Engaging Brands: Brands Behaving Differently

In our next Engaging Brands post - we spotlight the growing phenomenon of brands diverging from their core offer into unexpected territories. Read more here

By Richard Bennett
Posted 30. 06. 2016
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In the final instalment of our Engaging Brands series we spotlight the growing phenomenon of brands diverging from their core offer into unexpected territories.

The days of being impressed by straightforward brand collaborations are long gone. From a footwear label-turned-hotelier to an e-commerce giant branching into bookshops, brands are striking out into diverse sectors and creating new formats – whether to appeal to a different audience or change perception.

Challenging Formats

As traditional advertising loses traction with connected consumers, retail takes an increasingly important role in targeted brand awareness. Stores can act as 3D billboards, communicating the brand story to a specific demographic in a more direct, inclusive and engaging manner.

What J Crew may have pioneered with its Liquor Store concept (a vintage-style men’s boutique in Tribeca, NY) has been evolved by a score of different brands in recent years. Club Monaco has taken on the idea and run with it – alongside the traditional high street and mall stores, Club Monaco has a wide range of complementary formats including a bookstore, a café, and a pop-up collaboration with Noma restaurant in Copenhagen. ‘Urban Outfitters 90’ refreshes the clothing retailer in the key hipster territories of Brooklyn, NY and Austin, TX. Branding is low-key and product is merged with music events, creative workshops and craft beer in an attempt to ‘do as the locals do’. As for British brand Jigsaw, the Duke Street Emporium store concept cleverly boosts its luxury and creative credentials with a curated mix of contemporary art, food and selected premium fashion labels (besides its own-line offer), complementing its location among Mayfair’s upmarket galleries and restaurants.


After conquering the world with large drive-up megastores, Ikea constantly experiments with format to get closer to customers – such as its pop-up Breakfast in Bed café in London’s Shoreditch, which combined hospitality with try-before-you-buy product testing. After announcing ‘peak home furnishings’ at a sustainable brands summit earlier this year, the company’s future strategy is to create “a circular Ikea where you can repair and recycle products,” according to Steve Howard, Head of Sustainability. Other innovative marketing and revenue streams will include a two-storey apartment, where consumers without enough space in their own homes can host dinner parties.


Some of the best ‘billboard stores’ are in fact brand experience centres with an ambassadorial, rather than direct sales, role. O2’s Store of the Future concepts in Manchester and London are two such ‘brand embassies’, welcoming everyone regardless of network and becoming touchpoints for local events and tech edutainment. The monthly cycle of take-overs and live in-store demos has ranged from health and fitness with a Fitbit story, showcasing wearable tech and fitness trackers via playful, competitive challenges, to celebrating local music with live music, DJ lessons and the opportunity to win gig tickets.

Car brand Mini BMW is turning a 2,000sqm Brooklyn warehouse into a hive of design activities, including co-working spaces, an accelerator programme for tech startups, a design academy, a Mini design studio, a design retail store and gallery. The idea is to harness the borough’s creative energy and embrace the ideas of local innovators and emerging businesses, in order to rejuvenate the brand’s own practice.


Engaging brands are realising that one-size-fits-all no longer works; they should consider more tailored offers and capsule formats to target a specific consumer in a certain location. Looking beyond transactions, a new breed of experiential brand embassies – each cleverly attuned to a specific community – is driving brand awareness and advocacy.

Content is King

Social media has given us a sense of intimacy with the rich and famous, and led to a boom in aspirational in-context product imagery. Some brands are taking this idea of context to the next level by creating complete worlds that immerse the shopper.

Dutch fashion brand Scotch & Soda combines shoppable digital content and physical experience in its mini-film series, The Story of Things – a sort of ‘lookbook 3.0’. The second instalment (released November 2015) followed the fictional story of Lola and her traveller brother, Oscar, who sends her gifts from various locations around the world. Lola collects these in her apartment, which consumers are then invited to rent on Airbnb, as well as presenting a shoppable edit of the siblings’ style online.

US lifestyle retailer The Line uses the same strategy for its physical concept ‘The Apartment by the Line’ – a pair of beautifully curated apartments in LA and Manhattan, in which everything is for sale and experienced in-situ. Select events bring life to the space, and products can be purchased straight from the apartment or through the e-commerce site.


