Experimentation and innovative agility

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Entrepreneurial spirit was in full display at NRF 2019: Retail’s Big Show, and “Startup ecosystem: Building brands that break the mold” was no exception. Emily Heyward, co-founder and chief strategist of Red Antler, moderated the session, which featured Rachel Cohen, co-founder and co-CEO of SNOWE, Stephen Kuhl, co-founder and CEO of Burrow, and Steve Gutentag, co-founder of Keeps, discussing how to build successful brands.

Anything can be sold online, and any brand can be lovable — but that doesn’t mean that any idea will be successful. In fact, succeeding as a startup is probably harder than ever. Today, brands need to build trust, and cannot play it safe.

“You need to think in a way that will get people talking,” Heyward said, “and most importantly, you have to give them a reason to make them change their current customer behavior.”

Burrow, SNOWE and Keeps face very common and contemporary issues. From using high-tech materials that prepare everyday products for everyday life to making healthcare easy and approachable, these startups listen to consumers, think about their issues and talk to them directly.

“To build a modern brand, businesses have to know their customer, create a brand that resonates with the consumer, offer world-class modern experiences and deliver high-quality products,” Kuhl said.

Consumers seek authenticity and connection, and it is essential for brands to build trust, approachability and authenticity into their business models. “They will be loyal to those who speak their language,” Cohen said.

But some things never change — and some issues will always be the same. The panelists said they are always striving to predict demand properly and meet consumer needs in a timely manner. Business cannot just be about marketing and branding: Heyward spoke of the importance of building deeper relationships, no matter what or where a business is selling. She also cautioned against confusing focus with repetition, and encouraged retailers to continually evolve and surprise — everything a business does should be rooted in the problem they are solving for people.

The consumer holds the power today, and leading brands understand this. The job of retailers is to make the experience as simple and entertaining as possible.

STORES’ Student Correspondent Paula Fernandez Martinez studies marketing and graphic design at Parsons School of Design.

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