Nike, Kaepernick and Brand Image

Had a spirited discussion this morning on Facebook that my friend Toby Barlow participated in. Decided to post one of my comments in its entirety here. As of 11:53 am EST, and less than 24 hours since Nike shared their ad, their stock is down over 2%, and boycotts, cutting out swooshes from clothes, etc. have been threatened. No doubt Nike knew they were going to incite this kind of reaction. My response to the ballyhoo below. 

Here’s why I think this Colin Kaepernick Nike ad is a game changer – to date, yes Nike’s been the bold brand – crashing the Olympics with Michael Johnson’s gold shoes, giving Charles Barkley a platform to proclaim “I am NOT a role model“, etc. but at no point before this spot was there ever a figure that controversially stood both for and against America concurrently (depending on your perspective of course).

The Nike ad is thoughtful, introspective. “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

It’s so appropriately Nike yet in the connotation it’s presented, will blast a hole in the relationship between Nike and the NFL for years to come, while debated across homes throughout America. This morning while grabbing my Tim Hortons, I overheard a woman, mid 60’s, talking about the ad with disgust followed with, “This is NOT what my husband died for serving our country.”

Ironically, it kind of was.

WE (e.g. you and I Toby) look at the Kaepernick ad as a shot in the arm to promoting civil rights. What sacrifice did Kaep make (his professional career) to ensure that police brutality ends amongst minorities?

But what about issues we may not agree with? What about gun control? Would it be that surprising to see Dana Loesch in a pair of Under Armour outdoor boots touting her 2nd amendment rights?

Or the Brave’s Daniel Murphy touting chicken biscuit sandwiches for Chick-fil-A under a strong caption disagreeing with LGBT lifestyles?

Nike opened the door for brands to pick sides on personal and political issues where for the most part, they’ve remained objective and silent. I’m not sure this is a good or bad thing. I’m still synthesizing.


I’m back!!!

I (now) shamelessly admit that my lack of blogging had to do with losing access to my account after a phone number change and subsequently locking myself out of my WordPress account.

Thankfully I was able to regain access after a few desperate cries of attention directed towards the WP support team. Expect to see a bit more frequency from me on the blog friends as we head into 2018!

The Curious Case of the Unicorn Frappucino and Its Branding Implications


There’s been a great disturbance in the Force.

We all know by now that on April 19th, Starbucks introduced their “limited edition” Unicorn Frappucino – a concoction of technicolor waves of blues, pinks, and purples so off-brand, you’d think it was brought to you by Ben & Jerry’s.

Screenshot 2017-04-23 14.55.55.png

The UniFrap has been despised by the likes of Anthony Bourdain, who referred to it as the ‘perfect nexus of awfulness’, to baristas themselves leading to reports of skipping work to online rants that have since gone as viral all in protest of making the tart tie-dyed thirst quencher.

But not so fast my pony potion peddlers! Peeling back the onion (or in this case, the sour mango), what exactly was Starbucks’ Modus Operandi? Many believe they wanted to roll a drink out that would break the social web. Search #unicornfrappuccino on Instagram and you’ll be met with more than 100,000 images – 142,032 to be exact. And those are just the photos that have been hashtagged. If attention was a KPI, they certainly exceeded their objectives.

Or maybe it was a combination of building brand awareness ahead of their earnings reports at the end of April sprinkled with “We will create it because we can” defiance. A shot across the bow at their fiercest competitors, Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s is a great reminder to Wall Street that there’s an entire category of frozen non-coffee concoctions to help expand their customer base and gain further market share. Competitively speaking, McDonald’s has been pivoting its marketing message, according to Julia Hawley of Investopedia, “New commercials and advertisements rolling out in the coming year will fall in line with Dunkin’ Donuts’ approach, pushing McDonald’s as a brand for the common American with emphasis placed on embracing people of every educational and cultural background.”

Demographic ubiquity in the form of a tye-died drink? I can see it. In any scenario, there is one thing I’m left perplexed with, and no I’m not done blogging about it.

What has Starbucks become?

I’ve gone on record countless times regarding my fandom for Scott Bedbury. As the former CMO of Starbucks, and the author of the marketing book “A New Brand World“, Bedbury left a profound impact on my outlook on branding as he detailed the arduous decisions inside Starbucks to open new paths of distribution during a joint venture with Pepsi to create the Frappucino for grocery retail.  The same scrutiny was outlined during a passage in the book related to whether or not Starbucks should serve coffee on United airlines flights.

