Breaking through in the digital age: How retailers are standing out through powerful storytelling - Retail Council of Canada
Canadian Retailer Magazine | Digital Retail & Technology

Breaking through in the digital age: How retailers are standing out through powerful storytelling

February 17, 2018
Breaking through in the digital age: How retailers are standing out through powerful storytelling

How businesses are standing out from the rest through powerful storytelling


FOR retailers large and small that are competing with behemoths like Amazon as well as niche and specialty competitors, the mission of differentiating themselves from the pack is no easy task. Traditional value propositions like the lowest price, the widest selection or the best service no longer cut it. So, how do brands operating in this evolving digital age break through and win share?

Canadian Retailer sits down with Howard Chang, President and CEO of Top Drawer Creative, a top retail ad agency, to discuss this challenge, and the ways any retailer can elevate their brand and grow their appeal with customers through authentic and purposeful marketing

Canadian Retailer: Considering the hyper-competitive nature of retail, many brands continue to find it extremely challenging differentiating themselves from others within their space. How can merchants, particularly those that are mid-sized, stand out from the crowd in a meaningful way?

Howard Chang: The best retailers are differentiating themselves (and winning share) by focusing on their brand through great storytelling and engaging narrative. They’re doing it by defining their purpose to build an emotional connection with their customers, crafting a truly unique proposition. Numerous surveys and studies have recently been conducted by the likes of Deloitte and PwC, to name a few, showing that over 80 per cent of Millennials are interested in knowing the values of the companies they work for. That also translates to the way they perceive brands. This demographic now accounts for more than 40 per cent of consumers. And they aren’t alone in this thinking. Boomers are also looking at brands through the lens of what they stand for. In this very transparent age of social media, we can all lift the curtain and see what, if anything, a particular brand stands for. Are they only committed to profit? Or are they committed to their stakeholders, including their vendors, supply chain, staff and customers? How are they creating value for their stakeholders? And why we, as consumers, should care? It’s really about building a business around an authentic and purposeful narrative that transcends banalities like price. If you build a brand promise that has a high level of clarity on why you matter, you’re going to build your business. Just look to brands like Patagonia or Trader Joes.

CR: How does an emotional connection created through brand storytelling help drive business?

HC: There was another recent study released by OgilvyAction that focused on purchase decisions made by shoppers in-store, and it found that more than 70 per cent of reasons shoppers buy are based on emotion. So, emotion is a huge piece. Many brands miss that. They want to explain the benefits, which is very logic based. Everything’s described as faster, cheaper, easier. But they aren’t building a meaningful emotional connection. Everlane, a niche online clothing retailer, is a great example of a company that is getting this right. It provides a great quality product to its customers at a competitive price but has built its business on a three-times profit model as opposed to the five or ten-times profit model others tend to use. They make less margin on the product, allowing them to pay their workers more. They’ve shaped their business around this message of purpose that they’re fair to their suppliers and that they pay them a living wage. It’s transparent, and is made very clear on their website and on social media. Their customers know what they stand for, and they show their support through purchases.

CR: How do businesses go about creating a memorable brand story?

HC: Great story telling isn’t rocket science, but it’s not easy. There’s methodology, and it starts with asking the right questions to understand who your customer is and what their life is like. At Top Drawer Creative, we use a model that we call a ‘Hero’s Journey’ which involves storytelling methodology, developed by famed American mythologist Joseph Campbell, that’s based on looking at the structure used by thousands of stories that have been told throughout time and across cultures. The most memorable stories always include a hero/heroine, a challenge that the hero/ heroine must undergo, and a mentor to guide our hero through their journey. In the retail environment, the hero/heroine is the customer and the mentor is the retail brand. The mentor has to be able to understand the hero and their challenges well enough to be able to spur them along in their journey. To do this, our agency pull together multiple stakeholders within the business—marketing, sales, operations—and spend a day workshopping through a SWOT, the “why” they’re in business, the hero’s journey and their brand positioning. From there we build what we call the brand position architecture—essentially a blueprint for the brand. From here the fun part begins, building the creative based on the narrative structure with copy, design, video, POP, digital assets, etc. This new narrative (or story) informs the in-store, online and marketing experiences.


Top Drawer Creative

CR: Given today’s omnichannel world, how does a retailer optimize and leverage all of the available channels to tell their brand story?

HC: Once you’ve built the narrative, you can then start parsing it out into different elements that can be placed into different channels, and optimize them for when and where consumers spend their attention. It’s no longer enough to be omnichannel. Brands require a deeper understanding of their consumer segments (hero personas) in order to ensure their story is omnipresent with their audience. There’s a disciplined strategy that we call I.C.E. (Immersive Consumer Engagement) that uses data and insights to build the right communications ecosystem to best leverage the brand story. And don’t be afraid to experiment and learn. The best part about storytelling in the digital world is the ability to iterate, improve and move ever closer to your target.

For more information about the ways Top Drawer Creative can help your business tell the story of your brand, email