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.



When 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,

I 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.  Finally, 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.


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

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

Before 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.


A 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 the 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.