I tweeted to Scott hoping to pull him into the discussion on the topic of the Unicorn Frappuccino, but to no avail. However a silver lining did manifest in the form of due diligence for this post. By re-reading portions of A New Brand World, and doing a lot of research, I’ve come to the following conclusion:

Starbucks’ brand mantra is “rewarding everyday moments”. This gives them the flexibility of defining themselves beyond coffee by focusing on enhancing the customer’s life. Howard Schultz once said, “Starbucks is the quintessential experience brand and the experience comes to life by our people. The only competitive advantage we have is the relationship we have with our people and the relationship they have built with our customers.”

Nowhere in that statement does he mention coffee, and when asked why not, he replied, “We’re not in the coffee business. It’s what we sell as a product but we’re in the people business—hiring hundreds of employees a week, serving sixty million customers a week, it’s all human connection,” Schultz responded.

So there you have it. The customer experience IS the product. Whether it’s coffee, rainbow colored fraps, or Wi-Fi, these are the mechanisms to enhance the experience. People, HIS people, are the catalysts who steward the experience for their customers. That’s the pink, blue and purpled sticky point that will continue to gnaw at me. His people, baristas from around the country, emotionally reacted to the crazy frap trend. The trends around Unicorn Frappucinos will not go away, even if the Unicorn frap does. There will be others. The question is, will Starbucks consider the very people who help deliver the positive customer experiences they crave the next time a trend like this comes around?

I hope so.

The Burger Wars Spill Over to Search


A few days ago the Internet was in an uproar over Burger King’s latest digital campaign, one that featured a BK employee lamenting on how he doesn’t have enough time in a 15 second ad to aptly describe the Whopper, so he results to hijacking Google connected device owners by announcing “Okay Google…what is a Whopper burger?”

Smooth Burger King. Real smooth.

If you did have Google Home installed and you had your speakers up, you would have been redirected to BK’s Wikipedia page, where Burger King edited the Wiki page with oodles of marketing speak in describing the Whopper.

But the Interweb can be an unforgiving place.

Because it can, the Whopper definition had been changed by vengeful Wiki users to insert “cyanide” as an ingredient in one version. Another user later changed the definition to say the Whopper is “the worst hamburger product” sold by the chain.

As of the time of this published, the BK spot has 25,831 likes and 31,559 dislikes.

A  Golden Campaign

In contrast, McDonald’s took a much less invasive approach to leveraging search as a central part of their most recent campaign. Touting their relationship with Coca-Cola, celebrity spokeswoman Mindy Kaling, in Golden Arch’s yellow dress on a red backdrop,   asks her audience to perform a Google search for “that place where Coca-Cola tastes so good”.

Less than 10 days removed from Pepsi pulling their Kardashian commercial, Coca-Cola has to be giddy with the timing of this latest ad. Related search terms to the McDonald’s Coca-Cola ad seem to confirm their excitement. Reviewing Google trends, it’s evident that Micky D’s and Coke are rising in interest:

Screenshot 2017-04-16 23.13.21

Two Approaches: Who’s Right?

In both scenarios, the two titans of the fast food industry could tout their successes through their search-related digital marketing campaigns. As a brand marketer, I happen to skew towards the McDonald’s ad for one simple reason: relevance.

Disruption, as displayed in the BK commercial, can trigger an uncontrollable response by the audience they’re marketing to which leads to questions related to just how relevant their ad was with their consumers. Journalist Ruairí Kavanagh sums it up succinctly:

The meaning of real disruption is seen when a brand proposes a solution that addresses a huge gap between people’s needs and what is currently available. The key for any brand is maintain relevance, so that your brand is not contributing to this misalignment.

If I could peek into the client input brief, I’m guessing the word “disrupt” was used in one form or another. The result of the campaign, however, was less about disrupt as it was to distract.

Conversely, McDonald’s smartly and pervasively integrated their brand into boosting SEO around one of their strongest corporate partners while still touting their $1.00/any size promotion.

I spoke to Ryan Jones, a friend, an authority on SEO and former colleague of mine related to the two campaigns for his thoughts. “Regarding McDonald’s, on one hand, telling somebody to Google something is more likely to get a response than telling them to go to a website,” he said. “It probably helps with both validation and recall too.”

