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Brand Storytelling and Retail: The Setting

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It’s been a couple of weeks, but as promised, I intend to pick up and continue developing the idea of how brands can best tell stories. If you want to read my past articles in logical order (rather than chronological), start with, Can Every Brand Tell a Story? and follow it up with Brand Storytelling and Retail: The Protagonist.

This week, I want to explore the idea of the story’s Setting. At the most tactical level, setting is the physical backdrop of a story. It’s the scenery of the scene. But setting can also be the sum of all that scenery – it can mean something much larger within the context of the whole story. It’s the difference between Setting and setting.

For example, if you’re reading a science fiction tale, you might read about some scenes set on a futuristic Earth, some on a spaceship, and some on an alien planet. Each of these locales has a setting, but they also represent what the author wants to emphasize overall – are there flying cars in this science fiction future? Robots? Do aliens move freely from one planet to another? In answering all of these questions and more, the author is making decisions about the kind of future she wants to represent – and all of those decisions about Setting need to be reflected in the settings of each scene.

Science fiction, fantasy, and historical genres of fiction all require authors to invest much more in Setting than other genres, because the reader can’t rely on simply understanding the rules of the real world to help them understand where and when the story takes place. In other words, a detective story set in the future needs to spend a lot more time on describing the setting than a detective story set in modern-day New York. In sci-fi and fantasy, this is known as “world building”. Historical fiction doesn’t focus as much on explicit world building because they are trying for historical accuracy of a time long past, but historical fiction must spend just as long on setting as these other genres because outside of a few history professors, there aren’t a lot of people who already know what it was like to live in, say, ancient Rome.

And Setting is not just background stuff. Sometimes, specific locations take on a personality of their own such that they become characters themselves. In Stephen King’s The Shining, the hotel was as much a character as any of the characters (granted, because it was possessed by its share of ghosts – and I’m talking the book here, not the movie). There are many other authors who are famous for capturing the essence of cities or towns so well that these places come alive and become characters in their own right (and not because of supernatural possession, either).

Setting is the backdrop against which characters and conflict play out, and so it is as much an integral part of the story as any other story element. A detective story set in small-town Iowa promises a completely different kind of feel than a detective story set in New York city. And the gritty noir detective who knows New York like the back of his own hand is going to have a significantly different kind of adventure if he finds himself caught up in solving a crime in small-town Iowa than he will on his home territory. So Setting and character are tightly intertwined. A character and a setting together already hint at and promise some of the conflicts that will come up in the plot.

Placing Brands in a Setting

So how does all this apply to retail and brand?

Some brands have natural settings. Tommy Bahama is an excellent example. The whole brand screams relaxed, beach living. Their stores reflect this setting in their décor. In fact, the brand so understands and embraces its setting that it has created restaurants that bring that relaxed beach setting to life by engaging all of the senses, including taste. I would argue that Tommy Bahama understands Setting very well, and does a good job of applying that understanding in its various settings.

In that sense, Setting becomes an expression of what the brand stands for. A brand that stands for “affordability”, an example I use in an earlier article, isn’t going to invest a lot in its store décor, for example. It would be very difficult to convince a shopper that the brand stands for affordability while said shopper is standing in the middle of a blinged-out fitting room. A brand that stands for environmentalism is going to want to provide a setting that embraces environmental tenets – recycling, sustainability, reusability. So their setting may feature lots of outdoor elements, enhanced by reclaimed or recycled materials.

But setting must work together with characters in order to get the brand story going. So, Tommy Bahama has a choice in main characters. The brand’s target customer is the business male who works hard and is trapped in city life, but dreams of one day owning a bar on a beach or retiring to become a beach fixture in some Caribbean town. The brand may also actually have a small percentage of customers who authentically already live the lifestyle that Tommy Bahama represents, but I’m betting that for most of the brand’s customers, that lifestyle is more aspirational than reality.

So what kind of story can the Tommy Bahama brand tell? They basically have four choices based on the intersection of character and setting. They can tell a story of their target customer in the target customer’s natural setting, their target customer in the brand’s lifestyle setting, their idyllic lifestyle customer in the target customer’s setting, or the idyllic lifestyle customer in the brand’s lifestyle setting.

Really good stories make use of the setting to enhance the conflict, so I would argue that target customer-target setting and idyllic customer-idyllic setting are pretty boring. These are “dog bites man” stories – they happen every day, and it’s far more challenging to bring something unexpected to life in these kinds of match-ups than in the other two.

That leaves target customer-lifestyle setting and lifestyle customer-target setting. Either of these work for telling the Tommy Bahama story. For example (and I am clearly not a target or idyllic TB customer, so I honestly have no idea if they’ve executed these kinds of campaigns before), the brand might play with stories where business-suited man facing a cold, snowy commute home opens up his briefcase to find rays of sunshine and a hand holding out a margarita. What does he actually pull out of the bag? A Tommy Bahama shirt.

You may argue, “Well, that’s great for Tommy Bahama. They’re a brand with a natural setting. What about a brand that doesn’t have a natural setting? What about, say, beleaguered JCPenney?”

Okay, that’s a tough one. But it’s tough not because of Setting. It’s tough because I don’t have any clue who JCP’s target customer is anymore. Setting and characters are closely intertwined. In genres like sci-fi and fantasy, setting must often come first and characters follow. But I think for most brands, character needs to come first. Who is the face of the brand? Once you know the answer to that question you can start looking for the settings that make the most sense.

I said up above that a brand focusing on affordability wouldn’t put out bling-y store décor because it flies in the face of the brand promise, but actually, I have a sad counter-example to that. The brand in question was Montgomery Wards. I had the misfortune to be on a consulting team at the company there literally when they announced right after Christmas that they were closing their doors. We had started the project in the fall, and as part of the kickoff, the executive team took us on a tour of one of their newly redesigned store locations – this redesign, which was on a 10-year store refresh schedule (a problem all on its own), was supposedly going to save the company.

What was so special about it? By the time Wards was on its last leg, its target customer was a 50-something year old woman who had not achieved her retirement goals and was facing a future where she was going to have to give up on a lot of her past spending habits in order to afford her future. This we were told as we toured the future store. Was it a corporate myth? Could be. It’s what I was told.

Anyway, the wildly successful store redesign supposedly played on this target shopper’s fears of a low-end shopping future by offering Walmart prices in a department store setting. Theoretically, the target customer could feel like she wasn’t trading down even as she actually was trading down. Wards had a lot of cards stacked against it, and this particular story sticks with me even today because it was just a sad, sad thing to hear. But it was a story that worked, even if the company didn’t make it: it had a well-defined main character (poor soon-to-be retiree), and it placed that character in an unexpected setting (upscale department store).

I’m not saying JCP is the new Wards – I sincerely hope it is not. But I would argue that if a Setting doesn’t naturally present itself out of what the brand stands for, then the brand needs to look long and hard at who their main character is, whether a representative of the brand or a target customer, and think just as hard about what kind of Setting promises the most engaging story. If it is an expected setting, the character’s natural setting, then that setting needs to be so extraordinary that it has a life of its own. If it’s an unexpected setting, make sure it is unexpected in a delightful way – like a bright flash of beach in a cold and snowy city. And let the adventure unfold.

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Articles & Opinions November 5, 2013
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