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  • What do brand enthusiasts want from in-store experiences?
  • What do brand enthusiasts want from in-store experiences?
    New Balance| Facebook (2019) ©

How brand tribalism is changing brick-and-mortar

The physical shopping experience may never match the ease of e-commerce, but that doesn’t mean people are abandoning the high street. Brands are using concept stores, cultural events, and customisation to attract footfall and communities that care about more than products alone.

Location North America / Northern Europe

The face of brick-and-mortar is undergoing a transformation to accommodate the values of modern shoppers, many of whom are looking beyond standardised, product-first formats and towards experience-based, personalised services. This shift was highlighted in a report from the National Retail Foundation (NRF), which found that 46% of Americans attended at least one ‘retailtainment’ event in 2018, rising to 66% among Gen Yers. [1]

The high rate of participation in these events reflects a desire to engage with brands in novel ways and hints at the rise of ‘brand tribes’ – those who collectively identify with and share similar views about a brand. [2] Think gym-goers who only wear Lululemon when working out, self-named ‘Sharkies’ who proudly don Black Milk’s brightly coloured lycra, and ardent Apple supporters who annually upgrade to the latest iPhone regardless of cost.

E-commerce may have streamlined the retail experience, but research carried out in 2018 revealed that 56% of online shoppers in the US still prefer to buy in-store. [3] Considering this, brick-and-mortar spaces remain vital for brands looking to build bonds with customers. So, what do brand fans expect in stores, and how can retailers encourage the formation of tribal communities?


Social stores
“Acute differences need to be established between retailers – from mass-market through to high-fashion or luxury retail,” says Phil Mak, a marketer and expert on fashion experiences. “Mass market brands want, to an extent, to be all things to all people, but ‘tribalism’ only works when a shared customer demand can be tapped into. By identifying these concurrent behaviours and using data to best understand their customers’ buying habits, brands can create a ‘gang’ that they feel part of. All of a sudden, you are talking to your audience like a trusted friend.” [4]

Brand tribes have emerged as the ease of online shopping has increased people’s in-store expectations. “People are looking for something other than apparel to get them out from behind their phones or laptops. It needs to be a whole day out – something to rival what a department store like Selfridges has to offer,” says Isabella Roberts, a senior womenswear experience stylist at Matchesfashion and former visual merchandiser at Ted Baker. “We’re seeing this in café, tattoo, and piercing pop-ups at Topshop, a café in ARKET, floristry workshops and DJs in & Other Stories, and at Ted Baker we hosted events, talks, and drinks to present new collections to selected loyal customers.” [5]

The NRF’s report highlighted that 81% of Americans would be interested in attending parties thrown by retailers – a sign of how social experiences with like-minded fans can boost brand engagement. [1] Fitness brand Sweaty Betty taps into this by running free in-store classes across the UK, while Rapha provides a dedicated space for its tribe to relax and socialise at The Clubhouse in Old Spitalfields Market, and streetwear brand Supreme has cultivated a powerful community that ritualises queuing up at stores for new drops. These efforts can help build a sense of loyalty, thereby boosting business – 74% of consumers say taking part in branded event experiences makes them more likely to buy the products being promoted. [6]

People expect physical stores to provide more than products alone
People expect physical stores to provide more than products alone
Gentle Monster (2019) ©

Cultural hubs
‘Tribal shoppers’ are looking for more than a transactional journey in stores – they want the brick-and-mortar space to provide a complete brand experience. This expectation is especially common among Gen Zers, 75% of whom prefer stores that offer something ‘memorable and encouraging’, while 50% of 20-year-olds deliberately seek out enhanced retail experiences in the real world. [7]

This is partly why certain brands are focusing on flagship stores that physical embody their identity. “In high-fashion retail, customers expect to be treated first-and-foremost as individuals, with their services more bespoke,” says Mak. “There is, however, plenty of parity in how brands achieve these ends. All kinds of retailers... are using things like events, talks from their wider community, and interactive stores to redefine their retail tactics.” [4]

People are looking for something other than apparel to get them out from behind their phones... It needs to be a whole day out – something to rival what a department store like Selfridges has to offer

Isabella Roberts, senior womenswear experience stylist at Matchesfashion

Some brands are also turning to concept stores, where the focus for shoppers is not necessarily on buying a product, but to better understand who they are buying from. These spaces allow for retailers to act as cultural curators, engaging customers outside of traditional shopping parameters. Even media brands are recognising the benefits of having physical spaces for their tribes to interact with them. Home and design publisher Hunker launched Hunker House – a non-shoppable showroom of products from brand partners such as Sonos, Dims, and Blu Dot. But rather than selling the goods directly, it acts as a space for people to interact with the Hunker brand in real life by attending dinners, mixers, and other public and private events. [8]

Such spaces challenge traditional store design and functionality. They’re somewhat experimental formats that encourage sharing, interaction, and foster a sense of culture and discovery among consumers. [9] Catering to an audience that likes their brands multifaceted and highly cultural, fashion brand Cos showcases works of art inside its stores. Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster even has its own in-house design team to create futuristic, art-meets-retail stores. Each of the brand’s 20 flagship stores, located in cities around the world, have their own visual identity and feature artwork to draw people in, such as kinetic sculptures and light installations.

Flagship branches bring brand narratives to life
Flagship branches bring brand narratives to life
Nike (2019) ©

Creating community
Nikkie Baird, the vice president of retail innovation at Aptos, notes that brands looking to adopt ‘tribal marketing’ tactics should build a “sense of genuineness alongside your brand authenticity by celebrating all the different kinds of people who enjoy your core brand behaviours, in all the places you find them. And if you want to take it a step further, into a post-demographic leadership position, then start introducing those different segments to each other. This is moving from supporting a brand to building a community – ultimately what tribal marketing is all about.” [10] There is room to facilitate this sense of belonging among customers by focusing on the behaviours and attitudes they share.