Why I’m All-In on Social Music App Smule

Photo Jul 06, 12 09 25 AM

It’s amazing what a good song can do to connect people and bring their worlds closer together. Think about the legacy Coca-Cola created and where it would be today without their iconic “Hilltop” ad? Or the music that defined Apple marketing over the last decade and a half? Hell, a day doesn’t go by when I don’t hear a certain Seger song and think about my employer.

But beyond brand taglines, a good song can change everything from moods to cultures.

If you’re in a bar and a certain song comes on and the vibe is just different, it evokes the kinds of things that you want to feel, and if music can do that it’s a very special thing.
– Julian Casablancas

Over the last 3 months I’ve fallen in love with performing music again, and  Smule has helped enable it. Founded in 2008, they’ve used the nearly $90 million dollars raised through seven rounds of investment to create a number of music-related applications like Sing! Karaoke, Magic Piano, Guitar!, and AutoRap.

It’s estimated that they have over 200 million users and 35 million engaged content creators from around the world. Consistently ranked in the top 5 best apps in its genre, Smule has created a social network powerhouse all on its own. Built around the concept of singing duets with complete strangers, on any given day I may sing a song with someone in Australia, Indonesia, Brazil and Canada.

What I find the most fascinating though is how Smule has incorporated mainstream artists organically, with huge engagement numbers to back up their platform as a vehicle to launch new songs.  Want to sing Grace’s new single “You Don’t Own Me”? Or NE-YO’s “Let Me Love You”?  JessieJ’s song “Flashlight” has been listened to nearly 8 million times through the app, with thousands of duet performances. While the duets are asynchronous, there’s an authenticity in the Smule community’s reactions to singing with artists that suspends belief and makes you think for a fleeting moment that “OMG…Mary Sue is singing with Luke Bryan!!!”

What’s next? I don’t know. I’ve gone on record saying that I truly believe they have the opportunity to become the next YouTube. Partnerships with mainstream music-based television shows such as X-Factor and The Voice are natural extensions. Singing Selfies? Yes, they’re a thing. True brand integrations? Why couldn’t Hilltop be recreated through Smule?

The first seven years of Smule’s existence, they’ve been under the radar, despite extremely high user engagement. I think the next seven will prove just how powerful the intersection of mobile, music and social media can become.

In the meantime, if you’d like to connect on Smule, you can find me here.

I’ve always felt that the quality of the voice is where the real content of a song lies. Words only suggest an experience, but the voice is that experience.  – Jeff Buckley



Madonna, Snapchat and the Art of Discovery

This is probably more of a thought than a post but two things struck me over Madonna’s release of her latest video on Snapchat:

    1. Good for her. The stigma of Snapchat being an app of unsavory content and mischief is old and tiresome. They have a userbase that exceeds 100 million with 1 in 5 U.S. social media users using it and 71% of all users being under the age of 25.
    1. Pioneering the Discover feature on Snapchat means some growing pains but could ultimately pay off. The assumption is Madonna released the video to stay relevant with Snapchat’s demographic. I think the strategy was more complex than that.

According to  a Consumer Trends survey by the Recording Industry Association of America, the 45+ age group is actually the largest music buying demographic. Madonna using the medium means reaching a new audience of 20 somethings while bringing a new demographic to Snapchat with Gen X. If she extends her relationship with the social network, using features such as My Story, Madonna could give unprecedented real-time access into her life, her tour, and her music all the while keeping this new demographic of Snapchat users engaged as she reintroduces herself and her relevance to new fans.

So when you combine those two stats, you kind of get tweets like this:

The learning curve for Snapchat isn’t easy, however, the value proposition delivered in the case of a brand (In this instance Madonna) releasing exclusive content through Discovery is compelling. Discovery’s UX is very simple and straight forward, and the experience feels both real-time and exclusive. PSFK has a great overview of the feature that I recommend checking out.

Gary Vaynerrchuck made the comment on a LinkedIn post that Snapchat is a media company now. I don’t think they’ve ever pretended to be anything other than that however. They just evolved. People are media just as media is media. On a platform that can scale content from 1 to 1 to 1 to many, Snapchat is proving that evolution doesn’t need to take place over a millennium.

