By all accounts, it appears another slowdown in spending is on our horizon.

Malls are closing, and brick-and-mortar retailers are fighting to survive. Analysts are predicting retail closures in 2019 to be in the mid-four digits. Although the easy argument would be that retail has gone online, The State of Brick-and-Mortar Retail Report shows 86 percent of purchases still happen in physical locations.

Retailers realize that the online challenge is not the only one they are facing. Dirty restrooms, parking, traffic, trash on the ground, or any number of things that can go overlooked by us could create an experience that customers do not want to repeat.

If you look at the movie industry which competes for the entertainment dollars we are clamoring to deposit in our accounts, you’ll see a similar slowdown. The summer, typically accounting for 40 percent of box office revenue, was slow, to say the least. Some point to the rising costs—tickets, concession, babysitters—that make streaming movies at home a better value. Although streaming has been in homes for years in one shape or another, pricing has never impeded going to the movies according to former 20th Century Fox Executive Chris Aronson in a recent New York Times article. Now it is.

Additionally, Major League Baseball, Broadway and Disney theme parks are all experiencing similar slowdowns.   

In a recent CNBC interview, Landry’s Chairman and CEO Tilman Fertitta, who also owns five Golden Nugget casinos, indicated he looks at this time as an opportunity. Sure, consumer spending is not as robust, but he sees opportunity as long as you don’t buy the business at the expense of your margins.

The key is to create experiences worthy of the limitations your customers may be starting to put on their spending. Here are some steps operators can take to foster better brand experiences:

Start with the basics—In the words of a former mentor, “Clean. Safe. Friendly. Fun.” It’s an interesting thing, but these four words can be silent killers of your brand.

Conversely, they can also build it when times are tough. Take a walk into a nearby retail outlet and look at it through this lens. More than likely, you will understand why brick-and-mortar retail is struggling. Then use that same lens at your property, and you will identify quick hits that can secure your position in the customer’s mind.

Branding is easily seen in the big things, but the small things that are less obvious become the building blocks of your brand experience—clean, safe, friendly and fun.

Marketing is a team sport—When everyone is aligned with the brand, you are far more likely to create a demand for your brand. From line-level employees to leaders, everyone must take responsibility for the brand. However, employees often struggle when the brand is muddied or ambiguous. A clear, robust interpretation of the brand helps employees deliver the promised experience and helps customers understand your exclusive value and meaning.

The bad news is that you can’t relegate branding to the silo of marketing. The good news is that the brand can be the unifying element that creates value for the company.

Next, revisit your brand—Marketing and brand strategy are two separate things. Let’s face it. We all know the MVP of marketing is direct mail, but marketing is often viewed (by some) as “expensive” or “expendable.” Because the brand is often lumped into the same category, some companies can lose sight of the need for brand strategy. However, brand strengthens all tactics (in and out of marketing).

A key point in your brand strategy is a meaning that can:

  • Unite everyone on a single focus;
  • Be expressed through the operation; and
  • Be the consistent driving force for all decisions.

You want to have brand meaning that is exclusive to you and no one in your competitive set. In the casino industry, an ambiguous brand meaning can make you vulnerable to pricing decisions, and you never want to be in that category.

First, let’s agree that your brand is not your logo or your excellent advertising. It isn’t the towering new slot machines you have on your floor (unless you are consistently first to market). Lindsay Pedersen states it best in her book, Forging an Iron Clad Brand: A Leader’s Guide. She writes a brand is your promise (that no one else should be able to make) and your fulfillment of that promise (that no one else should be able to fulfill). Brands have always had this relationship. In the pre-industrial age, a small-town butcher made a promise and faithfully fulfilled it time and time again, making the relationship he had with his customer meaningful for both.

Moreover, that brand promise needs to permeate everything you do. Take Volvo as an example. Volvo’s brand promise is clear. When you read the name, you probably thought, “safety.” We’ve all seen the commercials. Some readers may have even test-driven or purchased a Volvo because of the promise of safety, but it is the way the notion of safety permeates its way through everything that takes it from a slogan to a culture. The car itself is boxy—which looks safe. It doesn’t accelerate like a sports car. It “feels” safe. The buying experience is nurturing, with playrooms for children. Also, when hiring, Volvo seeks potential team members who resonate with the safety intent.

By comparison, BMW is all about the driving experience—no playrooms, no cup holders.

Volvo even opted to forgo patents on innovative safety features (including the three-point seatbelt now standard in all cars) because their culture is not about being the only ones to provide safety but for everyone to be safe.

Each chose a unique position to occupy in the competitive set and the consumer’s mind.

Occupy your unique position—Begin by truly understanding your customer and what you can solve for them as well as the alternatives they have. Then listen. Nuanced insights gleaned through listening to customers can deepen your understanding of the customer.

Next, examine the data and start building your brand’s “uncommon denominator” or what Pedersen has identified as the intersection of customer desire, company strengths and competitor strengths. It is this uncommon denominator that will be uniquely different and owned by you—and only you.

Now you can begin laddering up to the more substantial emotional promise. Creating brand characters based on these previous steps can often assist team members in understanding the brand. Human beings connect better with other humans than abstract concepts. I always recommend creating brands as characters.

Armed with your uncommon denominator, emotional connection and brand character, you can start considering how these things come to life throughout the customer journey.

Accretive or diminishing—In her book, Pedersen quotes former Walmart CEO Carter Cast as saying, “All leadership decisions you make are either brand accretive or brand diminishing.” By providing a clear brand understanding and aligning your culture with your brand, you will be more likely to make decisions that are brand accretive.