University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

How Innovative Brands Can Build Stronger Relationships With Consumers

Brand attracting reactions through social media
February 18, 2022  |  By Sara Holm, Gonca Soysal

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As a consumer, how do you interact with brands these days? I doubt you only have one answer. In today’s fast-paced, media-centric environment, the customer journey is no longer a one-stop shop. Shoppers have an endless number of options when it comes to how they choose to interact with a retailer and their products. 

Let’s take Walmart as an example. Shoppers can visit a brick-and-mortar store, place orders online or in their app, pick these orders up in store or curbside, visit the company website or social media accounts. With the opportunity for customers to interact with a brand in a multitude of facets, it is essential for retailers to communicate clear identities of themselves to consumers. 

Establishing a consistent and strong retail brand identity that overlaps with your consumer’s identity is key to enhancing the opportunity for retailers to forge those meaningful consumer-brand relationships. Not only will this lead to higher customer engagement, but brand loyalty among customers and their willingness to pay will also increase. 

In their article, “Forging Meaningful Consumer-Brand Relationships Through Creative Merchandise Offerings and Innovative Merchandising Strategies,” University of Arkansas professor Gonca Soysal, along with Anne L. Roggeveen, Dhruv Grewal, John Karsberg, Stephanie M. Noble, Jens Nordfält, Vanessa M. Patrick, Elisa Schweiger, Annemarie Dillard, Nora Cooper, and Richard Olson, establishes a conceptual framework to understand how the overlap between retailer brand identity and consumer identity facilitates the development of a strong and meaningful consumer-brand relationship. The focus of this research is merchandise and merchandising strategies, as they lend themselves to creative and innovative ideas and can be changed relatively quickly.

Forging Consumer-Brand Relationships

Identity congruence is the degree of overlap between a consumer’s self-identity and the retailer’s brand identity. One could argue that the greater the overlap between these two identities, the more meaning and relatability a consumer can derive from a retail brand. This means that retailers, in addition to conveying their own brand identity, need to also effectively resonate with consumers’ identities. 

So, when we say brand identity, what exactly are we talking about here? Think of it like the brand’s DNA – this is how consumers view the retailer as a brand, as well as the national and private label merchandise the retailer sells. It represents those characteristics and associations of the retailer that can make it unique in the eyes of the consumer. Keeping a cohesive identity across all touchpoints, both online and offline, is crucial for a brand to ensure that consumers perceive them consistently across all interactions.

Now, let’s discuss the piece of the puzzle that brand identity needs to fit with: the consumer’s self-identity. Self-identity denotes how consumers view themselves. This view is malleable and varies from situation to situation. Products, brands, and experiences not only make a consumer’s self-identity salient, but they also help physically construct this identity. Today’s online social environment allows retailers to use things like social media or brand forums to amplify aspects of their own brand identity. This triggers identity congruency for the consumer, which refers to “the degree of overlap between a consumer’s self-identity and the retailer’s brand identity.” This sense of overlap is often what retailers are aiming for. 

Retailers covet this overlap because when consumers perceive it, they are more likely to engage with the brand and develop a deeper and more meaningful consumer-brand relationship. The stronger this relationship is, the more motivation consumers have to maintain it. The resulting behaviors often present as brand loyalty, acceptance of brand extensions, or a willingness to pay a premium or perform effortful actions for the brand. 

So, how exactly can retailers communicate their brand identity to consumers? Retailers present their offerings (merchandise) and communicate their brand identity through visual and other sensory elements. The look and feel of the store, both online- and offline, are as important as the actual merchandise offered when it comes to shaping consumer perceptions. As a result, retailers can use creative merchandise offerings and innovative merchandising strategies to forge a unique retail brand identity that overlaps with the consumer’s self-identity, thus forging a stronger consumer-brand relationship.

Creative Merchandise Offerings

With so many places to shop from, it’s important for retailers to incorporate products that make them stand out to consumers. To gain more insight on how to diversify merchandise offerings, seven senior visual merchandisers and brand associates were interviewed. As a result, the researchers established five unique approaches retailers can use in the merchandise they offer that will assist them in uniquely defining their brand. 

The first approach suggests that retailers should incorporate unique and original merchandise into their product offerings. The exclusive and scarce nature of such options can help retailers to convey a unique, luxurious, or fashion-forward brand identity to customers. 

Another option for retailers is to offer local merchandise for purchase in their stores. A customer’s willingness to pay goes up when they learn personal information about the person crafting their product. These products are seen as being made with love and tailored for the specific shopper in mind.

The third approach for retailers is to use merchandise as art. The art infusion effect tells retailers that integrating art images in packaging, advertisements, or the product itself increases a product’s perceived uniqueness, sophistication, and prestige. 

