When retailer advertising and reality collide

Petco Ad

Petco’s new Ad campaign. Does it over-promise?

Petco has begun a new ad campaign aimed at pulling at the heartstrings of pet owners and building an emotional connection to their brand, but like any brand-building advertising, the commercials are writing checks that the store experience has to cash. I admit that the ads are a refreshing break from the sea of urgent offers and endless deals that we are exposed to continuously on our TVs. With the line “The power of together”, they are well written, well executed, and amplify our awareness of the connections we have with our dogs and cats. The “co” device links this notion of our lives being enriched by our pets with the otherwise emotionless Petco name. The ads may drive consideration for Petco, but what happens when shoppers give Petco a try?

Retailers need traffic, and ultimately the ads need to drive shoppers to change their behavior and switch from Walmart, PetSmart, or their grocery store and become Petco regulars. But there is a big risk in inflating this emotional balloon and setting expectations too high. Can the stores and the associates live up to the promise? The ads, in fact, are built around the out-of-store experience with your pet, but where is the role of the store in the brand promise since it is the primary brand touch point? I do shop at Petco and I believe the ads validate my choice, but I shop there because they are smaller stores and easier to get in and out quickly. That is a real benefit.

The root of the issue is that Petco is not a lifestyle brand, it is a brand that enables shoppers to find what they need to take care of their pets. Lifestyle brands (great examples are Harley-Davidson and Nike) need to create an emotional connection with their customers to create value and drive demand. They create products that are like empty vessels which they fill with the dreams and aspirations of their audience. The emotions fuel the “want”. Most retailers create value through providing access to needs and wants, not creating needs and wants, and they are easily substitutable by other stores or channels (with the exception of fashion specialty retailers). Being biased toward lifestyle, the Petco ads do a better job of selling the virtues of owning a pet than providing a reason to shop their stores. If anything they stimulate consumers to take better care of their pets, but that could just mean trading up to premium food brands at any store.

I have seen numerous retailers venture down the seductive path of over promising in advertising. These campaigns may give the audience goosebumps, but they don’t communicate a strong “why shop here” or deliver a commensurate emotional reward in the store. Don’t get me wrong… store experiences need an emotional component, but an advertising campaign alone is not the solution. Great experience strategy and design are the means to creating an emotionally rewarding store experience. So here is my message to retailers: when your agency pitches a highly emotional campaign, ask if it is selling any benefits provided by your actual store experience.

I do believe that there are retailers out there who are getting it right, and are able to reconcile what their brands are about while communicating a plausible promise their stores can and do deliver.

First is Radio Shack’s Superbowl ad, featuring the “80’s called and want their store back” idea. Radio Shack went right at their main problem- the perception of irrelevance. The quick transformation of the store in the ad to a new image and experience was celebrating the store like no ad I had ever seen. Whether they have converted their whole fleet to deliver on the promise I do not know, but the stores around me are refreshed, so it worked (I bought some batteries).

The second, and more prolific, is the “Corner of Happy and Healthy” campaign by GSD&M for Walgreens. This campaign is rooted in the accessibility of the store and the authority of Walgreens as a headquarters of good health. The tagline is also versatile enough to work for category specific messaging in weekly ads and in-store displays, so it becomes a piece of the experience itself.

For retailers, the store is the story. Lifestyle brands can use emotions to play a big role in driving demand and creating preference, but emotional brand messaging to drive traffic for a retailer is a slippery slope that can lead to dissatisfaction if the experience is not aligned in a reinforcing way. Play to your store’s strengths and how your brand creates value through the experience, then activate the emotional content in the store itself.

Bill Chidley is a Partner and Co-Founder at ChangeUp. Creating Innovating Experiences that Drive Growth.


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