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On the Retail Couch

Brand psychologist Karen Reuther weighs in on how to meet your muse and more success strategies.

Karen Reuther
Karen Reuther

Call it a new twist on “retail therapy.” As brand psychologist and creative director for Cast Collective, a design consulting firm specializing in creative visioning and business strategy, Karen Reuther helps her clients delve into their business’ psyche to find the real reason for being. In other words, why does a particular brand or store exist? Once they’ve found that “essence,” Reuther helps her clients express it in product and design that makes an emotional connection with consumers.

The term “brand psychologist” sprang from a client’s comment several years ago. “Every time I talk to you, I feel like I’m lying on the brand couch analyzing my company,” he told her. Reuther liked the title and put it on her business cards.

“I help my clients find the nugget of inspiration, differentiation and uniqueness that makes them who they are, and then help them tell that story,” explains Reuther, who draws upon her years in product development in her current role. Her background includes 12 years at Nike, where she served as global creative director. Past and current clients include Puma, VF Corp., Pantone and Dunstan Surfwear. She has also been a featured speaker at TEDxBerkleeValencia.

Below, Reuther shares five actionable tips to help retailers do the kind of self-analysis that sets the stage for boosting profits and building loyalty.

1) Get to Know your Muse: That’s the core of consumer-centric thinking, says Reuther, who teaches college courses on the topic. “It’s surprising how often I’ll ask a new client, ‘Who is your core customer? Who is walking into your store?’ and the owner will answer, ‘Everybody.’ That’s a hard story to tell through product and marketing, and it’s usually not the case. Every store has a core customer—the one they really want to come in and buy, the one who is going to drive traffic.” But many retailers are afraid to identify that customer for fear of alienating other potential customers, she says. Unfortunately, if you don’t identify your muse—your true core consumer—and figure out what’s driving them, you don’t develop the clear perspective you need to connect with them on an emotional level, she explains. “Without it, you can’t create an environment or a collection that will get them over the threshold, convince them to buy and keep them coming back.”

Your core might not be a demographic group; it might be a psychographic group, Reuther points out. Your target shopper might not be based on a particular age, ethnicity, income level or educational background but on favorite activities, interests, lifestyles or values. “Ikea is a great example of this,” she says. “It’s a store for a wide variety demographically, but psychographically it’s very focused.” Ikea shoppers are, by and large, middle class, aspirational and budget-conscious. The chain’s stores are filled with fully furnished room settings at affordable prices to help customers visualize the end result and reassure them that they won’t need a decorator to achieve the look.

“Do a deep dive into who you are and who you really want in your store,” Reuther advises. “Who is your brand muse?” Once you’ve identified that muse, focus on making an emotional connection with them on every level at every point of their experience in your store, from the collection to the décor to the music.

2) Edit to Amplify: If you’ve ever walked into a restaurant and been handed an eight-page menu, you probably know that an overabundance of choices can be frustrating and overwhelming. “The biggest mistake I see at retail is not offering consumers an edited point of view,” Reuther says. “Product is still king, but less is more. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true. Think about the cereal aisle at the grocery store. That’s the retail reality we have now, but it’s not why people come into your store. They expect you to have edited the best selections for them.”

Buyers need to be clear on what their store stands for, and who the target customer or brand muse is. Then they must have the confidence to edit selections based on those two key factors. “You have to get to that beautiful core and clarity of message,” she says. “It’s easier to just keep buying in the hopes that you won’t alienate any potential customer, but you lose sight of your message that way.”

3) Embrace Color: “Color is a tremendous weapon when it comes to product, collection and retail presentation. Never underestimate its importance,” Reuther says. “We know from research that 93 percent of people buy based on visual appearance and color and 85 percent of people place color first as their reason to buy.”

It’s even more important to Millennial customers, Reuther believes. Having grown up in the digital world, they’re used to seeing a lot of color and movement, so they have a much more dynamic eye than older consumers, she explains.

You can tell a strong color story even if your core customer is buying brown shoes by paying attention to the ways manufacturers continually reinvent the fundamentals. Every season, they give them new life through innovations in materials, print, pattern and methods of making, Reuther says. “Sneaker companies reinvent white every season. Designers come up with new solutions for black and brown and gray every fall and winter.”

4) Watch Macrotrends: They’re even more important than microtrends when it comes to retail survival. Among the most important, in Reuther’s opinion, is the demographic shift in buying power from Baby Boomers to Gen Y or Millennials. “When you look at businesses like Blockbuster and Borders, I would argue that Gen Y put them out of business. When that generation votes, their candidates win. They have tremendous power, so understanding them at a core level is really important,” Reuther says. What are their values? What do they buy? Why? How does your store’s ethos fit their wants and needs? Remember, you might strike a chord with them psychographically if not demographically. For instance, “Millennials love the trend of brands that co-create products with them,” Reuther points out. Research shows they also care deeply about values like sustainability, eco-friendliness and ethical business practices.

5) Adapt to the Quick-Change Age: What Reuther calls “fashion metabolism” is voracious and moving at an ever-increasing rate. “We’re shifting from design thinking to fashion thinking, and you need to deliver innovation on a fashion metabolism that matches the consumer’s appetite,” she explains. If a teenage girl walks into a mall and sees the same shoes she saw a week or two before, she’ll walk out and go somewhere else, Reuther points out. In the digital age, shoppers expect new information and stimuli 24/7. The challenge for brick-and-mortar stores is to provide environments, atmospheres and product that will satisfy their craving, yet stay true to the store’s raison d’être.

Despite the fact that we live in an omnichannel world, and it’s infinitely easier to deliver quick changes online rather than on shelves, Reuther predicts brick-and-mortar stores will continue to play a vital role in the shopping landscape. “My gut intuition is that it’s going to become even more important as the online world continues to explode,” she says. “We humans have a need to see things, hold them, find out what the weight and quality are. Maybe some day we’ll be able to sense all those things digitally, but not yet. We still want to go into a store and touch the shoes and try them on. There’s still tremendous interest and value in that.”

Style File

How would you describe your personal sense of style?

Modern classics, interesting fabrications, materials and details are what I look for. Currently my favorite place to shop is COS. They have found a magic formula!

What is your go-to shoe style?

Black ankle boots, colorful flats and—after the past Boston winter—flip-flops in every color!

What are you reading right now? 

Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World by Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt.

What are your favorite things to do when you’re not working?

I love to travel. Beaches in Greece are my absolute favorite spots. I just visited Valencia, Spain, to take part in TEDxBerkleeValencia and cannot wait to return. I’m also still dreaming of being on Dancing with the Stars.

Do you have a personal motto?

Yes. It’s a quote from legendary coach John Wooden: “If I am through learning, I am through.”

The April/May 2024 Issue

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