers on the Detroit streetcars to go to Hudson’s Downtown department store. This was not just a shopping trip. It was an excursion into the North Pole and Bethlehem and New York all wrapped up in one. An exciting, memorable time and shopping was just a sidelight to a tradition that I’ll always remember. That’s what the brand of Christmas is all about when it comes to retail. The marketing should reflect this attitude of a special time of year. The stores should dress themselves up more with experience and less on sale signs. The people serving you should be as excited as you are about the season and the experience. The community should continue to make living there extra special at this time and give people a reason to come out and share the experience.

christmas-ornament-1033279_640So, if you’re dreading the last few days of the Christmas rush, take a few minutes to think back what made this holiday so special when you were young. Think about the brand of Christmas and why this time of year is not only a time for revenues and promotions, but also a time for experiences and memories. If you’re one of the marketers trying to take advantage of the season, make it special for your customers by going the extra mile to make it a memorable experience. If you’re a customer, enjoy the experience and enjoy your families.

Have a great Christmas and Happy New Year.