Rick Bolton


Last month, I was given the opportunity to speak at RAC in Las Vegas alongside Brian Dyches, Studio Principal, Little Diversified Architecture. The format of our presentation, itself, spoke to the message that we were trying to convey to an audience comprised largely of CMOs and agency executives. Following is the text the of my speech adapted for the launch of my new blog:

Everything is Marketing. At the very least, everything we do or create is a reflection on our brands. That is obvious enough, but as a marketing executive tasked with building prAna’s first few stores, I’ve been impressed by—and, at times, completely surprised by—the extent to which customers pick up on and react to the details of environmental design, as well as the things that happen within the store day to day.

For 16 years, prAna has been creating, manufacturing and marketing lifestyle apparel and accessories for the Outdoor Industry and Women’s Active channels. Clients include an extensive and very diversified network of resellers, ranging from small niche specialty shops to premium department stores. As you can imagine, to support these accounts, prAna has produced its share of collateral and materials for the sales floor. But, other important issues such as space planning, merchandizing, fixture materials and design, etc. have remained in the hands of the reseller. Of course, these are things that sit well outside of the marketer’s typical lexicon and duties, so when we first started this project I can’t say that I was overly worried about missing out on the opportunity to affect these components. In short, it wasn’t keeping me up at nights.

But, as I became more intimate with all of the elements that ultimately communicate to customers in a store environment, I realized marketers are quite possibly entering a new era—one that will find the custody of retail projects more jointly shared between Store Operations and Marketing departments.

This could come from contractions and consolidations in work force, but it may just be the natural course of events as businesses manage and integrate an increasing number of consumer-direct channels and are obliged, at every customer touch point, to demonstrate brand values as well as brand messages.

For prAna, the issues of Sustainability and Community were among the core tenets requiring strong voice in the company’s new retail program. For years the brand has been an advocate through ad campaigns and business practices. But, for the first time, these values could be measured in the building materials we chose and the way our floor plan did or didn’t accommodate and encourage interaction with and between our customers.

In creating a flagship store in Boulder, Colorado, the marketer in me was, of course, three feet off the ground and dreaming of all things that could happen in a space that by definition, was meant to be a signature brand statement. What I quickly learned was that the customer was way ahead of me.

They were expecting sustainable approaches to everything we did. Here we were feeling good about our aspirations toward LEED certification. But, our customers were already more concerned with why we weren’t thinking of creative ways of building window displays out of the packing materials left in our stock room.

The Boulder site is fairly big and we were able to offer space to the community to support local events. Again, customers immediately engaged, took us up on that offer and actually took the idea much farther than we had expected. Before we knew it, we were hosting everything from yoga and cooking classes to art shows.

The point is that our marketing toolbox and mindset quickly expanded to better include the design and use of the space. And, if the Marketing Department is to have a greater hand in store development and operations, it only follows that architecture is an important place to get involved.

As prAna approached its third store—a street location in San Francisco—our marketing team felt a bit wiser, got involved with design earlier and worked directly with Brian and Little Diversified to raise the bar on all of the pieces that we now recognized as branding tools.

From the very first rendering, we placed graphics into the store design and fine-tuned fixture measurements to improve the product presentation and shopping efficiency.   

We worked together to better delineate space for collections and focus areas. We had done a miserable job of that in our first efforts. We had created these beautiful stores, but they were not easily shopped.

We also revisited everything on the materials board. It was no longer a simple procurement exercise—we now looked at it like R&D. It was time to set the foundations for real innovation in the materials and how they came together.

And we worked with Brian to create convertible space within the store that could flop back and forth to serve as community area or merchandized area, depending on the season.

Even natural light began to fall into our wheelhouse. Was there enough of it? How did it hit the product and what message was conveyed by trading light bulbs for sunlight? Now that is something we certainly don’t have to deal with when producing print ads and catalogs.

In short, it is not a simple or small leap from 2-dimensional branding—or even interactive media—to developing and rolling out compelling environmental design. It’s different. It’s dimensional. It’s tactile. It’s more like live theater.

I think of prAna as a very creative company and it is filled with designers and creatives of all types. But, when faced with the task of bringing years of messaging, storytelling, product and brand ideals into an empty 3-dimensional box, there was a definite learning curve and we missed opportunities in our first 2 stores to really flesh out the experiential nature of our brand.

It must be done in tandem with the architects. You may be able to go back after the fact and add shelf talkers, window displays, move fixtures around the floor and change the playlist, but it’s hard to retrofit space beyond that. And, it’s expensive. You really need to know what you want long before construction starts.

I’ll give you an example. The idea of Community was, for us, more than creating space to host events. It meant finding ways to co-author the permanent customer experience with local people and local artifacts.

When you walk into Boulder, you are greeted by a six-foot tall flitch of very old walnut that was felled a few blocks from the shop during a beetle infestation and then turned into an art installation for our store by a local furniture builder. It had a story worth honoring and we relied on the people best suited to create that shrine. It is similar to the trend among restaurants and grocers to buy local.

In the end, becoming more involved in the design process is no different than having to learn the vernacular and technical basics of new media and web design a dozen years ago. I’m old enough to remember when that was not part of our bag of tricks…and now I know just enough to be dangerous. But, we did all learned to communicate brand requirements to the strategists and designers in the digital environment. In return, we were introduced to endless options for navigation and rich media and made decisions. Now we can all speak that geeky dialect.

It’s the same with architecture. The palette is different, expanded and the customer is already fluent and, in many cases, ahead of us.

The key, in my experience, is going in with clarity…It’s all about the Brief. Unless you’re building television spots or working on massive event activations, you will rarely have a hand in productions as expensive as store builds-outs. I love the old adage “Measure twice, cut once”. It is very relevant to store construction. Spend time to craft the right Brief for your brand. And then, of course, find the partners that will collaborate with you on making your Brand the priority.



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