Barnes & Noble & The Boundaries of Brand Identity

Matt Williams and Kelly O'Keefe discuss some lessons from a national book retailer's new brand plan.

Beer & Brands
Cold Take #8
May 21, 2024

Barnes & Noble’s Retail Brand Identity

Barnes & Noble, a national bookstore chain, announced a new brand plan in a recent New York Times article. Instead of adhering to a one-size-fits-all model across its locations, Barnes & Noble is focusing on localizing retail experiences that reflect the unique book-selling culture of their respective communities. 

New Barnes & Noble Retail Layout

The CEO of Barnes & Noble openly acknowledges that brand strategy experts find this approach unconventional. In this Cold Take, Brand Federation partners Kelly O’Keefe and Matt Williams weigh in on the company’s new approach to its retail brand identity. 

Brand Boundaries

While there may be challenges, Matt believes that it's a promising direction for the brand. During his years of work with GEICO, Matt recalls that the insurance brand focused on building a personality rather than a rigid message. GEICO's success demonstrated that as long as brand personality remains consistent, a brand can communicate multiple messages through various campaigns.

“What we realized is the boundary of the brand isn’t the message. It’s actually the personality. You know a Geico ad when you see it. It can be talking about service or 24/7 access or savings and it can be a caveman or a gecko. It can be any number of things as long as it feels like Geico.” – Matt Williams

Geico Characters

Barnes & Noble has a unifying brand idea, reflecting the local book selling experience in each market they’re in. It is resetting the boundary of brands in their category away from a consistent experience in every location. 

Reader Community

Kelly sees a better understanding of core customers in Barnes & Noble's new brand plan: the reader community, the people who cherish literature. 

“If they are aligning that freedom of local operation and local style with an understanding that the reason that's important is because we're reaching and connecting to a community of people who care about books, who care about literature, and who aren't comfortable getting their information from a meme or an influencer on TikTok, then I think that could be very successful.”  – Kelly O’Keefe

By harmonizing local operations with the local reading community, Barnes & Noble can create a more engaging and connected experience with the brand’s core customer.

The Takeaways for Brands

Only time will tell whether this will pay off, but one thing is certain – the national bookstore chain is taking a fresh approach to rekindling its relevance. Here are some lessons for any brand:

Loosen up the reins – it’s okay to give some creative permission to your brand and release it from a set of ironclad experience rules.

Know who your personality is – ensure any expression is consistent with your brand’s personality. 

Understand the target audience – don’t forget who you’re talking to.

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Beer & Brands is Brand Federation's monthly podcast where marketing industry leaders, Kelly O'Keefe and Matt Williams, discuss brands, brand strategy, and tactics. Over beers.

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