Brand experience is right retail strategy

This week, I had breakfast with Angus Thirlwell, chief executive of retail brand Hotel Chocolat. While our chocolate-themed snacks might not have been the healthiest experience for my body at 8.30am, we both had something more important on our minds – how to get the brand experience right for the customer.

It’s ambitious, experience-obsessed businesses such as Hotel Chocolat that hope to lead a new style of retailing, which is detailed in our cover story (page 14). Thirlwell believes that if his company creates environments dictated by experience rather than simply products, the end result will be more customers buying into his brand.

Thirlwell recently opened a store-cum-café; in London’s foodie district Borough Market called Rabot Estate. “We want to show off the three-dimensional aspects of the brand in different ways,” he explained.

The new outlet, named after the area of St Lucia where the company’s cocoa is grown, resembles an old-fashioned chocolatier and caé with heaps of products stacked on old timber shelves. Thirlwell now has plans to take his brand retail experience beyond global high streets later this year with the opening of a hotel in St Lucia. He wants the fictional Hotel Chocolat of the brand name to become reality.

“We’re really thinking about how we create the right experience for guests,” said Thirlwell. “We train people in our stores so they can have authority about the chocolate without being snobby or arrogant about it. So we want to keep that authority in the hotel but also want to have that lovely St Lucian friendliness.”

“If your company creates environments dictated by experience rather than simply products, the end result will be more customers buying into the brand”

Thirlwell is right to think so carefully about his brand’s experience. This week, our columnist Mark Ritson takes aim at Tesco, the long-time darling of the British high street (page 54). He claims that Tesco developed very strong brand values on its rise to retailing royalty, but recent inconsistencies threaten its very core.

While Tesco and Hotel Chocolat might be at opposite ends of the size spectrum in terms of corporate scale, both businesses have a common need – everything has to come back to the brand experience.

We have been through a severe recession over the last two years, which has taken a great toll on retailers all over the world. But those that are ready to move forward with new strategies will be the brands that succeed in the next two years. And that’s the experience that every company should be aiming for.

Ruth Mortimer, associate editor

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