With companies across all retail channels vying for convenience customers, the pressure is on c-store operators to protect their market share.
By Greg Ehrlich, Contributing Editor.
As the convenience store industry continues to evolve, one area that is demanding greater attention is brand image. Once a concern primarily for larger chains, brand image is a hot topic for even the smallest of convenience store chains. Foodservice is behind the need for attention. Selling food has proven to be an uphill battle at older stores where little thought was given to store image or perhaps where the store image is outdated.
Forward-thinking chains like 10-store operator Stop’n Go of Medina, Ohio, are building larger new store formats with eye-catching graphics and impressive branded and proprietary foodservice programs. The newer stores present a refined retail experience attractive to broader customer demographics, and they help to build the perception of a quality provider of fresh food on the go.
Favorable perceptions of foodservice are just the start. A strong brand image can also improve other traditional touch points, such as the forecourt, entrance way, point-of-purchase signage, interior graphics, cash wrap and employee uniforms. What’s more, it impacts Websites, social influence marketing, loyalty marketing, digital advertising, text programs and mobile couponing, which have become the new media framework for building ongoing customer relationships.
Business of Branding
While refreshing or overhauling a retail brand can seem like a daunting undertaking, a keen understanding of the rebranding process and its importance is critical. For starters, you have to ask yourself, “Is rebranding really worth the effort?”
First, let’s clarify a few terms. The brand is the sum of the impressions and perceptions people have of your company. It’s not simply your name or logo—it’s the experience, awareness and interaction that customers, investors and even your employees have with you.
Branding is a term that gained popularity in the last 20 years to mean the marketing of products. But the term also applies to the practice of building a brand by applying its identity and communicating its value at the appropriate consumer touch points.
A properly designed brand will provide its customers with a consistent, compelling experience and generates more loyalty and higher sales for your company.
How often stores should refresh their brand image depends on the company. Typically a retail brand identity should be build to last roughly a decade. The size of the company, current market conditions, the stability of the company’s current value proposition and the competitive environment all impact the frequency of the brand image refresh. Some categories, such as technology, may elect to rebrand more often, as their products change frequently.
For convenience store chains, a consistent and attractive store image package provides the foundation for adjusting interior areas that you may want to emphasize as trends change. For example, with foodservice programs growing as a percentage of total store sales, refreshing areas, such as the coffee bar, carbonated and frozen beverages, roller grills and fresh foods justify more frequent updates. These updates could include new equipment, store reconfigurations, line of site changes or category call out signage. Customer service items, such as cups, lid dispensers and menu boards, should be considered when the goal is to drive awareness and sales of a particular category.
Retailers need to understand that if nothing changes in a store over a five-year period, it gradually becomes less attractive and inviting to consumers. Sure, some will stop in because of your convenient location, but consumers that have other options will tend to prefer your stores if you demonstrate a commitment to providing a pleasant, up-to-date and well-maintained shopping environment.
As for fueling forecourts, while the pylon and store entry signs may have a long lifespan, the canopy and dispenser graphics are going to age much faster. This provides a cost-effective and highly visible area to update more frequently to attract new customers to your stores.
What are the key touch points convenience store operators should consider when refreshing or elevating their brand? With any convenience store, the key points begin at the curb. Critical exterior brand elements—the canopy, pumptoppers, pylon signage and storefront presentation—must be designed to create a single expression of the brand. The trick is to consistently execute the exterior elements across all store formats and configurations. Within the store, areas such as the cash wrap, coolers, freezers, foodservice and gondola offer additional opportunities to extend and promote the brand, create a more comfortable environment, and present a store that is easier to shop.
Naturally, marketing and advertising programs flow from the brand positioning. These programs, even if limited to point-of-purchase exterior or interior signage, can really begin to differentiate your stores from independent operators. Other marketing and advertising touch points to consider include Websites, Facebook fan pages, loyalty programs, digital advertising and mobile couponing.
What is the optimal way to approach a rebranding project? First, consider whether you want to conduct a comprehensive brand overhaul all at once or in stages or simply wish to update certain components of your brand. If you are not sure, then consider engaging in discussions with brand design firms. Experienced consultants would agree that it’s a case-by-case decision. Proper assessment (brand and customer experience audits) should reveal the best way forward.
The difference between a professionally designed brand and one done in house or by a less-skilled practitioner is very easy to distinguish. Rely on brand design experts to guide the rebranding program. They will help to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the current brand expression and will help a company understand its current state. Select a partner that has category experience, a strong portfolio and track record with past client engagements. Look beyond creative evidence; look for the strategic skills and assessment processes. But remember: the biggest consultant isn’t always the best and the smallest isn’t always the cheapest.
The best place to start is with a new store prototype with a well-considered retrofit and rollback strategy for your existing stores. As part of this process you should consider cost parameters and work with your design firm to design to your budget.
Branding offers other less obvious benefits. Properly executed branding improves a company’s impression with its current business partners and opens doors for new partnerships. Branding can influence employee morale and corporate culture. Good branding sets standards to aspire to, helps foster employees’ pride in the workplace, creates loyalty and can improve business performance.
Your brand image should be carried over into employee uniforms and training. Your staff should understand your brand, the commitment it makes to your customers and their role in providing service consistent with your brand promise. Successful c-store retailers understand the important role their frontline employees play in being brand ambassadors, and have focused on improving employee selection, training and retention.
The battle of the brands is not just between c-stores. Fast food companies like McDonald’s and Burger King are vying for your foodservice dollars and coffee customers, while drug stores and grocers are stocking conventional c-store products. Even Old Navy is getting into the mix, funneling customers through a corridor of candy, soda and novelty items as they approach the cash wrap.
Contemporary retail marketing and rapid improvements in technology present many new opportunities to improve your brand and grow your sales. Now’s the time to take a critical look at your brand image across all touch points and consider your options, whether executing a complete brand refreshment or to simply upgrading a component or two.