July 2020


Rebuilding the Brand

Your brand tells the world who you are and what you do—and sometimes it needs a facelift.
Pat Pape

Tiger Fuel Company, the petroleum product distributor in Charlottesville, Virginia, was eight years old in 1991 when it acquired its first convenience store. Both entities grew steadily, and soon the organization included the original business, nine c-stores dubbed The Market and 10 car washes known as Tiger Wash. But with success came a problem.

“As the number of stores grew, we started seeing inconsistencies in messaging, design and application of our brand,” said Sarah Whitney, director of marketing, Tiger Fuel. “A lot of our customers didn’t understand that Tiger Fuel owned and operated The Markets, and we realized that there was a lot to gain by developing a stronger association between the two brands. There are instances where we want to promote all of our business together, but they looked drastically different.” Those differences were hard to ignore. The Market stores had a green and white color scheme, while Tiger Fuel’s was black and red.

Last year, Tiger Fuel launched a major rebranding effort to update the entire operation. “We felt it was important to unify our brand family and create a more modern, consistent and professional look that appeals to customers,” said Whitney. “And we wanted the look to reflect the delicious foods in our Gourmet-to-Go deli.”

After choosing a red, black and white color scheme and a trendy logo for all three businesses, Tiger Fuel recently unveiled its new look, including new interior wall wrap, a redesigned menu board and an inviting coffee bar, at a store in Charlottesville.

If you’re buying or building stores, you’re probably in a seven- to 10-year cycle of having to remodel them.

But the rebrand was more than just skin deep. The company’s technology and online presence were upgraded, adding a new loyalty program and mobile app, an online ordering system and redesigned websites.

Gone are the printed cards that customers kept in their wallets to track the free products they earned from the The Market’s sandwich and coffee clubs. Those benefits are now collected on The Market Rewards mobile app. In addition, online ordering is available in The Market Rewards app and website, allowing customers to place food orders electronically and pick them up in-store.

“Guests can now earn points to use for fuel and in-store discounts and free products,” said Whitney. “Loyalty is so important in the convenience-store marketing space, and we’re constantly looking for ways to increase retention and customers’ commitment to The Market stores and products.”

Have Patience

Two years ago, the growing Kwik Chek chain based in Spicewood, Texas, wanted an updated look to ensure consistency with future locations the company plans to open.

“If you’re buying stores or building new stores, you’re probably in a seven- to 10-year cycle of having to go in and remodel them,” said Kevin Smartt, president of Kwik Chek and a NACS Board member. “When we looked at that process, we knew we wanted our existing store chain to mirror the quality of any new stores we would be building.”

Rebranding a chain is “a lot of who you want to be and what product you want to offer your customers,” said Smartt. “It’s been a process of figuring out what works, how to control labor and how to do this in an efficient way.”

So far, 11 of the chain’s 47 stores have been updated inside and out. Because Kwik Chek has a strong commitment to fresh, made-to-order foods, the remodels feature open kitchens that let customers watch their orders being prepared. A novel color scheme includes plenty of orange: “a happy, friendly, appetizing color,” he said. “It’s not a color that has been heavily used in the past by other chains.

“We’ve changed the primary store logo and the food logo, though they’re similar in nature,” Smartt added. “We are doing the stores one at a time, so it’s taken longer than we thought it would. But customers love it.”

What’s Your Brand?

Every business has products or services to offer, and your brand is how you communicate that offering, according to Ernie Harker, president of ErnBurn, a brand development consultancy, and former head of marketing for the Maverik convenience chain in Salt Lake City.

“In the convenience-store world, most stores say, ‘We’re clean, we’re fast and we’re friendly.’ And they should be. But how are you going to communicate that in a way that’s different from your competitors?” Harker said. “What language and visuals do you use to express what it is that makes you different?”

Rebranding can be a challenging process, as Harker well knows. In 2001, he led the re-branding effort that took Maverik Country Stores from an Old West themed retailer with a mustachioed cowboy on its logo to one focused on an active outdoor lifestyle and bearing the now well-known slogan, “Maverik—Adventure’s First Stop.”

