Character: We develop Characters and Story Frameworks for brands.

Hey Gang, Let's Put On a Show!

Sometime back, when we were working on the story framework for Target, then CMO Michael Francis explained the magic of retail to me: At its best, he said, it’s like putting on a show—every day.

We’ve been thinking about that metaphor a lot recently, as we watch the fortunes of retailers rise and fall in a constantly churning, Darwinian scrum. What we see, from a story point of view, is that the retailers who are successful at any point in time seem to be the ones with the clearest sense of what show they are putting on.

But it’s important not to confuse a show with a theme. For example, “western” is a theme. You can tell me a movie is a western without telling me anything at all about the story. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, on the other hand, is a show that happens to have a western theme. While applying this structure to retail is a little subjective, I think Pier 1 Imports seems to be built on a theme, while Ikea is a show because it communicates a deeper, more engaging story.

The key is that a compelling retail show, like any good story, embraces conflict in a unique and engaging way. This is important because while classically trained marketers have a discouraging tendency to try to avoid conflict, conflict is the heart of every great story. It’s what gives a great show energy and makes it feel authentic.

We haven’t done a story-framework project for Ikea, so I don’t know for sure what conflict powers its story. Still, the sense of a show is palpable, and the sure touch of the storyteller on every aspect of the experience is very satisfying for me as a member of the audience. Here are some of the intersecting story currents that seem to give the Ikea show its energy: stylish versus functional, imported versus accessible, exotic versus familiar, cheap versus valuable, creative versus controlled.

Having a clear sense of what show you’re putting on must start with understanding the story of the brand at a strategic level—the conflict that drives the story and the meaning that conflict conveys. From that point, the show is in the hands of the storytellers: the marketers, designers and merchandizers who have to scramble to mount a blockbuster every day. That’s why I’m fascinated to see what happens next at J.C.Penny, where Michael Francis has just been hired as the new president. He joins Ron Johnson, Penny’s new CEO and the man credited with the development of the retail store strategy for Apple. These are two guys with a deep, intuitive grasp of story that makes me think they might be able to put on one hell of a show.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this way of looking at the category. I would particularly like to know who you think is putting on a great show, who is settling for the theme approach, and who is simply dying on stage.