Wi12 Panel Explores Managing Bookstores’ Brand Identity

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The Winter Institute 12 education session “Creating and Managing Your Store Brand” explored some of the ways booksellers can create a strong brand identity that helps them attract and retain customers.

Kevin Quinn of STYLED RETAIL and Nicole Sullivan of BookBar
Kevin Quinn of STYLED RETAIL and Nicole Sullivan of BookBar

The Saturday, January 28, panel featured John Evans, co-owner with Alison Reid of DIESEL, A Bookstore, which has locations in Brentwood, Oakland, and Larkspur, California; Nicole Sullivan, owner of BookBar in Denver; and Kevin Quinn, chief strategist at STYLED RETAIL, a retail consulting firm in Minneapolis.

The American Marketing Association defines “brand” as a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s goods or services as distinct from those of other sellers, said Evans, but on a deeper level, branding is how businesses create a unique name and image in the consumer’s mind and a singular presence in the market. Bookstores, consciously or unconsciously, embody their particular values, ideas, visions, and personalities through a variety of different mechanisms, thus creating that store’s individual brand.

“When I walk into Three Lives & Company in New York City or Watermark Books & Café in Wichita, Kansas, or City Lights in San Francisco, I have three completely different experiences,” said Evans. “[Each is] particular, specific, and expressive of the personalities of the people who work there and their philosophies, policies, procedures, labor practices, visions, and display and design choices. This is in addition to what we tend to focus on: selection of books and curation.”

Evans said he also walks away from each of these stores with different books, not just because each store’s stock is different, but because he has been guided by the booksellers who work there, by the store’s design and display choices, and by the feeling of the store itself.

Quinn, who spent 20-plus years in the fashion retail business prior to becoming a consultant, told attendees: “Your ‘brand name’ is your fixed source of the products and services you offer, but your ‘brand’ is what exists in someone’s mind: it’s their perception of your products and services.”

The idea of store brand is very much connected to “store culture,” conditions that are created by a business owner’s values: what truly matters to them, why they started the business in the first place, and what it stands for. By identifying and embodying your values, said Quinn, “your store culture can be developed, and it is from the store culture that customers derive their perception of your business and how they see your business.”

Sullivan, who opened BookBar in 2013 after leaving the corporate world, said she was grateful to be able to buy her building and develop her brand from square one. She had the advantage over older stores with more established brands to start fresh with a completely empty space, she said.

“I was able to really think about the BookBar brand and what I wanted the business to be,” Sullivan said. “An important part of creating or rebranding, if that’s what you’re thinking about, is to map out a plan, keeping in mind things like your values, what you want your interior and exterior to look like according to those values, and what you want to communicate.”

Sullivan’s BookBar is a 2,300-square-foot space featuring a bar that serves beer, wine, and food, alongside a bookstore offering a wide selection of literary fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books. Before opening, Sullivan repainted her building’s exterior to bring it in line with the inside color scheme. In 2015, Sullivan renovated and expanded BookBar, extending the same sort of design themes out to the new patio area to visually tie the entire space together. That year, the business also added a bed and breakfast to the top floor as a separate business. More recently, Sullivan has expanded her business empire to include a bookmobile that travels the city.

Sullivan said that inventory is a big part of branding, and being in constant dialogue with the community is important when it comes to developing the best inventory.

“At BookBar, we have been swayed to bring in some titles that might not go on my buy list at first but because the community asked for specific titles or more of a certain genre, that’s what we did, because as a community bookstore it is important to think of it in terms of the conversation we are having in our community,” she said. “It’s not all just about the staff and what we like to read.”

When it comes to developing a brand of one’s own, there are many other areas for booksellers to consider and tweak in response to community feedback, including the store’s social media voice and content, types of events, types of community outreach, as well as types of fundraising and the causes that the store supports.

Booksellers should also work on more concrete branding in-store, said Sullivan, like store color palette, décor, layout, and store logo. Sullivan recommended finding an attorney to trademark the store logo. While trademarking can be expensive, she said, it is so easy these days for someone to lift your brand logo or design and put it online, which can cause all sorts of confusion for people trying to find your store. 

“We are business people, we are running businesses, and we spent a lot of money on our businesses, so it’s good to be able to protect your investment,” Sullivan said.

Before opening DIESEL, Evans said he and Reid knew they wanted to make a light and accessible bookstore that would not be intimidating to the average customer.

“There were some Bay Area booksellers that we felt created an environment that was more exclusive than it needed to be,” said Evans, “and so we try to be as welcoming as possible to every class of person as well as every individual, which is, of course, what really matters.”

Other values Evans and Reid identified before opening related to aesthetics and making sure DIESEL stores are attractive spaces; bringing in responsive, inspirational, engaged booksellers; and having a diverse book selection that would lend integrity to the enterprise and communicate to the customer that they could talk to anyone who worked in the store about virtually anything.

“If customers experience your passion and enthusiasm, the more you make that part of the mission of everyone who works there…the more they will understand what the mission of your bookstore is as you conceived it,” Evans said.

Working with their landlords and architect, Evans and Reid made sure that each of their three stores look different and that each aesthetic is reflective of the individual community they are in. This has resulted in three different looks that still exemplify the store’s core values of a diverse book selection and an engaged bookselling staff.

For a business that is expanding to a second location, one important question is whether to maintain one or multiple social media pages. Evans said the DIESEL website has all three stores on it, but each store has its own separate Facebook page and Twitter page, which makes it easier with messaging for events.

To a session attendee who asked whether she should consider rebranding her store or refreshing her brand after 40 years in business, Quinn said that there are always ways to keep your store’s values fresh in customers’ minds.

“Storytelling has to be married with strategy and you certainly have a very important story to tell. I think it would be very compelling to hear what you have learned these 40 years being in the bookselling business, and I bet your customers would love to hear that,” said Quinn. “You can tell that story in multiple ways: you can tell it in the store, through events, through social media, through traditional marketing and advertising, but try to hold on to what you think your key message is and your point of differentiation.”

Quinn concluded his remarks with five pieces of advice: first, he said, know what your values are; second, personalize your brand by making it a necessity to your customers’ lifestyle; third, engage with the customer through different messages and medias; fourth, create a relationship with the customer by asking questions; and fifth, always be willing to adapt in a fast-changing retail world.

“As someone who owned a business with multiple stores, I kept thinking, ‘Does it ever get easier?’” said Quinn. “But when you own your power and brand and messaging and understand what your brand is, and you convey that to your customer, they will speak with their pocketbook, and that’s what we need them to do.”