Storytelling at forefront of LIMA Conference

Posted by Marty Brochstein on September 21, 2011

One of the most striking themes running through this month’s LIMA Retail & Branding Conference was the importance of storytelling in building a strong brand. Whether it’s the positioning of Iconix’ Material Girl fast fashion juniors brand at Macy’s around Madonna’s 14-year-old daughter Lola, or the attempted reinvention of Kmart’s apparel and home business as KmartDesign, or the development of businesses around such celebrities as Twiggy, Queen Latifah and Mary J. Blige on HSN, an authentic story gives the brand substance.

HSN’s Executive VP Bill Brand, for example, told of the company being approached by ‘60s modeling icon Twiggy about mounting a fashion business. It began with a meeting at HSN’s Florida headquarters. “For us, it’s really important that we have that face-to-face meeting, that we really spend some key quality time together, and really understand, is this about making money, is this about media placements, what is this about? How authentic is this?”

A subsequent meeting, he said, involved HSN’s design director rooting through Twiggy’s closet in London, “going through her favorite things and what inspires her, and from that, 6-9 months later,” the Twiggy London brand was launched on HSN, where it stands as one of the company’s top apparel brands in under two years.

For Jeff Fagel, Director of Brand Development at Sears Holdings, the ongoing challenge is help Kmart gain credibility (and sales) in the apparel and home categories. The marketing challenge involves a three part process, he said: “How do you get people to pay attention [to the message]? How do you get people to care? How do you get people to act?” The goal is to spark “curious disbelief,” or put another way, to spark the following consumer reaction: “No way, this can’t be Kmart.”

Acknowledging the perception of Kmart’s apparel as being of “low quality and style,” the brand development team set out to “build consideration and credibility for the brand… in a disruptive and differentiate way.” A key element has been the work done with a team of documentary filmmakers who followed Kmart ‘s design team in their New York and Chicago offices, and on trend-shopping trips to London and Paris. The footage was rapidly cut into four pilot videos, and show to consumer panels.

“This wasn’t about [simply] creating viral video; this wasn’t about going out and shocking. It was really about being true to the foundation of Kmart, being honest and authentic and speaking in a different voice, and really trying to bring in a new apparel and home customer,” Fagel told the conference attendees. “We had a great story to tell…. Part of it is product – improved product, quality, better design, expanded assortments, new brands, great value for the price, but everyone can say that. We have a 250-person design team in Soho and Chicago, which nobody knew about, and we felt it was an opportunity to tell our story in a unique way and cut through the clutter.”

Over the past two years, the company has been attempting to build buy-in for the KmartDesign effort via social media, with dedicated Facebook page, YouTube portal, Twitter feed, etc. Lots of content has been created. Fagel says that it’s “about building digital relationships and building relationships, not about getting 25,000 Facebook fans. It’s about how do you connect with people on a daily basis, and looking at whether the conversation has shifted.”

Initial results are promising, but it’s an ongoing effort that needs to be sustained in many ways. “It took Target 10+ years to get to where they are right now, and for those who are in retail and know a lot about retail, it starts with product and instore. Those are the two key components. [It has to happen] over time. It’s not going to be overnight.”

We’ll have more from the conference in future posts.