What Trader Joe’s Knows

Mark Gardiner didn’t want to write Build a Brand like Trader Joe’s, his “insider’s perspective on the cultural brand created by this very successful/secretive company.” He did, however, want a marketing gig with the cult retailer long called a cheaper, less precious Whole Foods. He figured that working on the floor for $12 an hour—despite […]

Mark Gardiner didn’t want to write Build a Brand like Trader Joe’s, his “insider’s perspective on the cultural brand created by this very successful/secretive company.” He did, however, want a marketing gig with the cult retailer long called a cheaper, less precious Whole Foods. He figured that working on the floor for $12 an hour—despite an advertising career stretching from Alberta to California—could be his backdoor in. “I realized that there was really no mechanism in place for ground-floor workers like me to attract the attention of the head office. Second, the devotion of Trader Joe’s fans didn’t square with the very limited advertising the chain did. I started making notes for the book within a few days of [starting].” Published earlier this year as an e-book on Amazon, it’s available in the dead-tree version at TraderJoesSecrets.com (US$15.95). We asked him for his crib notes on why we all wish Trader Joe’s would open in Canada tomorrow.

The 10 Commandments of a Great Cultural Brand

What you say doesn’t matter. What you do does

“A great brand advertising campaign can make new customers flock to your store or try your product for the first time. But no matter how brilliant your ad is, if the customer’s direct experience sucks, you suck. In fact, the higher you raise customer expectations, the worse you suck. Focus on the customer experience.”

Forget your highly paid marketing vice-president and entrust your brand to your front-line workers

“Customer service staff are typically among the lowest-paid employees at any company. And yet, they have always been empowered to erode your brand value, so why not empower them to create it?”

All business is personal

“Every transaction is a personal transaction for the customer. This is obviously true in a bricks-and-mortar retail setting like Trader Joe’s, but companies that have similarly devoted online followings, like Zappos, have ensured their customers feel a personal relationship. When you are trapped in an infuriating telephone menu, you’re not mad at the phone, you’re mad at the person who decided that a phone menu was better than a receptionist.”

Culture is not a process

“Customers can tell when an employee is reciting a script. What elevates great cultural brands is authenticity. Find and hire people who will advance your brand values by being themselves, and then free them to do just that.”

To make more money, hire more and pay them more

“Companies trying to shore up their bottom lines typically lay off staff. That’s counterproductive. A great cultural brand is built one interaction at a time. So the more encounters between customers and employees, the better. That means hiring more people. And the more engaging the encounter, the better. That means paying a little bit more to hire staff with better-than-average social skills.”

Commit

“It’s not enough to tell your staff they should do whatever it takes to satisfy customers. You have to really empower them to do it. If you task an employee with counting all the widgets in aisle seven, and he doesn’t finish the count because a customer needs assistance, that’s not a failure to accomplish the assigned task. Every employee’s primary task is to satisfy customer needs.”

No one loves you as much as someone who just hated you

“You might think that a customer who returns a product for a refund is only going from a negative position (dissatisfaction) back to neutral. In fact, when a customer finds your product or service inadequate, they typically have a general, impersonal complaint. But when you solve that problem, you’re doing something for them, personally. Any personal encounter outweighs an impersonal one.”

If you ensure that no one hates you, no one will love you

“Any brand that engenders great enthusiasm among some consumers will inevitably displease others. So listen to every complaint, but always remember that if you eliminate everything that anyone dislikes about your brand, you’ll neuter it. It’s better to have some consumers who love your brand—even if it means others will hate you—than to have everyone be indifferent.”

Options are overrated

Most people say they want choices, but research has shown that when they’re actually given a lot of choices, consumers fear making the wrong one. They often don’t choose anything at all. If they make a choice, they’re more likely to be dissatisfied. Post-purchase surveys prove that the happiest users are the ones who chose less confusing models with fewer features. Do less, better.

If you’re not having fun, quit

“You may have a great product or service, but if it’s delivered by a sullen employee, every customer will wonder, “What does he know that I don’t know about this brand?” The key to building a great cultural brand is making sure your employees genuinely like being there. If your employees are having fun at work, your customers will have fun, too. That reinforces the purchase decision.”

BONUS COMMANDMENT!

If you forget all those commandments, remember this one: Everything is subjective

Trader Joe’s built a fantastic brand on a deceptively simple premise: Customers love shopping in their friends’ store. Most people think perceived value is a simple function of quality/price. Those are indeed major factors, but they’re scored on a sliding scale. If your customers really believe that you like them, they’ll like you and be far more inclined to view your brand favourably.

This article appears in the Sept. 10 issue of Marketing.

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