90 Minute Brand Strategy: Ace Hardware
How to use the Brand Mountain Framework to refresh the logo of an iconic brand
As part of a new series I’m calling “90 Minute Brand Strategy”, I’m going to apply some of my Brand Mountain Framework (BMF) to the classic brand, Ace Hardware (Ace). You most likely have seen their retail stores around the country. Their website says they have 4,700 stores around the world, most of which are independently owned.
As an aside, I personally have a sweet spot for independent hardware shops—besides the smell of turpentine and eclectic inventories—my great-grandfather settled in Holland, MI from the Old World and operated (with his family) a town fixture aptly named Vogelzang Hardware (read a brief history about the business and family). The store managed to hang around into the 21st Century, even surviving a complete-loss fire, but alas, it is no longer.
Before we begin, a quick refresher on the Brand Mountain Framework: It is a strategy tool I created that incorporates all of the necessary brand-making ingredients into one organized structure. The diagram comes with a useful worksheet of definitions and example questions to help you determine and create the key elements to have a unique, powerful and comprehensive brand. Download a pdf of the framework here.
Because of my self-imposed time constraint, my brand research is going to be brief and mostly perception-driven or intuited, so my apologies to the fine people at Ace if I get anything wrong! We also won’t have time to hit every element of the framework. Using the BMF, let’s start at the foundational elements of the company.
Stakeholder Business Objectives
In this case, the stakeholders are the store owners, as they own the company through a cooperative structure.
BMF Definition: The driving outcomes which direct your strategy.
Focus Question: What outcome does ownership want from this business?”
- Grow retail locations x% over the next 5 years, by activating a new generation of independent owners
- Increase value differentiation and brand awareness in the face of stiff competition from the national brands: Home Depot and Lowes
- Expand Private Label offerings and grow overall marketshare in key categories
Each of these objectives are overly simplistic for a large organization like Ace, but are reasonable and very relatable to companies of any size. Thankfully, a thoughtful brand execution can offer significant help in meeting these goals.
BMF Definition: Your calling in the world providing daily focus.
Focus Question: What is our contribution or added value to our market?
My Answer: Based on the competitive set and Ace’s tagline (The Helpful Place), I would say something like “To be the most helpful hardware experts in the world.” A statement like this helps to focus the organization on the customer, with a clear expectation on the value driver (helpfulness) that will differentiate from every other retail and online experience. It also reinforces the heart of the independent retailer: the people who operate the stores (the experts)—From small shops where the community knows their name and are directly accountable to their customers.
BMF Definition: The picture of the desired future state, guiding long-term direction.
Focus Question: What will it be like for our community when this is achieved?
My Answer: Generally, I encourage my clients to paint a vivid picture of what WILL HAVE happened when the vision is achieved (this should be closely aligned with business objectives). Keeping things simple, here are a few simple narratives that might emerge:
- Ace Hardware stores are critical hubs in their communities, offering how-to workshops, community fix-up programs, local delivery options and on-site consultations.
- Our stores embody the idea of “helpful”: With our smaller footprint, we welcome customers in the heart of the towns where they live, while offering an experience that is not overwhelming, but quick and even fun, with staff that helps the customer find what they need and guide them in the selection process.
- Our brand embodies the doer and maker movements, symbolizing craft, handiwork, the hardware that empowers these skills, and the spirit of hard work.
BMF Definition: Your unique, non-replicable resources and strengths
Focus Question: What do we have that no one else has?
My Answer: The list here could go on and on, but related to branding, I go to their resonant heritage, the strength and simplicity of their name, the iconic nature of their logo (as unrefined visually as it is), the bespoke feel of their stores, and the accessible nature of the experience (size and friendliness), especially compared to their big box competitors. In a branding project, the goal should always be to double down on these core strengths.
BMF Definition: Brand attributes that would accurately describe your company as if it were a person allowing for deeper audience connection.
Focus Question: How would a customer describe this brand?