Echo: The Right Product, Five Years Too Early…I Mean Late…I Mean Early

Hello? Hello? Hello?
Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone at home?

It can’t be easy being Jeff Bezos. Yes I know it’s difficult to sympathize with the CEO of, directly or indirectly employing 100,000 people, and billions of dollars in revenues, while ranking as one of the world’s most popular online retail destinations. But in today’s consumer electronic driven society, the need to guarantee perfection through the launch of CE products can undermine an entire company’s product strategy. While Amazon’s Fire Line of tablets provided much more compelling competition to the iPad than the MS Surface, the Fire Phone was an abysmal failure. As hundreds of millions of dollars are being poured into research and development, Amazon the hardware brand struggles to gain not only relevance, but recognition as a consistent, serious competitor to Apple and Google.

Take the recent introduction of Amazon Echo. Leveraging natural language processing in a similar fashion to Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Now, Echo takes the personal assistant out of the phone and into a cylindrical device for the home. Using voice recognition, there is no button to push, no hands to wave, just a simple acknowledgement of it with the waking word “Alexa”.

Alexa is Bluetooth enabled can answer a number of questions and commands:

  • News, Weather and Information
  • Music
  • Alarms, Timers and Lists
  • Questions & Answers via Wikipedia
  • Other updates via the cloud

Launched last week, Echo’s value proposition fell kind of…flat. In comparison to Apple’s organic, live events where design takes the forefront and a spectacle is created through the adoration of their fanatics (I’m one of them), Amazon non-nonchalantly used to surprise the world with a poorly received product video for a service/device nobody has asked for…yet.

On the surface, it seems Amazon rolls products out in what Dustin Curtis accurately describes as a (pun intended) echo chamber:

With, it can heavily and successfully promote and sell its products, giving it false indicators of success. It’s an echo chamber. They make a product, they market the product on, they sell the product to customers, they get a false sense of success, the customer puts the product in a drawer and never uses it, and then Amazon moves on to the next product.”

But in the case of the Echo, did Amazon really miss the boat?

Short answer is yes. Absolutely did. They invented a product nobody asked for that solved absolutely nothing one couldn’t through their smart device. The question becomes, when did they begin the product cycle and why did they make it?

I’m  no Amazon insider, but while a few ideas popped into my head, I kept coming back to the Internet of Things. It’s nice that Echo can dictate shopping lists, but wouldn’t it be nicer if Echo connected with your smart fridge to determine what ingredients you may be missing? And wouldn’t it be nicer if Echo synced your recipe you’re making with not only your lack of ingredients based on a scan of what’s in your refrigerator, but with Amazon Fresh for grocery delivery?

What about when listening to the latest and greatest album from your favorite musical artist? Echo recognizes frequency of play and uses the cloud to determine when that artist will be performing in your area. Using the cloud, it can fulfill tickets digitally to your smart device or laptop/pc.

I’ll go one fictional scenario further. What if Echo was incorporated into your vehicle like Ford SYNC, Chevy MyLink and Chrysler’s UConnect are today. Echo could geolocate your whereabouts, determine your proximity to your home and preheat your oven, turn on your lights, set your temperature and welcome with your favorite song.

Whether you sit on the fence of this being utopian or dystopian depending on your appetite for technology, the future could be brighter as long as Amazon is committed to an agile plan towards perfecting their product and understanding what consumers want out of the technology they build. While they can be mocked for selling products in a petri dish of customers who never wander farther than their patented 1-click service Amazon provides, Amazon could truly create the connected tissue of the web. As long as they stay committed and break out of the echo chamber.

Do Your Kids Want To Learn How To Code?

This is a notice for Metro Detroit.

In the past I’ve spoken at length on the topic of Social Purpose. This program we’ve undertaken follows suit.

Our SapientNitro Detroit office is launching a new community service initiative on Saturday, called RhinoCoders! Staff in the office will be offering FREE coding classes to kids in the community.

