Attention former Kmart shoppers: pay attention to your brand

What we can learn from the decline of Big K about maintaining our brand experience

Whenever I need to run to the store, Kmart is not exactly my first option no matter how close one is to me. I’m not alone in that feeling based on the lack of cars I see parked out front whenever I pass the store, and my first thought when I see even a quarter of their parking lot filled on a “busy” day is “How’d they do that?” Recently when I was out running errands on a Saturday morning and was pressed for time, having no other options en route to my next destination I stopped inside the local Kmart to pick up an item.

Upon entering, the funny thing about Kmart is the sense of depressing nostalgia that washes over you as the entire atmosphere somehow eerily feeling frozen in time. Passing a “Blue Light Special is back!” sign and doing my best to ignore an attendant waving me down to hand off a flyer, I walked by a small and unmaintained electronics section. Some of the hanging promotional signs were nicely designed, but the message was drowned out by louder signs desperately reminding shoppers of their layaway program.

kmart

From my last visit to Kmart…a bucket collects dirty rainwater dripping in front of food shelves.

The floors were in dire need of a good buffing, and the store’s only attempt to set itself apart from the grid-like layout of others was with curving aisles that led me in directions I didn’t want to go. A lonely corner of the store had a locked off door that once led to an outdoor lawn and garden center. On my way out, I passed by the front of a vacated Little Caesar’s food station that was lazily covered over with summer display items.

Much has been made about the tired and uncared for state of Kmart store interiors, and my recent visit would do little to change anyone’s perception of that (and that was one of the nicer ones I’ve stepped into). It might have been a wasted trip as the store didn’t even have the common item I needed, but not one without food for thought.

As I drove away from the parking lot and added “Wal-Mart” to the my growing list of destinations that day, I started thinking deeply about what went wrong with Kmart and what it has to teach us about carefully defining and maintaining our brand experiences.

Functional is not your brand identity

Think about this: assume for a second that the state of the store I just described was completely overhauled and Kmart gave their stores a fresh coat of paint, cleaned up the embarrassing vacant display areas and dramatically boosted it’s stock. Here’s the million dollar question: would you give up your current department store and start shopping at Kmart instead?

While the above would be a step in the right direction, I honestly don’t think the efforts would be very dramatic on their bottom line. It’s true that Kmart has had competition hitting them from all sides from brick and mortar to cyberspace, but there’s something much more problematic with “Big K” beyond the grimy floors or choice in paint: they lack identity.

While different stores might carry some exclusive products and lines, by and large the same common items from toothpaste to toilet bowl cleaner are to be found between all of them. Yet people will still spend the extra gas and effort to pass by a potentially closer Kmart store in favor of a competing store a little further out. Deep down, it’s not so much about the items they need but how they feel about the experience the store provides or what it says about them.

Wal-Mart is the kingpin of department stores, and their “Always Low Prices” campaign was a major factor in their meteoric rise throughout the 1980s. They reinvented themselves again during the late 2000s with their “Save Money. Live Better” campaign and regardless of how that worked out, it brought forth a major refresh of many of their stores which were starting to look a bit depressed and out of date. The modern Wal-Mart of 2016 does NOT feel like the same Wal-Mart you stepped into in 1996 and to this day remains the first store you think about when it comes to savings and frugal shopping.

In an alternate reality, Target should have fallen to Wal-Mart years ago and that may have very well been the case if they tried to beat them at their own game. However, many simply don’t care for the Wal-Mart shopping experience that is stereotyped as having cheap goods and a low-class atmosphere (something the People of Wal-Mart blog exploits). Target sets itself apart with a more casually upscale (but accessible) store that carries contemporary design and stylish brands offered at affordable prices. The layout and aisles have a wide and different feel that is clean, efficient and relatively easy to get around. You feel good shopping at a Target.

Trying to define a Kmart shopping experience or what the brand itself stands for is an exercise in futility. It doesn’t compete on price with Wal-Mart. It lacks the atmosphere and style of Target. Kmart is honestly just…there. Paraphrasing a description from their website, Kmart describes themselves as a “mass merchandising company offering customers quality products through a portfolio of exclusive brands,” but I can apply that same description to other stores. A brand’s uniqueness is NOT defined through a list of functional benefits that competitors can also deliver or later turn around and offer.

I can vividly recall the inside of a Grandpa Pidgeons and get a little misty eyed at this Venture sign...but I don't have any affection for a spinning blue light.

I can vividly remember the inside of a Grandpa Pidgeon’s and get a little misty eyed at this dilapidated Venture sign…but I don’t recall having any affection for a spinning blue light.

When nostalgia backfires

Invoking nostalgia to revitalize interest in a brand is a tricky move, but not an uncommon tactic. There’s so much disconnection and noise in the modern world that invoking feeling of the “good ol’ days” can make an impression on audiences.

But when the feeling subsides, nostalgia doesn’t necessarily translate into results or action. The 2014 Radio Shack commercial featuring 80’s icons like Hulk Hogan, ALF, and Chucky the Doll tearing up their store was good fun and got people talking after the Super Bowl, but that didn’t exactly seem to motivate people into stepping foot in the stores.

Kmart’s recent attempt to renew interest has been reviving the Blue Light Special that they were famously known for, by their admission hoping to rekindle the nostalgia the concept once held with shoppers. Not only does the concept hold less clout in 2016 where discounts can be had without leaving the house, but the major oversight is that an entire generation of younger consumers don’t even remember the Blue Light Special. I was very much a child of the 80s during the concept’s final decade and even *I* barely recall it.

The lesson to be learned

As laughable as the thought of Kmart being pulled from the brink is, I still don’t think it’s an impossible task. It’s not as if the opportunities weren’t there.

Martha Stewart has professed that her regret was not buying Kmart when she had the chance, and I think the idea of completely overhauling the stores into a “Martha Stewart Living” branded chain and exclusively offering her products through them would have been an intriguing idea. It could have gone in any direction, but at the very least it would have given the stores an instant identity wholly connected with the media maven and her audience.

The thought of reviving a dead shopping mall in this era is absolutely ludicrous, but a shopping mall developer did so in Atlanta, GA when he transformed a dying mall into Plaza Fiesta, a Hispanic-themed shopping experience with live music and events appealing to a booming ethnic population known to support retail with more frequency and spend time out with familia. While Kmart has made attempts here and there to appeal to the same demographic, it hasn’t been enough and I can’t help but wonder if there’s a unique concept (beyond game show gimmicks) providing an experience that would connect in a way that competitors wouldn’t even bother with.

Perhaps we’ll never know the answer to that. Amongst other problems that led to their current state, blame has been placed on a CEO / investor who many feel is intentionally bleeding the Kmart and Sears brands dry until the end. While I don’t see them disappearing today or tomorrow, it’s most likely that Kmart will continue down it’s path aimlessly and quietly limp off into the sunset like a herd of zombies from The Walking Dead.

Whether you’re a sole professional or business tycoon, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from Kmart’s failure. It’s easy to get wrapped up in logos, commercials and websites and while they play important parts in your business, your personal brand is far more than the sum of it’s parts. Your brand identity is the personal touch you place on the experience you uniquely provide to your audience, and this also needs to be adaptable with the changing times. It’s never too late, but it’s wise to start sooner rather than later.

If Kmart should teach us anything, it’s that the worst feeling in business is not necessarily failure…but irrelevance.

Patrick Shannon

About Patrick Shannon

A creative professional, photographer and design+technology advocate based in St. Louis, I have worked with a number of businesses, agencies and clients on design, production and marketing for everyday brands. In my spare time, I enjoy woodworking and am still attempting to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime out of wood.