Brand clinic: Stale retail

21 May, 2010

Don Williams, CEO of brand specialist Pi Global, reckons that in both the US and the UK lessons on how to create excitement in retailing grocery brands need to be learned

I'm writing this from America and if there is one thing about this country that I love it is its size. Everything and I mean everything is bigger, wider, longer; there's a feeling of space here that is liberating (I'm talking about real America not New York).

Flying over it from the West to the East coast is just awe-inspiring. Every time I return to Europe after a trip to the US, I get seriously claustrophobic. From the minute I get into a car at Heathrow airport and get onto the M4, I realise just how apologetic our motorways are. Now, I know it's not Mumbai, where the gaps between moving vehicles can be counted in inches rather than feet soon, I suspect, to be millimetres rather than centimetres unless they get on top of their infrastructure tout de suite but it's pretty cramped all the same.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot wrong with America the state of the quaint electrical system always makes me giggle, as I watch the pretty sparks fly. But my God, there's a lot wrong with Europe a cursory glance at the state of the political parties in the UK, made all too apparent by the plastic 'debates' we've been subjected to, makes me want to pack bags and vamoose. (I tried to avoid mentioning the state of Italian politics, but I couldn't resist what a total farce.)

The US retail sector, though, has a lot to learn from Europe: the state of communication, branding and packaging design in the US is 20 years behind the UK. Things are moving very slowly in the right direction, but there's a way to go. The US, by and large, still wallows in a world of good old 'American Cheddar'. A wander around any middle-America Walmart or 30 minutes in front of a TV never fails to have me forcibly closing an open mouth with alarming regularity.

Sustainability is a word that folk here are just starting to come to terms with. Clearly, Walmart is driving this with a passion, because it makes good business sense for them, but six months ago, it never entered into conversation. Now, go visit a CPG company (consumer packaged goods their equivalent of FMCG) and you might get a glimmer of a response if you mention it. It's a similar situation with front-of-pack nutritional information watch out US, it's coming!

Where we don't differ terribly, is just how uninventive the retail sector is when it comes to selling grocery brands. Sure, in the UK we create nice environments for patisserie counters and bakeries. Yes, we provide nice smells, but then we usually, just like America, simply pile packs on to shelves perhaps embellished with a wobbler. And sure, in the US, you get aisles wide enough to drive a Hummer through sideways. But and it is a big BUT they are equally dull. There is as much innovation in leveraging the power of brands and the approach to selling them in-store as there is in creating something better than a rubber strip on a stick to wipe water off a windshield.

It's time we re-evaluated what is in my humble opinion a completely wasted opportunity and took a fresh look at a stale state of mind.





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