The City as a Brand Experience

'New Retail' approaches

“New Retail” approaches and formats create true brand adventures – and can turn our city centers into focused experience hotspots.

Text: Mathias Ullrich

A city for athletes and one for food enthusiasts? One for fashionistas and one for outdoor enthusiasts? One for families? For culture enthusiasts or techies? When cities – just like brands – dare to focus, they have the opportunity to become prosperous and attractive places. However, they also need to act like brands.
It’s actually not surprising: the one-size-fits-all design of city centers is outdated. The same chain stores in the main shopping streets from Flensburg to Füssen, from Dresden to Duisburg make the city centers interchangeable and, pardon my language, boring. They want to reach everyone – and touch no one. In city centers, their former grand streets now present interchangeable spaces with interchangeable offerings. The fact that interchangeability is unattractive is evident when looking at brands: brands without clear positioning are not successful. Brands that try to please everyone are not successful. Brands that stand for nothing are not successful. And brands that bore are completely hopeless. If cities were brands, they would urgently need a relaunch.

Undeniably, online commerce and the COVID-19 pandemic are partly responsible for the decline of department stores and store closures. However, the reason why many people no longer visit city centers is also because they don’t expect anything amazing, surprising, or interesting there. Not to mention anything adventurous. In addition, their buying behavior has changed: hardly anyone goes to the city to buy something specific anymore. Those who know what they want buy online. Even when it comes to a wide selection or convenient price comparisons, online commerce is the preferred method. Selling is no longer the main business for retail spaces in city centers; it works much better digitally.
And now? Now cities and brick-and-mortar retail have to reinvent themselves! A movement has emerged in retail that could prove to be a blessing for city centers: “New Retail.” It ensures that physical retail spaces will be much more than exhibition spaces for products in the future. With “New Retail,” brand spaces and social interaction areas are created. From now on, former hardcore sales areas will be about experiences, inspiration, encounters, and belonging to a community. With “New Retail,” the way brands present themselves changes fundamentally – and this will transform city centers, making them vibrant places.

Studio Odeonsplatz

People are drawn to cities because they can meet other people there, experience inspiration, and be entertained. For retailers, it is now about attracting people to their stores to offer them exactly that. With this new objective, the success indicators of brick-and-mortar retail change: the dwell time outweighs the sales per square meter. Insights about the target audience are more valuable than sales volume. Store visits fascinate and inspire, they are about presentation and consultation, offering services that complement the product, and engaging with other consumers. People eat, drink, work remotely, or do yoga in stores. Purchasing happens later on the web. The online channel serves for transactions. The store makes the brand tangible and is the attractive “place to be” for its target audience. Mercedes-Benz’s Studio Odeonsplatz demonstrates how “New Retail” already works in reality. Nothing about it resembles a traditional car dealership. The “Programmatic Brand Experience Space” inspires people with captivating content, exciting events, and a diverse scenery. Every three months, new campaigns are presented in the 400-square-meter, two-story space with different partners, providing a good reason to visit. In this way, Studio Odeonsplatz becomes a place and source for brand identification and a breeding ground for a new community. Nike achieves the same with its Style Store in Seoul. The iconic sports brand offers not only products but also a content studio where brand fans create their own social media content. Additionally, there are rotating workshops and a “Snkrs” lounge. Nike precisely and excellently caters to the needs of its target audience. The store is not just a shop; it is an entertainment hub where products, knowledge, art, culture, and community experiences are constantly reimagined and brand-driven. Gucci takes it a step further with its stylish café-bar location Giardino 25 in Florence: the product is just an accessory. Guests experience an interior that has become a brand lifestyle. The opulent decor, international cocktails, and elegant bartenders reflect the core of the Gucci brand.
With “New Retail,” the physical space becomes a multidimensional space for identification. It serves new functions, becoming a platform for influencers and content creation, a stage for events, art, and culture, a space for curated content and inspiration, a physical touchpoint with the brand – and thus a booster of attractiveness for city centers. This completes the circle: the attractiveness of city centers depends on the attractiveness of their physical retail spaces – and vice versa. When “New Retail” enters cities, activating, inspiring, and captivating target audiences, cities should do the same to create incentives for visits. So why not view the city as a brand and give it a relaunch? Why not dare to embark on an adventure and clearly position the city and appeal to defined target groups? Why not become unique and stand for certain values? Why not design a comprehensive brand experience for new visitors as a city brand? For this, each city needs to reflect on what makes it unique. It can be its origin or history, the people who shape it, or the area in which it is located.

Werl, Germany

For example, the town of Werl, with around 31,000 inhabitants, positions itself as a pilgrimage town and even secured the corresponding additional name for it. As the pilgrimage town of Werl, the place appeals to a specific community and addresses their needs. “Slowing down and feeling good” is the guiding motto that Werl has adopted. With green spaces and seating areas, the city makes this guiding principle tangible. Frankfurt am Main has also formulated a vision statement for its city center – it should transform from a functional space into a lively emotional space. Specific characteristics were assigned to different city center districts. For example, the northern old town is labeled “Typical Frankfurt” and is described with the characteristics “handmade, owner-operated, regional enjoyment, gastronomy.” The eastern city center carries the title “Cosmopolitan” and is characterized by “international scene district, creative labs, living.” Each of the five city center districts has been assigned its own target audience and community. They represent individual experiential places for leisure, culture, and social encounters, as well as for gastronomy, retail, and daily life.
This requires city planners to carefully curate retail spaces and fill them with relevant offerings. Not every brand fits every space anymore. When city centers and retail brands collaborate closely, both benefit: the target audiences of retail align with those of the cities, and the positive effects reinforce each other. And then athletes and food enthusiasts, fashionistas and outdoor enthusiasts, families, culture enthusiasts, techies, and many other target groups will know exactly where in the city they can experience their community and perhaps even a bit of adventure.

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