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Tackling the Customer Experience: Hear from an Agency That Helps Brands Build Awareness and Loyalty

November 20, 2023

Considering customer experience is the key to successful businesses these days, Starch Creative has positioned itself in the right place and time. The agency works with retailers to create environments and experiences that will build their brand awareness and brand loyalty. In 2015, founder Brandon Ball left footwear company Vans to found Starch. He wanted to apply what he’d learned in his 13 years there — ultimately overseeing global retail, consumer experience, and events and activations — to other parts of the retail business. Starch helps brands with brick-and-mortar locations, including digitally native businesses making the leap, and it also creates festivals and other significant experiences. Clients range from cannabis upstarts to major sports leagues.

Ball, a founding partner and CEO of Starch Creative, recently discussed his company’s mission and strategy with Commerce + Communities Today contributing editor Joe Gose. Read on to see what it means to Starch to create a space that prioritizes the customer experience.

What can clients expect when working with Starch Creative?

We provide end-to-end service. We look at strategic real estate decisionmaking, we leverage data around consumer spending solutions and identify what the right brand adjacencies and markets are and we’ll set you up with all the proper processes, merchandising standards and best practices to open a store. We also provide construction services — we have a general contractor license in California — and we own our own fabrication business in a 30,000-square-foot millwork shop where we handle end-to-end construction all over the U.S. We do a significant amount of permanent retail, but we also do short-term, pop-up retail. We’ll create multiple mobile retail shopping experiences that start to blur the line of traditional retail settings and events. We may build some crazy custom trailers for mobile shopping experiences that go to mountain climbing events, as an example, and that trailer will travel 100,000 miles a year.

That seems like a niche in itself. Did the events part of the business grow out from that?

The consumer experience and events side was one of our anchors when the company was founded, and much of that came from my responsibilities at Vans before launching Starch Creative. I think that there is a big red thread that carries through our two platforms; both have similar objectives, which is to create consumer loyalty and expression of the brand.

How do you accomplish that for a standard retail setting?

Our job is less about designing something that looks cool and much more about drilling down into the brand’s values and its mission statement: Is it focused on sustainability or motivating people to get outdoors and make their own adventure? Then we figure out how to bring the soul of the brand into a retail space in such a way that the brand’s executive team would know it was their store just by walking in and without seeing a logo anywhere. That’s the litmus test: If you took every logo out of a store, would you know who it belonged to? And I would say nine times out of 10 today, you wouldn’t. That’s a huge focus for us. We usually leverage most of the consumer insights and research that the brands have pulled together. We use multiple data and AI-based platforms to understand where those people are, how they’re engaging with the brand, and the correlating brands and brand adjacencies that make sense for the client. We’re also taking a heavy approach toward micromarkets to find smaller, more exciting pockets of consumers, and we leverage a lot of e-commerce data, of course, to help us to find the right opportunity.

Can you provide an example?

We just opened a store for [bicycle shop] Fox Racing in Bentonville, Arkansas. Normally, if you’ve got less than 100 stores in the US, you’re probably not looking at Bentonville. But it’s a community that’s about being outdoors, trail riding and mountain biking. We wanted to create an environment to get behind that. It has been a huge success. We’re looking for the right microclimates and pockets of real estate with a lot of the brands we work with. We’re not exclusively focused on L.A., New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Miami.

How does Fox Racing convey its brand without a logo?

Through the design process, we focus on bringing the brand to life. So understanding Fox’s DNA, we’ve put sand from championship tracks and huge events throughout the world in display cases along with storytelling devices. We’ve done it in Bentonville, as well as in their R&D lab that we created for them in Irvine, California. The R&D lab has historic, mud-splattered jerseys that convey a lot of storytelling about the heritage and roots of the brand. I go back to: What is the ethos of the brand? Whatever it is, we start designing what that looks like in a physical environment to tell the story to consumers who have never experienced the brand and to customers who have heard of the brand but aren’t aware of what it stands for.

What about events? What’s a signature event that illustrates your approach when using events to build brand visibility and loyalty?

Our events are almost like your high school buddy says: “Hey, throw me a really cool party, and here’s a lot of money to do it.” Obviously, we have key performance indicators and metrics that we create and need to hit, but the event side of the business is such a fun way to do things. The footwear retailer Journeys has about 1,400 stores in the U.S., and their core customers are great but they are not necessarily the trendsetting customer that everyone hears about every day. Journeys consumers may hear about or see cool events in New York or L.A., but they don’t usually have access to them. Adidas, which is in their stores, wanted to figure out a way to partner with Journeys in a meaningful way, so we came up with an idea called Destination that was targeted toward the Journeys clientele in non-key cities.

We threw festivals that people could sign up for through Journeys in cities like San Diego and Atlanta. These were attended by thousands of people and included massive performing acts and tons of consumer experiences that tied into art and culture. One had a 40-foot custom paint wall that everybody could interact with, a steamroller creating custom lino prints by artist Bonethrower, and a Grammy Award winning artist. These are cultural moments that really tie into their consumers, and importantly, the [events] are wholly owned by the brand. There are no sponsors or outside revenue. This is purely the brand tying directly to the consumer and doing it for free.

How have landlords received these events? What do they need to know going in?

For the most part, landlords are excited to do these types of events. The brands are obviously spending a significant amount of money to put them on, and they drive a lot of foot traffic. It’s beneficial for both parties, especially in a traditional mall setting. There are very high requirements around permitting and insurance to ensure public safety — and for very good reason — and we do a lot of work behind the scenes. Plus, a team shows up in the middle of the night to build these spaces so that when the consumers wake up in the morning, all of a sudden, there’s this new experience ready and waiting. We built a temporary, three-room escape room at Hollywood & Highland a couple of years ago, and it took eight hours to install.

Retailers have emphasized the need to create a consumer experience for some time now. In general, how would you characterize progress on that front?

What’s interesting is how retailers are reevaluating what the consumer experience looks like. They are transitioning away from the idea of piling up inventory and are better recognizing that revenue can be generated beyond their four walls. It’s about understanding who your core audience is and creating meaningful experiences in the right markets. That’s first, and top-line revenue is second. Now, by no means do I think driving revenue margin is a bad thing — that’s my job — but everybody’s screaming at consumers today with relentless sales promotions. So the idea of creating moments that resonate with customers can drive longer-term value for the brand.

Last question: Searches for Kansas City Chiefs tickets ballooned 150% after Taylor Swift changed a lyric to acknowledge Travis Kelce at a recent concert. Is Starch Creative, or is it not, behind this Swiftie spectacle?

I wish, and I wish I knew who is behind it.

By Joe Gose

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today

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