Forget 'fauxthenticity', building a retail empire is about deep understanding of culture
A view from Jed Hallam

Forget 'fauxthenticity', building a retail empire is about deep understanding of culture

Retailers have become distracted with the wrong ideas, argues Jed Hallam, chief strategy officer at Initiative UK.

Late last week, Caroline Hipperson, the new CMO of Holland & Barrett, spoke about a new brand campaign focused on extolling the virtues of manuka honey. I’ll admit that I know little about manuka honey, but I know about the expertise and credibility of Holland & Barrett, and few brands could carry off such a campaign without seeming contrived, or "fauxthentic".

Over the course of the last few years, more and more brands have fallen into the trap of artificial authenticity. Using causes and campaigns to virtue signal or, worse, borrowing beliefs, behaviours and culture signalling often creates the opposite of the desired effect.

But why do authenticity and culture matter? It’s all about the counterculture revolution, man.

Before the 1960s, modern life was pretty grey. There was a post-war boom in productivity and prosperity - but the prevalent culture was conservative, reserved, and monochrome. While advances in manufacturing drove down the price of clothes, dresses were still to be calf-length, and suits were various shades of grey. 

Then the children of the 1940s and 50s came of age, had money in their pockets, and revolution on their minds. This counterculture created a cultural explosion. Although many believe these countercultures were in opposition to the corporate world, in reality they were in opposition to conservative attitudes held within many corporations. As a result, the counterculture(s) created a high performance engine for commerce. 

This changing cultural landscape created a surge in choices - people were actively encouraged to explore their own tastes, and out of this emerged new cultures. New ideas passed quickly through those cultures, and fads became trends, which created an even greater appetite for newness and the desire to "consume" became all-consuming. These subcultures created modern consumer culture, and, to this day, these influences continue to inform our decisions on what we purchase, and where we make those purchases. 

Retail Buying Study

Whether consciously or not, we buy things that signal who we are and who we want to be. Our belief is that the best retail brands understand this, and use this information to shape their proposition, business strategy, and brand. We recently launched the IPG MediaBrands Retail Buying Study across EMEA, and the research supports this hypothesis - and it also goes against some of the preconceived notions that exist in the category. 

Retailers have been obsessed with the idea that people use their physical stores to research products and then buy them online. We found this to be false, with only 3% of shoppers behaving this way. Many retailers have chosen to respond to the increase in competition by trying to compete on price, but this strategy is often balanced by a reduction in investment in staff and quality of products – which often hurts the overall customer experience.

The idea of online being in competition with in-store shopping is a distraction - it isn’t either or, it’s both. While 76% of shoppers begin their purchase journey digitally, 54% finish that journey in a physical store.

If we look to retail brands that have done exceptionally well over the last few years, they’ve built upon their understanding of their customers cultural drivers, and created enhanced experiences. The most obvious examples are Supreme (above, photo from @supremenewyork/Instagram) and Palace - mile-long queues for Supreme branded house bricks definitely point to a brand with a clear understanding of its customers’ culture.

Those examples are a little lazy. Looking at the retail category there are plenty of other examples, and we believe that this is because they follow at least one of our six rules for building modern retail brands. 

The six rules are as follows:

  • Deliver unparalleled expertise (Holland & Barrett)

  • Create an immersive / unique experience (Converse)

  • Provide buyers with cultural data to drive curatorial buying (ASOS)

  • Find innovative ways to launch products (Supreme)

  • Create environments that people want to be seen in (Selfridges)

  • Master convenience or immediacy (Amazon)

All of these rules point to improving the overall customer experience through whatever channel is most appropriate. We have to move beyond the world of physical versus digital, and start understanding the customers’ needs.

Modern retail brands are relevant. Relevance demands that you know more about consumers than their age and income. What unites or divides us isn’t our demographic, but our sense of cultural belonging. Culture helps us to explain who we are, who we want to be, and it’s how we find a sense of belonging and value with our peers. If brands understand these cultural drivers, they can create highly relevant communications, and in time they become part of the audience’s culture.

We believe that brands that understand this, can move at the speed of culture, and can build cultural velocity, and there’s nothing more authentic than that.