Building a Brand, Part III: Repositioning

Feb 11, 2020

Sales are off, maybe off for several years. New competitors are in your market, maybe some down the street. Maybe a dollar store in your parking lot. Costs aren’t going down; your print advertising doesn’t bring in the shoppers that it used to. Labor and health care costs are going up, just as your local economy appears to be slipping.

What do you do?

Do you throw more advertising at the problem? Maybe double down on promotions? Do you invest in new displays, offer new categories of product? Do you take on the dollar stores, build out a dollar section? Maybe you expand offerings, adding new categories to your store like pizza, hardware, pharmacy.

The list of possible things you could do is endless. The list of things you should do is finite.

I talked to a retailer recently who told me, “John, I’m just not sure what do to, so I guess I mostly just keep running the same plays I know how to do well and hope things will change. I know that isn’t right, but I can’t afford to throw a bunch of money at a bunch of stuff and hope it works.”

This is the third part in my series on branding, but this article is really as much about diagnosing the problem with your store as it is marketing. Because marketing, no matter how good, can’t fix your problems if shoppers aren’t connecting with what you do.

Diagnosing the problem

It is human nature: when something goes wrong, we tend to look for blame elsewhere. Ask your kid why they got a bad grade, you’re likely to hear, “The teacher didn’t teach us that, the test was unfair.” Ask your supplier why the truck was late, “Can’t get good people, the weather, traffic.” Ask your store associates why sales are down compared to last year, you get, “competitor X sells product Y cheaper than we can buy it.”

In reality, diagnosing a sales shortfall is tricky. There are so many internal factors in retail, like in-stock, quality issues, wrong assortment, pricing, customer service, shrink, etc.;  as well as external factors like competitor proximity, competitor pricing and promotions, etc. We have to get so many moving parts running right every day, and any one of those parts can turn a great business sour, super fast.

But there are other factors that can cause a store to slip. I am talking about problems with the shoppers’ perception of your brand itself.

Example: The local restaurant

There is a family-owned Asian restaurant near my home in Georgia. We have loved going there for years—friendly folks, good predictable food, value pricing. Nothing innovative, nothing fancy, just the kind of place you go when you want an easy family meal.

But over the years we noticed the restaurant was increasingly empty. As the owners grew older, so did the feel of the restaurant. Colors that were hip when they opened now seemed dated, dull. And the menu hadn’t changed in 20 years. And as I continued to visit, we noticed that the customer base was aging right alongside the building (and me). It’s not a good sign for the future if you have more retirees than Millennials in your store.

One day the owner told me his daughter was going to take over running the business. They shut the place down for a few weeks then reopened. Where once the space had been tired and dated, it was now bright and engaging. The menu kept some old favorites, but she added new, fresher, more authentic dishes. They added a full-service bar and outdoor tables. Literally the place seemed to transform with new colors, menu items, even new logos.

When I talked with the daughter, I asked her what happened to allow such massive change.

“It was actually my parents’ idea, not mine,” she said. I was surprised.

“They knew we were losing diners, that we weren’t appealing to younger diners. They knew they needed to update the building, the menu. So, my dad stopped running the business, gave that job to me. We did some sessions with customers, asked them what they wanted. He pushed me to listen to what they were saying, make bold changes.”

That’s not the story I had expected. I had anticipated one of those, “Younger person takes over, modernizes the business” tales, but here she was telling me that it was her father that pushed for the changes.

“Sometimes, you get so comfortable running the business the same way, every day, you forget to pay attention to your customers. They change, they want new things. We don’t exist without them; we have to listen or change and adapt. If we don’t, it’s bad service,” the owner said. “My daughter modernized us by going back to the dishes we cook at home. More authentic, always fresh. We were kind of the same old Asian place before, but now we stand out.”

Their case is a classic example of repositioning. The customers’ needs and desires were changing, and the business hadn’t kept pace with that change. 

Repositioning starts with shopper insights (actually, everything we do should start with shopper insights). With repositioning, you need to talk to loyal shoppers, but also to shoppers who used to shop, but stopped. And shoppers that have never shopped. You can learn from your fans, but you learn a lot more from your detractors.

Example: The re-branded IGA store

I was in an IGA store recently that was less than a year old. The owner bought a competitor’s store, refreshed it, re-staffed, and re-branded it as an IGA.

“The community hated the old store, but it was the only one close,” he told me. “The service was okay but the assortment tired, the store dirty and dated. The reputation in town was bad, everyone felt like they were stuck with a store that couldn’t care less about them as shoppers.”

The re-opened store wasn’t fancy—same floor, mostly the same fixtures. He used the new IGA signage and décor, which made a big difference. But they did a lot of the little things, like replacing broken floor tiles, scrubbing the cases and deli glass until it shined, revamping the washrooms.

“When shoppers see a dirty restroom or dirty floors, they wonder if the food is dirty, too. Who wants to shop a store where it seems the people who work there don’t respect the product?” he says, explaining, “The old store died a slow death. The shopper was screaming for something better in their willingness to drive past them and go 20 miles farther to a competitor.”

If sales are off, start by talking to shoppers. Really listen. Write what they say down, and then go fix it. It isn’t hard to get them to talk, but it might be hard to listen to, especially if they aren’t happy with you.

Repositioning versus basic improvements

Sometimes the fixes to your business are small. Update some fixtures, or improve your selection in deli or produce; offer more fresh menu items, clean up the floors. Any individual change like this isn’t repositioning, it is just keeping up with all the things that make an IGA a great store.

But when the problems stack up—when the store needs work in multiple areas, sometimes because of years of neglect—it’s clearly a candidate for repositioning.

But more often than not, a store should consider repositioning their brand if they find the marketplace has changed. Even stores with good sales results need to reposition sometimes, especially if the marketplace is changing faster than the brand has kept up.

