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Consistency Works for Brands—Not So Much for Retailers



Breaking the rules: That’s how many branding experts viewed Barnes & Noble‘s new, idiosyncratic approach to its store designs as it mounts a comeback and tries to fend off the likes of Amazon. “Unpredictable and dynamic” is how CEO James Daunt described the new approach in The New York Times; experimentation encourages different shopping experiences as each location strives to reflect its community. 

Can, or should, this strategy be applied to consumer packaged goods competing for shelf space and mindshare? To answer this, we need to analyze the very nature of how consumers shop CPG.

Consistency is the lifeblood of CPG brands, ensuring instant recognition and trust by creating a “billboard effect” on shelves. The uniformity of logos, iconography, typography, color and product differentiation allows consumers to instantly recognize the brand in any retail setting.

Take Motrin, for example, which has “owned” the color orange in the pain relief aisle and incorporates a clock design on its children’s offering to signify the product’s long-lasting effectiveness. Such visual mnemonics are vital for standing out in a crowded marketplace. 

Distinctive packaging can also be helpful in catching the eye and make a product memorable. Coca-Cola’s classic bottle contours and red-and-white color scheme are instantly recognized around the world, and the Tiffany Blue Box has become an iconic symbol of the brand as well as for luxury in general. The unique cylindrical Pringles can has become its distinctive feature, and Listerine’s barbell shape reinforces the equity of the 142-year-old brand and, at the same time, leverages ergonomic styling.

The key lies in maintaining a consistent visual identity that resonates with the brand’s core message and values, enabling quick customer recognition and fostering brand loyalty. 

In contrast to the consistency imperative of CPG brands, brick-and-mortar retail stores thrive on sensory experiences. These stores can’t rely solely on visual appeal; they must engage customers through scent, texture, lighting and music. Barnes & Noble’s strategy of individualizing stores is a prime example. This approach creates an immersive experience, encouraging customers to spend more time in-store and fostering a sense of community.

Ace Hardware also exemplifies this with its friendly, small-town atmosphere. Customers are greeted upon entry, and the store layout often includes surprising elements like co-branding displays that enhance the shopping experience. Even the online presence is designed to be simple and rewarding, reflecting the in-store ethos. 

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