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What The Happy Thought Taught Me About Branding

October 31, 2016

Smiley faces.jpg1971 was a great year to be living in Washington D.C. Only three years after the Woodstock music festival and one year before the Watergate scandal, it was a hopeful time, full of promise for the future. Or maybe that was just me at 19. In any event, I found myself living in our nation’s capital biding my time till my first year of college was to start up, down in North Carolina. In the meantime, I hung out with friends at George Washington University. I bought a conga and joined in the drum circles at Dupont Circle. But I really had too much time on my hands. What I needed was a job. Perusing the classifieds, I finally found one as the “manager” of a small gift shop on Connecticut Avenue. And that’s where I first learned about the power of branding.

I found out, after I took the job, that I was replacing a woman who had been robbed at knife point. Since then, she had developed serious migraine headaches and had to quit. They wanted a male to replace her, figuring my masculinity would deter future blade-wielding miscreants. And it turned out I wasn’t really going to be managing anything. I was simply the store’s only employee. My job was to stand there all day and sell wrapping paper and greeting cards to whomever walked in the door. The shop was, literally, a mom and pop affair, owned by a 30-something couple who both had day jobs working for the federal government. They were really nice and always treated me well.

Most of the time, the job was a real bore. The shop was not thriving. We had a good location in a vibrant shopping district. Lots of beautiful people walking up and down the avenue all day. They weren’t hippies, exactly; they had jobs and money. But they certainly had adopted the counter-culture’s fashion and values.

My bosses often puzzled over why our shop had so few visitors and why the ones who did stop in often left without buying anything. I can’t remember how much foot-traffic passed by our storefront in an hour but I counted pedestrians once and it was a really high number. During that same hour only two people came in and only one bought anything – a $1 anniversary card for his wife.

Suddenly, one day, I realized what had been staring at us in the face. Our shop was dowdy in the extreme. It did not match up with the neighborhood. We weren’t counter-culture values. We were grandma’s lace doily values. So I started thinking about how we could better connect with the people on the street. What did they think when they were buying and giving a gift? How did it make them feel?

Draw a happy face.jpgI convinced my employers to change the name of the shop to The Happy Thought. Today, that name makes me cringe but it matched perfectly with the 70s zeitgeist. I spent my day off brightening up the shop’s facade and hand-painting a colorful, new, hippy-dippy sign. The next week, it seemed to me we were a little busier. My boss started stocking the shelves with hip posters, scented candles, wind chimes and crystals. About a month later, they had to get me a part-time assistant to help with the busy hours. Shortly after that, it was time for me to go start my freshman year at college.

The next year, now a seasoned college man, I found myself back in D.C. visiting friends. I decided to stop by The Happy Thought and see how they were doing. But, when I got there, the little shop was gone! I was stunned. Stunned, that is, until I realized they had moved across the street to a space twice as big. Their sales had doubled in one year.

I didn’t know I had rebranded the store. I didn’t even know what branding was. I certainly didn’t know you could make a profession of it. I thought we would do better, though I didn’t expect such a dramatic change. But I did learn an important lesson.

A business has to match the values of its market. All those many months pedestrians passed us by because we did not seem relevant to them. Not just that – I’m convinced we were actually invisible to them! Once we changed to The Happy Thought and brightened up our storefront, we began to look like we belonged in their world. We began to get noticed. People started to think of us an establishment they might like to frequent. And, when they found we were stocking the kinds of gifts they’d like to buy for friends, then the store became a part of their lives.

Seems obvious now that you have to match up with your market’s values but so many businesses never even think about it. Even B2B companies should consider who makes purchasing decisions in their market, what kind of people they are, and whether the business is doing all it can to play an important role in their lives. Do that, and watch how quickly buyers will beat a path to your door. Now isn’t that a happy thought?


Best Branding Reads – Week of October 31, 2016

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I always say: Any successful branding initiative has to be CEO-driven. If it is not, the initiative will fail. Simple as that.

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