In my early twenties, I worked in an independent bookstore in a small American town. The owner, Richard Howard, was a Mississippian who had learned the book trade in Washington D.C. and returned to his home state to recreate a bookstore that would serve the community and be a place for people to gather. For 20 years the bookstore thrived, until one day big box retailers began encroaching on the neighborhood. Who do you think survived?
The independent bookstore!
Richard did what the big box retailers couldn't do, which was create a brand that authentically reflected who he was. Naturally, people wanted to support him and his vision. Had Richard followed the lead of the big box stores by selling only mainstream books or hosting big-name authors, maybe he would have sold more books initially. Instead, he took a risk and nurtured a brand that reflected who he was: someone who supported unknown Southern writers who he believed in! And the result? Today, people pilgrimage to his magical, literary world.
Understanding who you are is an important step in visualizing your brand. For Richard, he liked the charm of the old Square, so he retained the historic design of the building. In a nod to the bookselling world, he used fonts in his packaging that recalled the text of old books. His sense of humor too was reflected in the space; framed author photos plastered the walls the same way starlets might in a Hollywood restaurant.
Beyond design, Richard considered the style of customer service he would provide, one that would "under promise, and over deliver." Even though people can easily order books online, they still go to the store to order their books.
What we can learn from Richard is that the design of a brand requires an understanding of who we are first and foremost. The most effective brands distill the vision and hearts of the people running them. The connection people authentically make with them ensures their longevity.
Next year, Square Books will celebrate its 40th anniversary. It continues to hold court on the town's square as the heartbeat of the community.