Learn more about RhinoCoders here:

WHAT: FREE coding courses that run in a ’series’ (3-4 classes each). Each series will consist of all the important and necessary language topics need to learn how to code (html, css, js etc.). Students will be provided a PC to work on in the class and be given a branded ‘Rhino Coders’ T-shirt when complete.
WHO: Youth 7-17. There is room for a max of 22 students per class.
WHEN: Starting the 27th, every Saturday morning from 9:30-11:30am. Swap cartoons for coding!
WHERE: SapientNitro Detroit office – 135 N Old Woodward Ave, Birmingham, MI

How Tommey Walker Turned Detroit Into A Movement

I’ve referred to Detroiters as masochists. We’ve seen our industries collapse bankrupting our city in the process, with widespread corruption inside our local government to boot. We’ve been a national punchline for Congressmen and comedians alike. Yet there’s a certain je ne sais quioi in terms of Detroit’s public image and designer turned entrepreneur Tommey Walker perspicaciously capitalized on the very undefinable elements that make his label DETROIT VS EVERYBODY one of the hottest national global clothing brands of the year.

So as marketers, what can we learn from Tommey Walker? Well for one, he created a movement that every company, from clothing goods to electronics and automobiles should be envious of. While putting on my best Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point hat, I’ll attempt to explain how celebrities from Ricky Ross to Stephen Colbert to Keith Urban brought national attention to a fledgling clothing company with a small storefront in the heart of Detroit.

The Three Laws For Creating a Tipping Point-Like Movement

Law 1. Invoke Intimacy Through The Law of the Few

When Walker decided to open a storefront in Greektown, a historic commercial and entertainment district in Detroit, he did so in a small space on the third floor of a mixed retail/commercial building. His actual location was nondescript in every sense of the way, where if patrons weren’t huddled in to find a shirt in their size, you’d probably think you were in the wrong location. The message on his apparel was so powerful, and resonated with so many Detroiters, that it created the equivalence of a hipster scavenger hunt. You weren’t going to find DETROIT VS. EVERYBODY hoodies in your suburban Urban Outfitters store.  No, you had to work to be a part of this inclusive movement. His customers didn’t mind however, and considered it a right of passage to joining the cause Tommey Walker had created.

Gladwell refers to this as “The Law of the Few”.’s Ashley Crossman explains that “Gladwell argues that the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts. This is the Law of the Few.”

The three types of people who fit this description? They’re referred to as Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen.

  • Mavens are individuals who spread influence by sharing their knowledge with friends and family. Their adoption of ideas and products are respected by peers as informed decisions and so those peers are highly likely to listen and adopt the same opinions.
  • Connectors know a lot of people. They gain their influence not through expertise, but by their position as highly connected to various social networks. These are popular individuals whom people cluster around and have a viral capacity to showcase and advocate new ideas, products, etc.
  • Salesmen are individuals who naturally possess the power of persuasion. They are naturally charismatic and their enthusiasm rubs off on those around them.

Mavens include Detroit Free Press editor Stephen Henderson, who joined Colbert on the air to defend Detroit, presenting him with mainstream America’s first look at a DETROIT VS. EVERYBODY hoodie to open their conversation. Walker has been quoted on record saying the hoodie on Colbert was a watershed moment for the brand, increasing sales significantly online thereafter.

Connectors include rappers Eminem and Big Sean who took the clothing label and brought it to the forefront of society’s conscience in their own unique way, including limited edition SHADY VS. EVERYBODY apparel.

Salesmen include the DJ’s, musicians, athletes, and local celebrities who turned a t-shirt slogan into a rallying cry.

Law 2. The Stickiness Factor

Gladwell refers to the stickiness factor as a unique quality that causes the phenomenon to “stick” in the minds of the public and influence their behavior. Taking the concept of the stickiness factor further, Dan and Chip Heath wrote an entire book on the concept called Made to Stick. In the book, the Heath brothers create an acronym that best defines how one creates a sticky idea:

  • Simple — find the core of any idea
  • Unexpected — grab people’s attention by surprising them
  • Concrete — make sure an idea can be grasped and remembered later
  • Credible — give an idea believability
  • Emotional — help people see the importance of an idea
  • Stories — empower people to use an idea through narrative

It goes without saying that Tommey Walker’s clothing label successfully indexes high on the stickiness factor.

Law 3. The Power Of Context

In previous interviews Walker mentioned that in his travels, he personally observed a lack of respect for Detroit. At one point in his life, he helped define Detroit rapper and fellow Cass Tech high school alumni Big Sean’s fashion style, only to see other musicians copy him without paying homage. The perpetual feeling of Detroit constantly having its back against the wall was easy to manifest into a mission statement. If I were to take a stab at it, I’d probably go with something like this:

By creating a brand that reinforces the spirit of Detroit: an attitude that conveys feelings of accomplishment, regardless of the objects that stand in the way of achieving one’s goals.

