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Opinion: the unique challenges of designing for niche retail by Frances Jackson of OPX

The original idea is usually based on an overwhelming passion that the retailer wishes to share with equally passionate, like-minded people. The founders of cycle cafe Look Mum No Hands changed direction from careers in mainstream retail and the City to found one of London's best loved cycle hang-outs; and the Humble by Nature food brand and farm shop in the Wye Valley was founded by Springwatch presenter Kate Humble to stop an existing farm from being broken up for development. 

Alternatively, an entrepreneur might spot an opportunity to launch a retail venture, as was the case with the Nailista grooming bars in Manchester and Chester. The personal involvement with the idea might be a little less in such instances, but the commitment and energy needed to propel the business is certainly there.

In either situation, the brand designer has to ensure that the idea and positioning are consistent across the piece and fit the original proposition. They have to see beyond the retailer’s personal mission to make sure the brand resonates with the customer. In the case of Nailista, this was about creating a strong sense of community for the women using the nail bars.
More than with any other type of brand, successful niche retail is about building loyalty. The consumer must feel part of a community rather than just being in a shop or buying a product. Looking back at the consumers – often enthusiasts themselves – to see what resonates with them is critical, as is inviting conversation and interaction at every point of engagement.

One of the greatest challenges for the brand designer is building the trust so that the founder will let go enough to allow the designer to contribute. At OPX, we do this through an ideas wall that allows ideas to be arrived at together, sharing the creative process with them to evolve the branding. 

This also encourages the client to be brave, going beyond their initial expectations towards a solution they hadn't thought possible at the start of the process. Beyond that, the challenge is to hold true to that story so that it comes across in every customer touchpoint to create identity and community. That way we gain advocacy from consumers, which helps to market and grow the brand.

Relationships between designers and niche retailers are different to those with more corporate clients. You may use the same process to evolve the branding, but niche brands demand that the designer invests more of their own personality into the project. That investment becomes mutual as the process continues. Good chemistry between the brand owner and the branding agency is crucial to success.
Budget is invariably a sensitive issue with niche brands. Money is often tight and the retailer’s own. Branding fees can be flexible, but knowing how the branding will be applied once it is completed is important to final success. If the retailer takes shortcuts to save money, they risk wasting the investment of cash, time and creativity at the crucial moment of delivering the vision to the consumer.

In the end, success is in no small part about chemistry between the retailer and brand designer, and a common belief in the idea. If the designer doesn't share the passion and excitement behind the initial proposition, then this comes through loud and clear to an audience that is tuned in to visual cues and cliches. Only when that comes together does the brand appeal to a loyal audience. After all, everyone loves something that is loved.

Frances Jackson is Strategy Director at OPX

OPX has worked on niche brands Humble by Nature, Nailista and Look Mum No Hands and is currently branding Japanese café Harajuku, which opens in London’s Broadway Market in July.


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