I had a good laugh the other day from a photo posted on Twitter.
I follow a retail analyst who, like me, seems to have an ironic appreciation of poorly executed stores. The focus this time was a CVS in Scottsdale with its endless rows of garish “buy one, get one free” stickers dangling below nearly every item.
In a way, it made me think of the digital promotional strategies that I’ve seen from a few of the convenience retailers lately. Not only do the loyalty apps that I occasionally download out of curiosity haunt my mobile phone with endless, recurring push notifications about discounts, promotions and deals, but I often see the exact same strategy carried over onto social media.
I get why it happens, and I’m not knocking ubiquitous promotions as a whole — even if I think a constant, contextually irrelevant flow of push notifications are a recipe for app churn. After all, we all saw what happened to Ron Johnson at JCPenney.
But surely retailers have something else up their sleeves? Unlike JCPenney, surely there’s an identity to be had beyond just being a place to get a good deal.
At least from where I stand, I think many retailers are sitting on a goldmine of nostalgia.
Many retailers have been around for decades, with some existing in their communities for nearly 100 years. They’re where our parents took us to buy snacks, where we went for late-night junk food runs in high school, and they made the pizzas for parties and family movie nights. They’ve been around us our entire lives. No matter what hour of the day or night we need something, they’re conveniently located just a few blocks away. Some retailers even produced clever and catchy jingles back in the day.
How to market nostalgia differs from one brand to the next, but I do want to share my thoughts on one particular opportunity: merchandise sales.
It’s not as simple as stocking the shelves with the type of t-shirts that you might bring to a trade show. As I’ve observed everyone from major corporations to niche YouTubers pull off successful merchandise drops, it’s clear that they often need to be marketed as a sort of event. From artist collaborations and limited-time shirts to intentionally limited qualities, it’s a chance to be quirky, unique and create a fear of missing out.
This topic was unpacked recently in an article from Marker. Titled “How Supreme Style Merch Drops Took Over Corporate America,” it’s a deep dive into how everyone from Arizona Iced Tea to McDonald’s are hitting home runs with branded merchandise. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you take a look.
In particular, this paragraph stood out:
“There’s almost nothing as powerful in the world of brand engagement and marketing as nostalgia,” says Sam Ewen, managing director of experiential marketing firm DotDotDash. “People have been drinking out of the same can pattern for over 20 years. Did you ever imagine it would end up on a sneaker one day? Merchandise can help people reimagine things they love in new ways that refer back to a better time in life.” Combine that nostalgia with a scarcity model that says there are only 10,000 of these things in the world, and a collector culture of young people keenly aware of the opportunity to flip a limited drop on the secondary market, and you can see why the sneaker collab floodgates have opened.
Someone who does this well is Uniqlo. A few years ago, I walked into one of their stores and discovered shirts from the Pokemon-themed UT GRAND PRIX 2019 design contest. After receiving more than 18,000 entries from more than 40 countries, winning fan designs were added to a line of t-shirts. I eagerly picked up a few for my wife. Not only was it fun, but I knew they wouldn’t be around much longer. They were unique and special. Besides, nostalgia sells.
But I understand why this doesn’t come naturally to some brands. Figuring out the right formula requires a willingness to color outside the lines, eschew rigid brand standards and take the kind of chances that might not happen when you design by committee our outsource to an agency that doesn’t want to rock the boat. Sometimes it even means temporarily ceding control to fans, local artists or even someone internally who isn’t usually in the driver’s seat.
A recent article about Iam Borthwick, published by Means of Creation, describes a similar dynamic with respect to influencer marketing. For anyone unfamiliar, Borthwick works with many popular YouTubers.
First, (the big brands are) the ones with the power. So, for any of these partnerships, previous marketing concepts will say “we want the influencer to do it exactly this way because that’s how we did our TV, Facebook, and Instagram ads.” And the influencer won’t want to do it, because they know it’ll lose them credibility with their audience.
But second, you have to cede control because that control actually undercuts the authenticity you’re trying to buy. You’re quite literally undercutting the whole reason you’re doing influencer marketing.
With convenience retailers, I suspect there’s a particular opportunity to collaborate with local clothing companies and artists. If it were me, I’d approach a few and solicit their ideas for t-shirts and other merchandise. Let them tap into their nostalgia about your brand, thereby creating something uniquely expressive with a style that already appeals to their existing customer base.
Perhaps I’m wrong about everything. Then again, this is really just a roundabout way of saying that I’m in the market for some overpriced hoodies with your retro logos. I hardly think I’m alone in feeling that way.