Gladwell refers to The Power of Context as the environment or historical moment in which the trend is introduced. If the context is not right, it is not likely that the tipping point will take place. When taking the bankruptcy, the political upheaval, the nation’s disparaging comments about the city and its people, there may have been no better time to turn a statement based on defiance into a national rallying cry.

What’s Next?

It’s a million dollar question. Walker’s sales continue to grow stronger, with recent expansions outside of his Greektown store, into the posh suburbs of Detroit. Tommey Walker is the type of entrepreneur Detroit rallies around. He has created a tipping point with DETROIT VS. EVERYBODY, developing a social purpose through The Power of Context, creating a social movement grounded in The Law of the Few, and embraced social outcomes through The Stickiness Factor of his messaging. It’s my opinion Walker is here to stay, and I can’t wait to see what he thinks of next.

In the meantime, you can count me in to represent my city:

Detroit Vs. Everybody

Saving Sears: How to Reclaim America’s Love Affair With An Iconic Retailer


Imagine a world where Steve Jobs announced the first iteration of the iPod and never evolved the product any further.

Imagine if Amazon stopped innovating after 1-click ordering.

Imagine Nike capping its success with the Air Jordan line of sneakers and never produced another line beyond the originals.

As preposterous as these examples sound, this is the conundrum facing some of the largest retailers in the world today. Somewhere in the planning process they closed their eyes, resulting in consumer indifference and a correlated sharp decline in revenue. Can these big box retailers be rescued or is the evolution of shopping forcing them to extinction?

Paradise Lost in a Parking Lot

There may not be a brand in graver danger today than Sears.  Yesterday, they announced they were closing their flagship Chicago location in April.  A multitude of experts – from marketers to financial analysts have opined on the 120-year-old brand’s woes. From the shuttering of stores to being cited for urban blight, Sears didn’t move with enough agility when marketing trends shifted and they’re paying for it, literally. According to Mamta Badkar of Business Insider, for the full year ending February 1, 2014, Sears managements expects a net loss between $1.3 billion and $1.4 billion.

It’s gotten so bad that independent retail analyst Brian Sozzi all but closed the doors on the brand when he published a recent article that Sears exerts an extremely low retail capital expenditure of 0.9% (In contrast to Macy’s ratio of 3.4% in 2012.), complete with empty store shelves, randomly placed sales items without context, and mannequins wearing drab outfits that seemed to convey a feeling of submission to good fashion.

Sozzi’s drive to paint a dreadfully bland picture of the retailer may have stemmed from the company disputing his 2011 proclamation that,  “There’s no reason to go to Sears. It offers a depressing shopping experience and uncompetitive prices.”

Sadly, Brian Sozzi is right.

Despite the company taking exception to finger pointing, offering a rebuttal that included listing assets such as inventory, real estate and “valuable proprietary brands such as Kenmore and Craftsman”, consumers have failed to connect with a brand that once proclaimed that it “serves as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living.”

As Sozzi points out through editorial and photographs, a brand can be quickly undermined with a series of negative occurrences.

Substantiating this point, Scott Deming explores the concept of defining a brand n his book “The Brand Who Cried Wolf” through aggregated experiences – the collected impressions of a number of experiences. One bad experience can do more damage than a series of good ones. As Deming explains “After all, our ability to survive is connected not just to learning over time what’s good for us, but more important, to learn very quickly what to avoid.”

Despite a mountain of negativity, the retailer is attempting to reverse the shopper Diaspora with a creative way of both poking fun of itself while hoping to entice shoppers to once more give Sears a chance through an ad that made light of the ample parking available in the empty lots that surround their stores.  The ad is memorable but quite possibly for all the wrong reasons.  Highlighting the Kardashians line of fashion, one has to ask, is their declining star power a contributing factor for the lack of shopper’s attention? Their merchandise isn’t moving, leading to steep price cuts and further placing the brand out-of-touch with today’s shoppers. Why dress like Kim when you can wear Peter Pilotto and Christopher De Vos via Target’s collection?

