Belk Turns Up the Wattage

Jon Pollack, Executive VP sales promotion, marketing and e-commerce, Belk Inc. 


TYPE OF BUSINESS Department store operator

NUMBER OF STORES 305 stores in 16 Southern states

The nation’s largest privately owned department store company is stepping up — and updating — its profile. Belk, founded in 1888, is investing an estimated $70 million during the next year and a half to support a rebranding push that puts a more modern and contemporary spin on its Southern heritage. 

Belk’s new corporate identity is being supported by an extensive branding and advertising campaign that includes market-wide television and print advertising, circulars, direct mail and social media. 

Chain Store Age spoke with Jon Pollack, executive VP sales promotion, marketing and e-commerce for Belk, about the company’s rebranding and other initiatives.

This is the first time Belk has updated its brand identity since 1967. Why now?

The rebranding was a thoughtful process that we’ve been working on for about 16 months. We wanted our brand to communicate who we are and what Belk represents today. Over the past few years, we have put a strong focus on updating merchandise assortments, the look of our stores and the way we buy and present assortments. We’re also continuing to build on our excellent reputation for customer service. We believe now is the time to better align Belk’s external image to reflect what our company is today.

A strong brand image helps any company make strong emotional connections with customers, associates and business partners. We want to hold on to our very loyal customers and attract new ones who don’t know us. We are committed to delivering fashion and value to the modern, Southern woman. We want her to count on Belk first — for her, for her family, for life.

Many of our customers want more modern and updated fashions from Belk. In fact, that’s the fastest-growing segment of our customer base and offers the greatest sales potential.

How does the new tag line and identity, “Modern. Southern. Style.” reflect Belk’s strategy going forward?

Our new logo and branding represent the distinct personality traits of Belk — Southern, friendly, fashionable and colorful. Modern is a growing lifestyle segment that crosses all age groups and covers different price levels. It’s a way people think and live, and Belk is committed to serving our modern customers.

Southern isn’t just a location. It’s an attitude and state of mind — gracious, friendly, passionate and colorful. We know the Southern lifestyle better than anyone else, and customers can always count on us to provide the fashion they desire and the value they deserve.

What are the most important elements of the campaign? 

Belk’s new corporate identity was introduced beginning in early October with an extensive branding and advertising campaign that includes market-wide television and print advertising, circulars, direct mail and social media, all of which incorporate Belk’s new graphic elements and brand messages. The interactive marketing blitz alone is expected to drive over 750 million impressions during the critical retail holiday shopping period.

When customers enter our stores, they’ll find much more than a new logo. We’ve worked hard in recent years to provide customers with more of the brands and styles that they love. We’ve modernized our assortments and focused on making Belk the > destination store for cosmetics, shoes, dresses, denim and jewelry. 

We’re also updating store facilities and merchandise presentation and emphasizing customer service to make shopping easier and more convenient. Our customer satisfaction scores are higher than ever before. 

How important is branding to customers, particularly in today’s climate?

A strong brand image helps any company make critical connections with customers, but branding goes much deeper than a new logo. What the customer really thinks and feels about the brand is what’s most important. We held customer focus groups in key markets and conducted research that included nearly 33,000 Belk customers. 

We also conducted interviews with Belk associates from the board room to the selling floor to get their feedback. What they told us reaffirmed the strengths of our company. Belk is rooted in respected values and a rich heritage, [which] have been the foundation for serving customers for nearly 125 years. 

Our goal is to be the South’s premier fashion department store. We want customers to understand what we have to offer and shop with us first. By understanding what our customer expects and is looking for, we are positioned to gain market share from key competitors while continuing to provide current customers with everything they love about Belk. 

We also continue to be firmly rooted in serving the communities where our stores are located. In addition to the many grassroots activities that take place on the store level, our biannual Charity Sale has raised more than $22 million since fall 2007; the spring 2010 Charity Sale raised more than $4.5 million alone. This September, we also announced a three-year, $3 million commitment to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of the project? 

The branding process has required a great deal of careful research, planning and execution over the past year. Coordinating the rollout logistics for more than 300 stores in a 16-state footprint is a massive undertaking. 

Where do you stand with regard to the rollout of the campaign?

The new logo and identity elements are already in place in store displays, signage, shopping bags and other collateral. Newly designed charge cards were issued in October to Belk Elite and Premier customers and will be issued to our Rewards card holders in March. External store signs will be installed in 60 stores before year-end, with the balance expected to be installed by November 2011. A substantial increase in television and interactive advertising is planned for the fourth quarter to support the rebranding initiative.

Besides its new corporate identity, what other areas of its business is Belk investing in? 

Belk is making major investments in the long-term growth and success of the company; in fact, the company plans to invest approximately $500 million over the next three years in strategic initiatives that include branding, merchandising, information technology, e-commerce, store remodelings and expansions of key merchandise departments. 

In addition, we are investing in our associates to maintain what we believe is the most dedicated and talented team in retail. Taking care of customers is a critical measure of success, and our customer satisfaction scores are higher than ever. This demonstrates the tremendous pride and commitment that our associates share in taking care of customers and providing friendly personal service, which is a legacy and hallmark of our company.

What advice do you have for other retailers that may be thinking of embarking on their own rebranding campaign? 

Start with good research that includes listening carefully to customers and employees to find out what they think of your brand and to get their input. Good communication is also critical. People want to have a clear understanding of why you are changing your brand and what differences they can expect to see when they shop with you. People become attached to a brand — our former logo was 43 years old — and some may not like the change. It’s important to engage with customers and to be responsive to their questions and concerns. We communicated using a well-planned advertising and public relations campaign that incorporated a variety of media, including broadcast, print, e-mail and social media. 

The overall department store category is experiencing a revival. How do you explain it?

Traditional department store customers are underserved in boutiques for the most part. Department stores typically offer greater value and an easier, more convenient shopping experience. While many younger customers have not been active department store shoppers, there is tremendous growth potential for this segment at Belk, and they are responding to our assortments and customer service. This is an exciting time for our company and the future is bright.

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