Continuing the theme of shopping people’s lives, but this time real people, Semaine is a shoppable e-magazine that profiles a different high-profile tastemaker each week. It builds a rich story around their lives – what they wear, where they eat, what their homes look like – and makes these coveted products and services available at a click, so the exclusive becomes inclusive.

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In this era of the new customer, experience reigns above ownership, and just selling ‘stuff’ is becoming a thing of the past. The story behind the brand or product is fast becoming as important as the item itself. And with content now king, broadcasting or publishing should be key parts of any brand’s arsenal.

The Challenger Mentality

When someone challenges the status quo, it’s hard to understand how we put up with the old way; think of how Uber and other on-demand services have transformed the way we interact with getting around, deliveries and so on. Deliveroo has redefined take-away food by bringing fine dining options from restaurants to our doorstep. These disruptor brands seem to exert an influence well beyond the categories in which they operate, setting new expectations for user experience and flexibility.

Rockar Hyundai has challenged the car dealership model by taking lessons from wider retail, asking: why should buying a car be more frustrating and confusing than buying a new outfit? Its boutique car showrooms put the buyer back in control, and shun edge-of-town locations in favour of high-footfall urban shopping malls. Customers can value their car, select a new model and pay a deposit in a matter of minutes, with or without assistance from ‘Angels’, via intuitive digital interfaces. The result? Massive customer satisfaction and brand conversion.

Gap’s collaboration with Virgin Hotels in Chicago is an innovative take on on-demand fulfilment: customers order clothing via the hotel’s free mobile app and the concierge delivers straight to their rooms within three hours. Unwanted items can simply be left in the closet upon checkout.


It seems even long-established brands are now thinking like challenger brands, being more open, inclusive and humble. Where once brands were the gatekeepers, setting the pace of change and allowing only the finished article be seen, now customers are getting a say in everything from the location of new stores (Canadian menswear e-tailer Frank & Oak is one example) to what products are manufactured next (Muji uses crowdsourcing to launch new designs and improve existing ones). They are even forcing fashion houses to change their well-established timelines for instantly shoppable catwalks, as pioneered by Burberry.

Think like a challenger brand, whatever your size. This means commitment to solving a problem or serving a purpose that your market isn’t doing right yet, a relentless focus on user experience, and a willingness to really listen and adapt to customer feedback.

‘Stretchy’ Brands

Many big names are stretching their brand equity into new sectors. Think of Monocle magazine making its mark on products, radio and events, or Nike’s transition from sportswear label to all-round, data-driven health empire, complete with an invite-only gym for women in New York. Meanwhile, Apple is no longer defined as a tech brand but a byword for intuitive design. It’s about working out what a brand is truly ‘in the business of’ – e.g. performance, rather than trainers; desirable design, rather than computers – and recognising the versatile applications of that.


This willingness to embrace the unfamiliar can also mean stepping into different platforms. For all the convenience and value online retail has ushered in, the bricks-and-mortar stores continue to offer unique benefits. They play a pivotal role in driving loyalty and enabling brands to tell a deeper story. Accordingly, major pure-play names such as Ocado and Made.com have launched physical spaces. After rewriting the retail landscape by undercutting bricks and mortar, Amazon reportedly has plans to open up to 400 bookstores. Last year saw Google’s first physical store launch in London, offering sensorial immersion such as a virtual trips via a Google Maps portal, and digitally spray painting the walls. Fashion e-tailers Nasty Gal and Missguided are also taking their offers to the high street – and without any historical baggage, they’re well placed to challenge the physical store norms in their sector.


With the barriers between brand and audience dissolving, even the DNA of the store is shifting – becoming more incubator-like test grounds or ‘elastic flagships’ where everything is in flux. For example, US DIY computer brand LittleBits launched a New York store-lab in July 2015 where “consumers can invent the things they want to purchase”, while the ‘Instaglam’ concept store from cult US beauty retailer Ricky’s (also in NY) stocks a changing line-up of small brands that are trending on Instagram or in response to customer requests.


In an era that’s seen the disruption of traditional institutions, consumers are more willing than ever to follow trusted brands across diverse categories; not defined by sector or medium, but by ethos and experience. Beyond the products and platforms you’re traditionally associated with, what really underpins your brand?

In case you missed any of the previous instalments:

Introduction: What Makes an Engaging Brand?

New Transactions
The Human Touch
Time Well Spent

Brand of Me
Always with You
Brands Behaving Differently

If you’d like to discuss these themes further, please do get in touch.

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