I’m not exclusive to opining on the topic of Sears. As marketer Valeria Maltoni references in her blog post on the topic, when prompted with the question would you miss Sears? I can only assume most would shrug their shoulders and move on to the next retailer.

But it shouldn’t be this way.

A History of Greatness

To the surprise of a generation of shoppers, Sears was great once. Renowned for recording the changing scene in America through its catalogs, Sears was a pioneer upon its inception. Scoff if you like, but there would be no Jeff Bezos if not for Sears. Amazon may have caused a stir by delivering a Nissan recently, but the concept of buying anything through a catalog including automobiles started with Sears, Roebuck and Company. Between 1908 – 1912, Lincoln provided vehicles under the name “Sears Motor Buggy” for delivery via railroad. And in 1953, Sears offered a badge engineered Kaiser – Frazer sedan called the Allstate to its customers.

Sadly, that spirit of the entrepreneur has long been forgotten, replaced by an expectation that relevancy be based on their long historical relationship with consumers. However, the competitive nature of today’s retail environment casts a perception of lumbering old brick and mortar where nimble, insight driven online savvy shopping sites can flank anchor stores through hyper-aggressive pricing, instant rewards, and social shopping experiences.

In order for Sears to have a fighting chance at survival, they must think differently.

Reinvention or Reclamation?

CEO Edward Lampert has nothing to lose. With shareholders and media/analysts targeting his company’s demise, it’s time to take a radically new approach and part ways from decades past.  I’m a firm believer that the best ideas come out of the most desperate of times and Sears should challenge the very conventions of the shopper experience today.

My goal is to extrapolate the great ideas I’ve discovered during my due diligence on the topic of saving this once iconic brand.

Introduce a Culture Shift

I’ve admittedly never worked for Sears so I can’t comment on direct experiences as an employee of the company. I can however use social networks such as Glass Door to gain insights into the mindsets of those who have. Currently based on input from Sears employees, both current and former, Edward Lampert has an approval rating of 17% with just 31% of Sears employees willing to recommend Sears to a friend.

Conversely, Macy’s CEO Terry J. Lundgren has a 65% approval rating on Glass Door. Target’s CEO Gregg W. Steinhafel? A 72% approval rating.

Thomson Dawson pointed out in his piece on the retailer that “Retail knowledge is not the core problem for Sears – it’s the investment banker management culture that has over time sucked the value out of these brands. Profit has been placed above serving people with experiences they care about.”

This may sound familiar. In the early 2000’s, Six Sigma CEO practitioner Bob Nardelli led Home Depot down the long road to eliminate the company’s most valuable capital: its orange-apron employees. Empty aisles, deplete of passionate subject matter experts removed the one variable that drove Home Depot’s revenues for so long: trust. Trust equaled revenue and it was an unaccounted for, unpredictable asset that was quickly replenished once Frank Blake took the company over.

As Business Insider’s Paula Rosenblum explains in her article Home Depot’s Resurrection: How One Retailer Made Its Own Home Improvements, the home improvement retailer used the recession to retool its business, paying close attention to economic trends – targeting women more frequently verses contractors of past, and understanding the projects that most home owners were undertaking during hard economic times. Most importantly, they put a focus on helping people, going so far as sales associates assisting a customer through the purchase process all the way to the cash register. Is it laborious? Yes. Does it impact positive brand affinity? Absolutely so!

It’s been noted that the parts may be more valuable than the whole at Sears. Brands such as Kenmore Appliances, Craftsman tools, and Lands End apparel have stronger brand equity in the eyes of consumers than the parent company.  Sears needs to consider this a significant competitive advantage and reinvent itself through those three core brands. Focus efforts on areas of strength and diligently work to converting brand apologists into brand advocates. While it’s difficult to change the mentality of a part-time, sometimes transient workforce, the example to serve customers should be embraced top-down.

Take Craftsman tools as an example. With a reputation for being some of the best in the industry, Sears should take a page out of Home Depot’s playbook and offer how-to instructionals on the weekends. Consumers are keeping their cars an average of 11 years, and as such, are starting to find ways to keep their cars on the road while undertaking basic automotive maintenance work in their own garages. Sears has the opportunity to sell product (Craftsman tools), service (Sears Auto Center) and advocacy (Sears taught me how to change my oil).  Lowes and Home Depot haven’t infiltrated the automotive space yet. Sears still owns it and can continue to own it by making subtle shifts in their approach while putting their product, people and presence in the community front and center.