My Answer: From my perspective, I would say current positive brand attributes include words such as local, simple, independent, friendly, helpful, small, personal, knowledgeable while negative attributes could include cramped, dingy, unrefined, and inconsistent. Future words that differentiate might be: crafted, boutique, and unique. You can already start to see how these positive current and future attributes connect back to the objectives and might begin to inform on a brand execution.
BMF Definition: The salient expressions of design, imagery and voice creating uniqueness, emotional connection, and meaning.
Focus Question: Is there a single idea that captures who we are?
My Answer: I think the single idea that runs across all Ace stores is their independent nature, which to me, translates as a bespoke, simple and iconic expression.
BMF Definition: An entity in your market with similar or alternative offerings.
Focus Question: Who is competing for the same mindshare and dollars as us?
My Answer: For simplicity’s sake, we can focus on Home Depot and Lowes, which most likely are Ace’s two key competitors (never mind Amazon, Walmart and other regional retailers). For now, let’s focus on just their logos:
The Home Depot logo is a cropped square with stencil type, symbolizing the shipping palette, which is the central unit for the warehouse operation. While this is a strength that is core to their value proposition, it offers a clear opening to differentiate Ace’s value. On the other hand, The Home Depot’s iconinic orange brand color is probably the most imporant element of the logo, and needs to contrasted if possible.
On the other hand, the Lowe’s logo feels very corporate with a unwieldy wordmark and simple silhouette of a house, or more likely, their store facade. In addition, the blue brand color—standard and practical—further exacerbates the corporate feel. Again, the Lowe’s logo provides a lot of daylight to differentiate the Ace brand.
To see how all of these brand strategy elements contribute to a brand, let dabble a bit with the Ace logo and see if we can maintain its strengths, but make it work a bit better for our new brand strategy. So what do we think is working? Based on the competitive set, the color is strong enough and can be kept, but it would be interesting to see it in more craft-worthy implementations, such as laser etched in wood, etc. Also, because of the brand history the letter forms have some uniques strengths—specifically the triangle “A” form and the altered “C”. On the other hand, the sizing, tracking, and multiple oblique angles all contribute to a disjointed and un-thoughtful execution. In helping us to move the brand forward, a logo brief might direct the designers to bring better design and balance to the mark, something more custom and unique, as well as shapes that help the letter forms work together better.
My 20 min. logo exploration (using just the word “Ace”) focused on a few big ideas:
- Make the “A” letterform work better, be more memorable, and connect a deeper meaning for the viewer. My solution for this was to create the silhouette of a “speed square”, a key tool for any carpenter, builder or DIYer. This connects back to the hardware that Ace sells, conveys meaning to what it actually does, communicates craft, and helps make the A into something useful vs. stylized just for the sake of it.
- Keep the unique visual nature of the vertical cut in the “C” letterform, to connect back to the heritage of the logo, found in the circa 1930s version. My solution here was to reform the old “C” out of a simple circle, but keeping the vertical and horizontal “cuts”.
- Make the logo balanced in form, and clean it up by removing the oblique forms and replace them with basic, geometric shapes. To achieve this final goal after the other two letters are complete, just means to make the “E” as simply as possible with the stem and the arms uniform in their weight, matching the visual weight of the other two forms. Finally, all the shapes are assembled to be individual elements that form a singular mark through proper kerning and sizing.
Ultimately, I think the result of this quick exploration achieves our deeper strategic goals, such as linking back to the heritage of the brand, rooting the new logo in a iconic, yet custom form, and finally connecting the logo to the physical craft and ultimately representing the product they sell. Obviously, a logo is only the tip of the spear for a brand identity, but with each step of linking strategy and thinking into design execution such as color, fonts, voice, photography, signage, etc., a brand like Ace can be redirected to effectively work towards the long-term objectives, mission and vision of the company that it serves.
This quick brand strategy session and logo exercise is very limited. But my hope is that through this exploration, you can see the power of the Brand Mountain Framework and the transformational value that can occur when you follow a process, leading to powerful results.
Daniel Vogelzang is an independent consultant using facilitation, strategy and design to transform brands. Drop a note to see if he can help your company as you consider your branding next steps.