Saying ‘I do’ to brands
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Scant natural light, Muzak, vast displays whose wares are mostly indistinguishable until close proximity, copious fragrance samples, and the muffled din of store attendants and customers. Greetings, you’re in your soon-to-be wedding venue. This month, Selfridges, a chain of high-end UK-based department stores, hosted its first in-store wedding in London.
Post-pandemic, or maybe kinda post-pandemic, or maybe just 2021 because it was a plandemic, depending on your willingness to trust the medical advice of middle-age Youtubers in sunglasses, brick and mortar retail is searching for ways to reignite flagging sales. As part of this push, retailers are aiming to center themselves in the lives of consumers in new ways.
In this sense, brick and mortar retailers have a leg up on their digital-only or digital-mostly competition: They can consolidate the ecosystem of ancillary purchases surrounding our lives and life-events in ways their digital competition cannot. This portends a future where a layering of branding will insert itself into lives where none previously existed.
Consider the weddings you’ve attended. Nobody has a sense for where the dress came from, who planned the wedding, the entertainment company providing the band or DJ, or who performed the couple’s pre-wedding grooming. Unless you’re NBA superstar Damain Lillard, who had Snoop Dogg and Common perform at his wedding, or you’re actress Priyanka Chopra who had Ralph Lauren design her wedding dress, nobody much knows or gives a shit.
In hosting a wedding at Selfridges, attendees must enter a…Selfridges. That’s already more brand mentions than any normal wedding venue would garner. In addition to hosting and marrying (Selfridges has a wedding license), each wedding package the company offers includes services such as hair styling, makeup, and food. Selfridges has managed to consolidate what was a scattered ecosystem of vendors into a coherent brand narrative. A Selfridges wedding is the insertion of a brand — for the betrothed and their circle — where none ordinarily exists.
Selfridges isn’t alone in this attempt. Saks Fifth Avenue has partnered with the world’s foremost leader in proclaiming massive lease holdings as ‘innovation’, WeWork, to bring forth SaksWorks. If context clues aren’t your thing, a SaksWorks is the addition of WeWork office space into a Saks Fifth Avenue store. Now you can peruse skincare products before ascending to your daily powerpoint/coffee/frowning at a computer screen session.
Compare this to a standard WeWork or standard office visit. To shop, or workout, or find an overpriced pastry, one has to leave the office. In SaksWork, a retailer is attempting to collapse a scattered and varied ecosystem down into one container. Like many well-funded tech offices, SaksWork reduces the need to ever leave the confines. The difference here being that the reduced friction isn’t meant to make you work more, it’s to make you spend more.
The concept isn’t without precedent. Chuck-E-Cheese had been doing for children’s birthday parties what Selfridges is attempting with weddings by offering food, entertainment, and a safe environment for play in one central location. The distinction comes from the spending power and autonomy of the people attending Check-E-Cheese birthday parties versus Selfridges weddings. Although children have fantastic brand recall (just ask Joe Camel), they’re not empowered to act on that recall in a manner similar to adults.
This is the next evolution of lifestyle branding. Wearing Patagonia clothing only signals one’s interest in the outdoors. A water repellent jacket is an addition which facilitates a portion of one’s lifestyle. It’s a part of a smaller whole which already held space for branding, the whole that enjoys outdoor activities.
In addition to weddings, Selfridges is implementing second hand stores, buskers, and skateboarding lessons into its offerings. SaksWork contains not just desks, but a gym, produce offerings, and childcare. Both are a collection of smaller wholes, which typically lived independent of one another. Although one’s work-life may be branded in the sense that they’re working for a brand, there’s no creep of that brand into other aspects of that person’s life, such as childcare. Selfridges and SaksWork hope to aggregate those small wholes — the entertainment and food you consume, the apparel you own which reflects who you are, even marriages — into a neatly branded capsule.
Should these attempts flourish, variety, and thus consumer choice, will be flattened. If the aforementioned aggregation of wholes is successful, the previously empty spaces that resided at the center of certain aspects of life such as weddings and workplaces will become co-opted by brands. Paradoxically, there will be less choice and more branding.
Originally published at https://brandsmeanalot.substack.com on September 20, 2021.