To reiterate, service is the differentiator – just look at Nordstroms, Zappos or Starbucks. In fact, preserving a culture meant so much to Starbucks that when Howard Schultz returned as CEO, he shut all of his stores down for three days to retrain his baristas and thus, through his employees, convey his commitment to the quality and consistency Starbucks built its reputation on.

I should walk into a Sears and be met consistently with the most knowledgeable, passionate experts in each respective department. That tone is set at the top but executed flawlessly at a local level.

Let Data Be Your Guide

It’s no secret Sears is transitioning from physical stores to online retail. That shouldn’t deter the brand from leveraging its stores in ways online-exclusive competitors can’t.

British design firm FITCH has gone through a reinvention of sorts itself over the last few years to adjust for what they refer to as a SPLINTERED customer purchase journey. By dividing the consumer experience into three areas: Locating, Exploring and Dreaming, they have identified a way to unify the customer experience.

This means assuring that marketing, retail and real estate teams work collectively rather than in isolation, or worse still, in competition with each other.

For example, I think we’d all be in agreement that today’s consumer is ‘always on’. The discovery of a new outfit no longer takes place in-store. In fact it may not transpire on a PC or laptop. It’s more likely to take place on a mobile device. In a cohesive SEAMLESS experience, a customer may begin their journey browsing their favorite fashion blog on their iPhone while on a commute. Through contextually placed content, Sears uses relevant cues (geographical, cultural, emotional, etc.) to entice our customer to click on a promotion for a new outfit. Based on geotargeting, we discover the outfit is on sale and in stock at a local location, which is five minutes and one bus stop away. Our customer is presented with an option of placing the outfit on hold and as an added incentive, is provided an offer for a percentage off if purchased within the hour.

Entering our local Sears, our customer sees a radically different yet intuitive layout in a store with a much smaller footprint. As they enter, iBeacon recognizes our shopper using  micro-location context, welcoming and informing them as to where in-store they can pick up their outfit. Unbeknownst to our customer, she discovers an up-and-coming local designer designed the outfit with roots in their hometown. The sterile mannequins Brian Sozzi shot photos of have been replaced with brand based installations that offer to share the story of our designer and the impetus behind their collection. There’s even a barcode scan option to share the video with friends.  All of this is designed to establish a direct relationship with the customer.

Prior to purchase, our sales associate is informed of our customer’s check-in and is prepared to offer accessories that compliment the outfit through an e-commerce suggestion engine such as Aggregate Knowledge, which compiles aggregate consumer data to analyze consumer e-commerce purchases.

Post-purchase, Sears social media CSR’s monitor for positive posts on popular social networks, prepared to share with the broader Sears online community. As a thank you for posting a photo of the outfit on Instagram tagged #SearsFashion, our customer receives a bogo coupon for their next purchase.

Believe it or not, this is not a pie in the sky approach. Marketing and advertising executives have been chiming in on the flat retail experience, voicing for a change in thinking. Lee Carpenter, CEO of Interbrand North America was quoted as saying, ”E-commerce brands use data to create a one-on-one relationship with shoppers that can scale through technology. This model must translate to physical stores, and blend together into an omnichannel experience with the brand as the consistent thread.”

It’s no longer about online verses offline shopping, it’s just shopping and Sears should be at the forefront of this amalgamation.

Conclusion – Be More Like Lewis & Clark

Large anchor stores like Sears are not and should not go extinct, but the business model that sustained them is out-dated. Today’s retail customer wants to be stimulated. They need retailers to offer them the breadcrumbs necessary to spark constant reinvention. Macy’s would call this “Magic”, Lowe’s would call it “Never Stop Improving”.  Sears needs to reach deep down and decide how it wants to communicate its values to its customers. This should be a time of rebirth for Sears and that means a deep dive into exploration – new consumer targeting models, new store layouts, new ways of achieving customer satisfaction. It’s never easy to evolve, and in the past Sears has opted to buy verses build, first attempting to acquire Home Depot in the early 1980’s and most recently an attempt to purchase Restoration Hardware in 2007.

After decades of remaining stagnant, we’re now at a cross section of DIY culture meets Americana. It should be cool to shop at Sears. They just have to give us a reason to do so.