“Essay” Brands: Narrowing the Narrative

Posted by Carol Spieckerman on February 17, 2011

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“Our intent is to own outright the strategic territory of ‘well,’ where health and happiness meet.”

This ambitious quote may seem well-suited to a chain of clinics, or, even, to an insurance company, but, it actually came last month from Greg Wasson, CEO of Walgreen Co., when he addressed the company’s shareholders.

Walgreens is in the midst of a transformation designed to evolve the company from a “retail drugstore to a retail health and daily living store,” according to Mr. Wasson. This plan has the retailer greatly expanding fresh food offerings (comprising as much as 40% of some Chicago locations) and incorporating “Duane-Reade-like” beauty departments into the Walgreens environment. Walgreen’s acquisition of Duane Reade last year provided them with scale in Manhattan, along with access to what is arguably the best urban drug and beauty template in the industry. Through this acquisition, Walgreens can tap into leading-edge brands that fulfill their overarching aspiration to bridge multiple categories into a total wellness proposition. Last week, I checked out the just-launched 27-item Borba line at Walgreens that combines skin care treatments, dietary supplements, and drink mixes into a single end-cap display unit. Duane Reade began selling the “Inside Out Beauty Solutions” line, developed by celebrity esthetician, Scott Vincent-Borba, in 2009.

Sam’s Club embarked on a similar strategy with its U.S. exclusive of skin care brand, Sophyto, late last year (click here for our take). Even though the entire line centers around topical skin care solutions, it too was positioned as a health and wellness launch and specially-developed, free-standing displays called out the connection. Sonya Gafsi, senior director of private brands, said that for Sam’s Club, “it was important to incorporate a holistic vision of wellness, one we want to develop across the club.” For Sam’s Club, the credibility of sustainability that Sophyto brought was a major component of its wellness proposition.

Health and wellness is clearly a hot spot in retail right now; every retailer has a different perspective on what combination of categories, brands, and claims will be the most compelling and credible to shoppers. The fitness sections that are currently being rolled out at 600 Best Buy locations are being touted as a way to provide “the latest and greatest technology to enhance health regimens” much as Walgreen’s food forays are positioned as solving the “food desert” problem in urban neighborhoods.

As retailers stretch category limits and develop new narratives, the roles that brands play have changed. Lifestyle brands have always been valued by retailers for their ability to pull together related categories (think Martha Stewart at Home Depot); Borba and Sophyto are examples of what we are calling “essay” brands: tightly-edited, self-contained brands that, nevertheless, speak volumes about retailers’ chosen storylines and points of view.

Bottom line:

  • Trends like health and wellness may seem straightforward; however, every retailer follows a different script when it comes to how they will connect the narrative.
  • While category convergences between toys and consumer electronics, or entertainment and fashion, have organically arisen, retailer-led convergences, wherein retailers choose what categories and brands to connect, is the new frontier.
  • Retailers increasingly favor brands that tell their story, not just a story.