Said simply, repositioning is updating your brand promise to be in step with what shoppers want.

Example: Dunkin' Donuts

Consider the fast food chain Dunkin’ Donuts. Like IGA, it’s a venerable brand, serving coffee and pastries in markets all over the country. In many areas of the country, shoppers have a passionate relationship to their local Dunkin' Donuts.

The leaders knew shoppers increasingly wanted more than just sweet options. In fact, Dunkin' Donuts found that its savory menu items were selling faster than donuts, that its range of coffee offerings were as big a draw as fried dough. Its shoppers were embracing a clever new lunch menu and thinking of their stores as much like a coffee shop as a donut shop. This year they repositioned the brand, changing their name to just Dunkin' and expandingh their menu yet again into more than just donuts.

Try this exercise

Step 1—List your store's problems and solutions

Let’s say you gathered a group of your most loyal shoppers. And you asked them to bring in their adult children. It isn’t a stretch to imagine the kids of our best shoppers saying things like this:

  • “Great service, great reputation, but defiantly living in the past.”
  • “They haven’t added a new item in their deli in 20 years…”
  • “Best meat in town, but it isn’t the place you go if you want to eat healthier…”
  • “OK for fill-in shops, but if I want new items, I go to a competitor…”

To do this exercise right, you need to write this list out on a board. Write everything they say down, good and bad. Then gather your teams, and have them brainstorm what you could do to fix the problem. Gather up ideas, don’t be too quick to reject anything yet.

Your list might look like this:

Problem Potential Solutions
Deli menu never changes

Introduce 2 new items plus one weekly/daily unique special

Use brand recipes

Ask associates to cook their favorite dish every Friday

Don’t think we have healthy options

Put up “healthy options” stickers all over the store

Create two HEALTHY CHOICE deli hot bar offerings

Do a weight loss challenge open to associates and shoppers alike

Don’t think we have lasts items

Put “NEW ITEM” wobblers on new products

Do a new item endcap

Do new item demos, record them for Facebook


Your associates will end up loving this—it lets them give you ideas, maybe some they have been thinking about but not shared. You can’t do everything, but even a few changes might matter. And most of the ideas you will get won’t cost you a huge amount of capital or incremental labor. Prioritize those.

But that’s just a list of problems and fixes. It isn’t brand repositioning, but it is the fuel for updating your brand. The next step is where the magic really happens.

Step 2—List what you do and why you do it

Look at what shoppers want from you. There will be common themes. And there will be obvious opportunities to stand for what they increasingly seek.

Write the following two questions onto a board and then, using what you have learned, answer them.

  1. My brand exists for what purpose?
  2. Increasingly, shoppers will choose us over the competition because of what?

Brand purpose isn’t what you do or what you sell. Its why you exit.

Consider these examples:

Brand What they do Their brand purpose
Southwest Airlines Value-priced airline Help families stay close
Walmart Sell stuff cheap Help low-income families have a middle-class lifestyle
FedEx Ship stuff fast Help businesses grow confidently
Nike Make sportswear Inspire athletes


Got it? You’re writing out what you do that matters, and how what you do impacts your shoppers.

Here are some example IGA brand promise statements:

Brand What we do Potential brand promise
Bob's IGA Sell groceries Feed our community with healthy options
Make it easy for modest income families to eat healthy
Ensure our town is healthy and prosperous


Step 3—Determine why shoppers will choose your store

Now that you have your promise clear, the next question is why shoppers will choose your store over the competition. Essentially, what makes your brand promise true? If the brand promise isn’t as true as you want it to be, you are ready for repositioning your brand.

I visit a lot of stores: IGAs, other independents, national chains. “My own kids don’t want to shop my store,” one (non-IGA) owner told me. That’s a punch in the gut. When I asked him why, he went down a list of stuff they want that he didn’t do. You can guess the list. Words like fresh, healthy, organic, gluten-free.

“How come you don’t offer those options?” I asked. He told me his shoppers—many of them older and less “sophisticated"—wouldn’t embrace the changes.

I got him to go visit a competitor’s store down the street. We walked down aisle after aisle where they had stickers on new items, a kombucha tap, an entire organic section, four “better for you” choices in deli.

“Same trade radius, same shoppers. How come they can sell this stuff and you can’t?” I asked. What I wanted to do is shake him by the shoulders and say, “Listen to your marketplace! Or at least your kids!”

I was at another store where the owner told me he didn’t do very well with Hispanic shoppers. I pulled the census bureau data and found that over a third of the families with kids within a 5-mile radius were Hispanic families.

The reality is that it is easy to be a critic. On any day anyone can find dozens of missed opportunities. The real effort is building a plan to address opportunities. For example:

Bob’s IGA sells groceries, but we exist to help our shoppers make smarter, healthier choices for their families. And consumers believe it because at Bob's IGA we do the following:

  • Weekly “better for you” options in deli
  • Special tags for healthy choice options
  • Endcaps and cooking demos on healthier options each week
  • Weekly recipes on social media and in store to help people cook healthy versions of their favorite meals
Step 4—Tell your shoppers

If ever there was an opportunity for a re-grand opening, a brand repositioning is it. Shoppers love new news. They like to see changes in their choices. They will appreciate it when you invest to make their job feeding their family easier, faster, better.

Set a date for your brand repositioning. Consider engaging a local agency or the IGA team in Chicago to help you rethink how to tell your shoppers that what you have to offer is improved. Helping you succeed is why we are here, and we love to do it. 

Did you miss Parts I and II in the Building a Brand Series? Read Part I here and Part II here. 

Want to engage IGA Chicago to help with your brand repositioning? Contact IGA's Ashley Page at

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