Why are big brands appropriating independents?


A point well made here by a former client of mine George Wainwright of PWW

We’ve all seen the “glocal” aesthetic trend appearing on our high streets. We’re finding wooden crates with stamped logos in our supermarkets and exposed materials, such as timber and brick, to evoke factories in Argos. (Some of the newly designed stores haven’t actually bothered using real materials, and opted for wallpaper effects instead).

So why are big brands trying to look like, and act like, independents? In recent years, more people have been registering as self-employed in the UK than ever before. With this entrepreneurial spirit, we’ve had a huge uprising of independent shops on our high streets, from coffee houses to fashion boutiques and delis. The bigger, global brands have observed how communities are supporting these independents and want a piece of the action. They’ve seen how people like to identify with the owners, believe in their story and forge strong relationships.

Deeper relationships. Essentially, acting like a small independent brand allows bigger brands to communicate on a more personal level with their customer. What they can see is traction in brands forging deeper, more meaningful relationships with their customers. These relationships are far easier to forge with an independent – a person that you can get to know personally and trust, rather than a global brand who is effectively a faceless commodity, trying to peddle the normal marketing nonsense. Your local butcher has always known the families that support his business, and can address you by name when you pick up your meat on a Saturday. I still don’t understand why it seemed like a revolution when Starbucks started half-heartedly asking for your name a few years ago, when your butcher has been doing it for centuries! It’s also amazing how many ways you can misspell George, which kind of undermines the idea…

Trust. As mentioned, a big part of all this is trust. Yet the bigger brands don’t help themselves with the many reasons they give us to encourage distrust. Banks are still investing a staggering amount of money trying to rebuild the trust that was shattered 10 years ago. Meanwhile Tesco fed us horsemeat and Volkswagen cheated on emissions tests. We’re fundamentally questioning everything that we have ever been told by big brands and, in these economic times, people feel vulnerable and want to associate themselves with people and brands that we believe in and have a relationship with. Once we’ve been burned, we become more open to change and trying something new – a challenger brand that is outside of the preconceived norm suddenly has a chance to succeed.

A quick fix. The great shame is that big brands are now trying to replicate the reason why independents succeed, without really understanding it. They’re not looking at how it works - they’re just looking at a quick fix. Instead of identifying why people engage with independent brands and stories, they are appropriating their tone of voice, the visual cues and tweaking their identities. The difference is, an independent isn’t trying to look independent. It’s being true to what they are, with the money that they have. The independent aesthetic is often due to small budgets and being creative with the limited resources that they have. When bigger brands implement this appropriation it never looks authentic, because it isn’t. And there’s a backlash when consumers have been sucked into it and find out later that they’ve been deceived – such as with Tesco’s Harris and Hoole.

The learning that big brands should take from independents is the importance of being true to what they represent, what they stand for and true to themselves. Big brands need to behave as such and embrace who and what they are – not add further mistrust by trying to be something they’re not. Ultimately, it’s meeting the owner of a local coffee shop and seeing how his life and his passion will never be matched by someone in a blue uniform with a fake smile in Tesco. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; customers appreciate brands being true to themselves, it really is that simple!