For example, in February 2019, New Balance and Strava launched ‘The Runway’, an initiative that saw runners earn points for training or running the London marathon. They could then exchange those points for pints at a branded pub in Charing Cross, effectively creating a rewards system that was both exclusive and communal. Also in the fitness space, Lululemon runs events such as yoga classes, running clubs, and festivals to bring like-minded fans together. And in May 2018, it launched The Immersion, a five-day yoga retreat in Malibu, that promoted both personal development and building human connections within the brand’s tribe.

Personalisation can play a role in developing a sense of belonging, with custom products letting tribe members show off their identity and allegiance. “I don't think the [customisation] trend will end anytime soon – this do-it-yourself era we are in helps people separate themselves from the next person, so I only see the custom trend getting bigger," says John Geiger, the owner of an independent sneaker brand. [11] Nike’s House of Innovation in NYC is designed to be “a dynamic store environment that is just as personal and responsive as digital,” says Heidi O’Neill, the president of Nike Direct. “This premium destination gives consumers an authentic, immersive and human connection to the Nike brand.” [12] The ground floor of the space is dedicated to the tastes of NYC fans, showcasing products that locals know and love. It also encourages fans into the store by offering a place to adapt their own t-shirt and trainer designs, providing an opportunity to showcase their love of the brand to other tribe members. [13]

Brand collaborations take tribes to new markets
Highsnobiety (2018) ©

Insights and opportunities
For many modern shoppers, the product itself doesn’t always come first in stores. “It used to be that old 80-20 rule – 80% shopping and 20% experience. It’s gotta go the opposite now, because all the shopping you can do faster, cheaper online,” says Angela Ahrents, the former head of retail at Apple. [14] Considering that Apple was the most profitable American retailer in 2017 based on sales per square foot, the benefits of an experience-led, community-focused approach are clear. [15]

With 72% of Britons rejecting the idea that a woman’s key role is to look after the home and family, 40% of workers keen to take a gap year after the age of 60, and 78% of US Gen Zers believing that gender doesn’t define someone like it used to, brands can no longer rely on demographic segmentation when reaching out to customers. [16][17][18] “Consumers aren’t defining themselves by demographics – they’re defining themselves by interests and activities,” writes Baird. [10] It is by piquing these interests and providing relevant activities that brands can establish their tribes. After all, research suggests that people tend to have positive associations with brands that reflect images that are consistent with their own self-identity, such as ‘conservative’, ‘hippy’, or ‘athletic’. Data from YouTube has revealed that campaigns that use intent-based targeting see 20% higher ad recall and 50% higher brand awareness compared to campaigns that target based on traditional demographics alone. [19]

Focusing on tribes can help brands reach beyond their traditional audiences. “IKEA partnering with Off-White is a good example of this,” says Mak. “By partnering with a streetwear brand, IKEA is able to aim the brand at a demographic – in this case, young fashion consumers – that it wasn’t targeting previously. It’s a two-way exchange, because Off-White is able to sell its brand lifestyle to an older, home-owning type of customer. So they become more of a household name.” [4] This blending of tribes may not work for all brands, but as shoppers become more accustomed to ordering everything on the web, novel experiences and partnerships that target people’s existing interests may become vital to keeping brick-and-mortar relevant.

1. '2018/2019 Winter Consumer View', National Retail Federation (2019)
2. 'Definition of 'brand tribe'', The Economic Times
3. 'NPR/Marist poll results June 2018: digital economy', Marist Poll (May 2018)
4. Interview with Phil Mak conducted by author
5. Interview with Isabella Roberts conducted by author
6. 'Experiential marketing content benchmarking report', Event Marketing Institute (2016)
7. 'Offering consumers ‘experiences’ is the future of shopping', FashionUnited (August 2018)
8. 'Are non-shoppable showrooms a viable concept for brands?', Retail Dive (February 2019)
9. '‘Brands are becoming culture coders,’ retail trend researcher reveals', Frame (January 2018)
10. 'Tribal marketing and the need for a radical redefinition of brand', Forbes (August 2018)
11. 'Experts predict the future of the sneaker industry's exponential evolution', Fashionista (March 2019)
12. 'Nike opens Nike NYC House of Innovation: the most personal and responsive sport retail experience', Business Wire (November 2018)
13. 'Inside Nike's new House of Innovation flagship', Retail Dive (November 2018)
14. 'Apple's Angela Ahrendts on the new in-store experience', LinkedIn Editors | YouTube (September 2017)
15. 'Retail's most profitable square footage', PR Newswire (July 2017)
16. 'Survey finds UK is abandoning traditional views of gender roles', The Guardian (July 2018)
17. 'Being: inclusive body care for Gen Z beauty junkies', Canvas8 (August 2017)
18. 'We’re all going on a retirement gap year', Charter Savings Bank (December 2017)
19. 'The key to attention-grabbing video ads? How they’re served, not just what’s in them', Think with Google (September 2017)

Featured Experts

Phil Mak

Phil Mak is a marketer and expert on high-fashion retail experiences.

Isabella Roberts

Isabella Roberts is a senior womenswear experience stylist at Matchesfashion, having previously been a visual merchandiser at Ted Baker.


Ed Hartley is a writer and vintage designer clothing collector from London. Having once walked the runway for the likes of Alexander McQueen, he is now involved in the industry as a photographer and designer.



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