Brand, the Unbroken

Consumers may not flock to stores as they once did. But, as Tyrion Lannister recently insisted (referencing his paraplegic, three-eyed ex-brother-in-law), who can resist a good story?
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Posted June 4, 2019

The 1990s marked some significant trends in retail design: the show-biz dazzle of new stores by Warner Bros. and Disney (inevitably tagged “retail-tainment”); the stunningly simple yet dramatic atmosphere of high-fashion apparel stores like Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani (called “minimalism”); and the almost opposite approach taken by Polo/Ralph Lauren with its cozy furnishings of ranch bunkhouses and plush urban parlors (called “lifestyle”).

But I think what everyone in the industry ought to remember most about that decade were the rule-breaking Nike Towns. These museum-like worship houses of the Nike brand were meant to showcase the company history and the many athletes who enlisted in the swoosh squad over the years, from Bo Jackson and Ken Griffey Jr. to Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. There were video clips and magazine covers and a procession of all those “Just Do It” and “Bo Knows” Nike ads, or the “Gotta Be the Shoes” campaign. (Remember Mars Blackmon?)

But was it a store? The Nike Towns had merchandise, yes, but it seemed only a suggestion. Instead, Nike made it abundantly clear that the purpose of the stores was not to sell Nike merchandise but to sell the Nike brand. Absorb the message, drink the Kool-Aid, then go to your neighborhood Foot Locker or Finish Line or Sports Authority to buy Nike gear. The company seemed to be fine with that.

Nike was the “in brand” – the exclusive club everyone wanted to be a part of – before Apple wrested away the distinction.

The industry reacted predictably to this change in the force field. The design departments fell in love with the scope, the architecture, the visuals, the technology, the storytelling, the mischief – like the way its swooshes were integrated into the fixtures, the door pulls and drawer pulls, the hang rods. The merchandising departments asked, “Is Nike nuts?!? All of this money spent on – what?”

It took a while for retail to catch up to the notion of “branding.” Your name is out there, and it had better stand for something. Or it stands for nothing.

Much has changed in the intervening 20 years. There are many other ways to shop. Brick-and-mortar stores have had to redefine their purpose. First, retailers resisted the idea of showrooming. Now they’ve learned to embrace it.

The old Nike Towns are mostly gone. But, like Elvis, they’re still in the building. Even the old buildings.

I live in Louisville, Ky. Like so many U.S. cities, Louisville has had to reexamine its brand – what it wants to be, from a town that turned outwards to the suburbs, to a place that sees opportunity in the rich heritage of its downtown – a central business district of stunning classical architecture on the banks of one of the country’s mighty rivers with so much history to tell.

It’s the town of Muhammad Ali, Col. Sanders, the Louisville Slugger and the Kentucky Derby. And it’s the center of the bourbon industry, which is where I’m coming back around and tying all these various threads together.

The downtown already had a Muhammad Ali Center, where you could see artifacts of the Great One; and a Slugger Museum, where you could see the history of the bat (going back to Pete Browning, the original “Louisville Slugger” on the 1880s Louisville Colonels, who first asked the Hillerich & Bradsby lumber company to customize bats for him). Both are flourishing tourist attractions.

But the bourbon story? Who’s bourbon’s Louisville Slugger?

Turns out he’s a man named George Garvin Brown, a pharmaceutical salesman who started a bourbon distillery on Louisville’s riverfront in 1870, in partnership with his accountant, George Forman. The Brown-Forman name is a powerful one in Louisville legend. But, to my surprise, few consumers from outside of Kentucky – even ardent fans of Old Forester, Early Times, Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniels – know the corporate entity.

So, while a tribute to Brown-Forman would be an article in Fortune or The Wall Street Journal, a space aimed at bourbon drinkers had to touch a different cord. Which is why the mid-19th century building where the company began, now crumbling, unoccupied and falling apart, was renovated down to its studs and joists and turned into an actual working distillery and bourbon museum tour on Main Street – the city’s once-and-again Whiskey Row – and branded the Old Forester Experience, after the company’s first bottled bourbon label. (Be sure to check VMSD’s July/August 2019 issue for coverage of the Old Forester activation.)

Brown-Forman is not Louisville’s first local distiller to create a downtown “bourbon experience.” In fact, it’s the last. Angel’s Envy, Heaven Hill, Evan Williams, Jim Beam, Bulleit Frontier Whiskey, Michter’s Distillery and Kentucky Peerless all staked earlier claims, creating charming museum-like tours, with visual merchandising Andy Markopoulos would have envied. (Andy would have envied the visual budgets, as well.)

The Old Forester Experience has the history and the 21st century visuals, to be sure. What it also has is actual bourbon distillation going on, with a tour that allows people to peer into vats, smell the mash, watch a barrel being filled, see a bottling line and chart the colors of the liquid as the bourbon ages.

It also produces a curious thirst. I’m a scotch whiskey drinker who never, in my 14 years in Louisville, has developed an appreciation for bourbon. But at the end of the tour is an inviting little retail space and a dark, moody, elegant downtown bar (both open to the general public). I did my duty at the bar, and then went to the store and bought a quart bottle of Old Forester 1870, the company’s original product.

Brown-Forman, like Nike, would have been happy if I'd gone home and bought the Old Forester in my neighborhood liquor store, But there's something compelling about the direct proximity of the brand story and an inviting, well-merchandised space.

So, yes, branding is vital, experience is cool – and traditional over-the-counter retail is still alive!

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.