Retailers can also offer sustainable merchandise for purchase. This type of merchandise is sourced, manufactured, and shipped in an environmentally friendly manner and then disposed of in a similar fashion (i.e., recycled or re-used). This approach is valuable for retailers hoping to reach eco-conscious consumers. 

The final proposed approach is to add an assortment of high-fashion merchandise among basic items. While large quantities of high-fashion items can generate lower margins and turnover, adding a small assortment to your lineup can draw consumers to the store. These unique items can also help convey a brand’s creative, fun, and trendy identities.

Innovative Merchandising Strategies

The merchandise a retailer offers isn’t the only way to convey their brand identity to consumers. The store’s overall look and feel, both online and offline, play a crucial role in how consumers perceive a brand. This includes how merchandise is showcased, the décor/ ambiance of a store, signage, etc. Through their research, the authors offer five innovative merchandising strategies to help personify the retailer’s brand identity.

The first strategy involves creating themes in the design elements and atmospherics around the merchandise. Think of Urban Outfitters and their use of green plants and plywood to create a consistent look across their stores. It is critical that these themes carry over to the company’s webpage, mobile app, and social media to ensure a cohesive image is conveyed to the consumer. 

Another tactic is to reflect the brand story through retail stores. Brand managers recognize that storytelling is a strong tool they can use to create desire and fuel aspirations in consumers. In-store storytelling involves every element of the retail experience – the lighting, decor, music, interactions with salespeople, etc. These elements are also reflected through online avenues. 

The third strategy involves retailers being playful in their environments. Brands have personalities and it is critical to highlight their key aspects around the merchandise. Creating environments that are more entertaining, fun, and pleasurable will highlight the hedonic aspects of the retail experience.

Retailers can also use exclusivity in merchandising. This can be enacted through minimalist methods, limiting merchandise duration, or museum-inspired displays. All of these options make the merchandise appear elevated and exclusive in the eyes of the consumer. 

The final strategy recommends being intentional in virtual merchandising efforts. This concept has become increasingly important as more and more consumers turn to online outlets for getting their shopping done. Retailers should have a well-designed home page, a website that is easy to navigate, and a superior mobile app. 

Amplification of the Retailer Brand Identity

The greater the overlap between the consumer’s and retailer’s identities, the more likely the brand will resonate with a consumer and drive engagement. While creative merchandise offerings and innovative merchandising strategies offer several ways to convey a brand’s identity, retailers can use complementary tools to amplify it even more. The two proposed methods from the authors involve utilizing social touchpoints and technology. 

Social touchpoints can help to forge a relationship between the consumer and the brand and reinforce the retail brand identity to the consumer. One of the key touchpoints in the consumer journey are salespeople, who can transport a consumer into the world of the brand through stories and anecdotes. Additionally, there are many other social touchpoints that exist both online (e.g., social media, blogs, brand communities) and offline (e.g., opinions of friends and family) for consumers to gather information about products, consider alternative options, or share post-purchase evaluations. These touchpoints help communicate brand information, fostering connections and influencing how the brand is perceived, and as such, can serve to heighten perceptions of the retailer’s brand identity. 

Technology allows retailers to connect with their consumers through non-human social connections, which, in this article, involves the use of online avatars and chatbots. When powered by AI, these technologies help the brand connect with consumers in a way that feels personal and engaging, thus increasing the consumer’s affect and shopping value. Technology is also helping retailers target specific consumer segments with relevant content and create the feeling of an experience with the brand. It can engage customers by personalizing products, offering richer experiences, and increasing spatial presence. As technology becomes more social, immersive, and better at predicting purchasing patterns, the retailers’ abilities to amplify their brand identity by engaging consumers will also go up. It is important, however, to recognize the limits of technology. Privacy restrictions, along with race and gender bias perpetuated by AI can hinder the effectiveness of technology as a sole strategy. 

In a retail space that is ever-changing, retailers taking the time to invest in a relationship with their consumers by getting to know and understand their identity will pay off tenfold. When there are so many brands to choose from, customers appreciate those who go out of their way to form a connection with them, which, in turn, brings value to the company. Utilizing unique merchandise offerings and merchandising strategies that are supported by social touchpoints and technology can help retailers strengthen this connection and create a consumer-brand relationship that is virtually unbreakable. 


Post Researcher/Author:

Sara HolmSara Holm is a recent graduate of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences who majored in advertising and public relations and minored in marketing. She is currently pursuing her masters through the School of Journalism and Strategic Media’s 5-year BA/ MA program. As well as writing for Walton Insights, she serves as the advertising and public relations graduate assistant for the School of Journalism and Strategic Media.