I’m deeply cynical about most brands — and the odds are that you are, too.
According to a survey last year most people say they wouldn’t care if more than 73% of brands disappeared tomorrow. And although strong brands can outperform the stock market by 120%, only one in five brands are actually perceived as making a meaningful difference in people’s lives.
Most of my brand associations are a nuanced combination of positive and negative feelings. For example, I like my coffee machine, but when I see George Clooney staring at me from a company’s glossy brochure, it doesn’t make me feel part of a special elite—it makes me feel I’m paying too much for my coffee pods. And I like my e-book reader, but when I clear out the cookies in my browser, the company sometimes offers me cheaper books than when I log on as a loyal customer.
Social media is working hard to reduce the role of marketing. If you have a bad product, you’ll quickly be found out. If you have a great product, you may not need any marketing at all — your customers will do it for you. Marketing can help amplify conversations about your product or service, and find out how to improve it, but products now “speak for themselves.”
Because of this, I actually thought that I was relatively immune to branding, and when I was challenged to think of a brand I “loved,” I struggled. But I eventually realized that there was one company that I would unequivocally recommend to others: Decathlon, a €7bn global sporting goods chain headquartered in France, with stores in 21 countries worldwide.
Why do I love Decathlon? It’s certainly not the ads—I’d never seen one until I researched this article. And it’s not the way the brand makes me feel or how others will perceive me when I’m using the products. It’s simpler than that: the company sells the products I want with good quality and great prices — which is a much better basis for brand loyalty than a celebrity actor or cool tweets.
Decathlon aims to make the pleasure and benefits of sport accessible to all. The spacious stores are full of every sporting product I could ever need, with all the regular well-known sport brands, but also a wide range of own-brand products.
Decathlon manages to offer great prices without a “discount experience” by designing and sourcing their own products. They’re sold under twenty different passion brands tailored to particular sports, such as Oxelo for skateboards and roller-skates. Decathlon says that each team “channels all their energy in to developing technical, good-looking and simple products, always at the lowest possible prices.”
The Decathlon products are designed for people like me, who want things that work, but don’t want to pay extra just for a particular logo. My local store in the heart of Paris sells the t-shirts I use for running at just €4.95 ($6.25) each — less than a cup of coffee on the terrace of the nearest café. The goggles I use for swimming cost just €1.95 ($2.46) — less than the entry price to my municipal pool. And my sunglasses are currently on special offer at €6.95 ($8.78). And these are all quality products that I’ve used a lot and been very happy with.
Decathlon stays on the cutting edge of sporting goods innovation with research teams that observe sports people during their activities. They use their insights to develop and test over 3,000 prototypes a year. For example, the company was one of the first to make and sell “2-second tents” that you can just throw in the air to set up.
Each year, the company celebrates innovation with a widely-promoted contest. Check out the highlight reel of winning products to see lots of innovative and useful sporting innovations, including last year’s surface snorkeling mask and thermal jacket that doubles as a life vest.
Try Before You Buy
My family and I have now purchased several bicycles, a kick-scooter, roller skates, a wave-board, and more—and each time, we were able to try them in the store, zooming around the aisles to check we’d made the right choice.
The Decathlon web store experience is just as pleasant as the retail stores, and seamlessly linked: I can find the same products, at the same prices. I can find out if the product I want is currently in stock in my local store, and I can choose a retail location as the web delivery address. And it works across country borders — I was delighted to find that my loyalty card worked in Spain when I went to stock up for a beach holiday.
Simply a Great Customer Experience
It’s a great reminder that branding doesn’t have to be about connecting with customers on social media (sorry brands, I don’t want to be your “friend”) or trying to change the world (I’d rather accountable, elected officials work on that).
Instead of turning to fancy marketing techniques, Decathlon “simply” provides a great customer experience. That takes hard work and, increasingly, great computer systems and analytics.
Branding isn’t about being cool. It’s about doing what’s right for the customer, and that is something we can all aspire to emulate, whatever business we’re in.
Now I’m just wondering what my next sporting purchase will be—I’ve had my eye on a surfboard (€149.95/$189) for a while, but sadly the Seine isn’t known for its great breaks, so it will probably be the Hawaii cruising skateboard (€99.95/$126)…
Photo: my daughter, growing up in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower with Decathlon bicycle and helmet. A version of this blog was first posted to The Customer Edge site as part of a series of #BRANDLOVE stories including Nordstrom, Adidas, and Costco.