In preparation for the project, Harker’s team surveyed convenience-store shoppers and found that many didn’t particularly like going to c-stores or even filling up their car. “The only thing that got them excited about a c-store was stopping on the way to their favorite activity—hiking, fishing, skiing or whatever,” he said. “We thought, ‘what if Maverik positioned itself as a place where everyone was treated like they were going on an adventure?’”

The idea was a big hit with management, and the next step was creating billboards, advertising and a store interior decorated with images and actual sporting goods to inspire dreams of outdoor activities. “But [the execution of that idea] was not nearly as cool as it is today,” he said.

The change was different, but not drastic. Instead of embracing the independent cowboy spirit that was so popular in the mid-20th century, the chain celebrated the independent spirit of contemporary individuals who do their own thing in the great outdoors. “Those things were already congruent with the heart of Maverik’s brand,” Harker said. “We were just expressing it in a different, updated way that over the years became more crystalized.”

Three Questions

When clients come seeking help with a rebrand, Harker puts them through several exercises and asks them a series of questions before talking tactics. To help them clarify their goals, he asks:

  1. What makes your business special and different from your competitors?
  2. Who is the customer who cares about that?
  3. What do you want customers to say when they leave your store?

“People have a hard time figuring this out,” he said. “It’s important to identify who is most likely to be your customer, which is where you’ll get the most frequency, most transactions, larger transactions. Then, develop your message for those people.”

Retailers typically insist they want everyone to be their customer. “There is a difference between sales and marketing,” Harker said. “Sales is, ‘We will sell to everybody.’ But marketing is trying to reach the people most interested in buying your product. Yes, you will sell to everybody. But it’s hard to market and advertise to everybody.”

When to Change

There are two primary reasons to rebrand, according to Mike Musso, senior managing director for Conway MacKenzie, a global management consulting firm in Atlanta.

“The first is because you have to, and the second is because you need to,” he said. “The first has to do with consolidation after an acquisition. You are forced to choose a footprint to ensure you have a recognized brand for consistency and consumer recognition. The second reason is about staying ahead of the competition.” Consumers are a fickle bunch, he said. “They always want new.”

In the world of c-stores, visual appeal starts well before a consumer drives up to the store. Highway signs establish the store’s image miles before the customer arrives. Compelling signage and a bright, well-lit, clean forecourt invite consumers inside to shop a thoughtfully planned selection of merchandise.

“Product assortment is important to rebranding, whether it be a new offering or new location for certain products,” Musso said. “And giving customers access to convenient technology is mandatory. Can they order prepared food from a touchscreen, and do they have good instructions on how to use the technology? Does the POS system check them out quickly, or are there long lines? Rebranding goes well beyond signage. It has to do with your connection to the consumer.”

It’s important to identify who is most likely to be your customer, which is where you’ll get the most frequency.

Of course, a major consideration when planning a rebrand is the cost. “In 2016-17, an average convenience store rebrand ran from $20,000 to $100,000 per location,” said Musso. “When you start talking about updating fuel pumps, canopies and technology, that number can go as high as $200,000.”

Fortunately, there are multiple ways to measure ROI, including changes in revenue, margin, customer counts, loyalty program memberships, shopping baskets and managing the store with less labor. Before attempting to tackle a rebrand internally, Musso and Harker advise store operators to call on an experienced consultant.

When managers meet to discuss their business, “the quiet person often gets steamrolled by the loudest person in the room,” Harker said. “You should bring in a third party, who will ask hard questions. That person is like a therapist and isn’t worried about losing their job. They can say, ‘I challenge this. Let’s go a little deeper,’” he said.

“You need an outside perspective,” Musso said. “You have to understand who your customer is today and what’s your target. That can only be done with an outside agency that has had repeatable success within branding projects. This is not where you cut corners.”

Rebranding has many rewards, but you need a well-defined vision of the finished product—plus total management commitment—before you start. “If you don’t, you’ll spend time and money making changes,” Smartt said. “In a smaller company, that diverts everyone’s attention from other projects. And while this may sound contradictory: Keep it simple.”

Pat Pape

Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a full-time writer. See more of her articles at patpape.wordpress.com.