Brand building is a hard topic to talk about in the age of digital. In many respects, brand loyalty is dying, and customers are flocking to companies that offer the best service or product, regardless of their loyalty to a brand.

This has left many well-known retailers like Toys R' Us and Sears to face store closings. One company that continues to weather the storm and invest in the future, is a family-owned business, Follet Corporation. Follett has grown to manage over 1,200 campus stores and a leading e-commerce provider managing 1,800 sites across North America.

Follett Corporation was founded in 1873 when Charles M. Barnes opened a used bookstore in his Wheaton, Illinois home. With no outside capital, Follett continues to be a great bootstrapped success story even as Amazon, an innovator in the book industry, continues to experiment in the space. 

I was curious to see what entrepreneurs and startups can learn from a retail brand that continues to thrive in environments where other retailers have failed in a big way.

When I first sat down with Chief Digital Officer, Roe McFarlane of Follett Corporation. I will admit I didn't know much about Follet besides it being a major collegiate retailer.

Here's what I learned about building a brand that lasts for centuries.

Cultivate a tight-knit, family first community.

Building a brand isn't about how amazing your ad campaigns are or how creative your company tagline is. The first thing I learned from McFarlane is that creating a long-standing brand starts with building a community.

When I was walking around the Follett office, I felt like I was back in college. I was able to get a peak of clothing merchandise that was not on shelves yet, and it made me a little nostalgic about my time when I attended Purdue University. Follett operates under the brand of each college it serves.  At Purdue though, the family business operates its own store under the Follett brand.

"We employ many students of the university, and that's why many alumni come to the University and shop at the local Follet store. It's all about the reliving an experience. There's no better feeling than wearing your university's engineering shirt purchased from the local university store. That's why we have a distinct advantage over some of our competitors, " says McFarlane.

When I was building my network in Chicago, I distinctly remember two founders of now a well-known startup who would organize weekly events for entrepreneurs to connect with each other and build new relationships. Through this tight-knit community, this gave them the momentum to build awareness for their product in Chicago and beat out other competitors.

Building a company culture of family first can have a significant impact on how successful your company is.

Make your customer feel at home.

During Mark Zuckerberg's recent congressional testimony, Zuckerberg said: "All of the research we've ever done confirms that our users prefer personalized ads over non-personalized ads."

Can you imagine getting ads for tennis when you haven't played tennis in 10 years? It's the same thing for buying books at a university.

"We're spending $50 million on digital disruption, specifically e-commerce. This is the largest investment we've made for digital, and we're investing heavily in making each local digital experience hyperlocal, " says McFarlane. "We personalize each university store experience, whether it's online or offline. Most importantly, it's easier than ever before for our teams to make these changes without disrupting the entire development ecosystem."

Focus on digital for the growth of your company, but don't lose track of making a customer feel at home.

Experiment with new ways to grow, and never be stagnant regardless of how much you're loved.

I'm going to date myself, but when I was a freshman at Purdue University in 2000, I specifically remember buying every new book possible for my first semester at a local Follett store. I learned the hard way when some books didn't need to be new, and some books weren't even used at all during the semester.

I honestly didn't think I had other options.

"The one thing that we're doing is trying out different experiences for our students. We've piloted group buying of course materials in many universities, and so far it's been successful at driving affordability and accessibility for students. This allows an entire class to buy the same course materials at a significantly discounted price since they all purchased together. We're always exploring different ways to make it better for our students, " says McFarlane.

It's good to know that students have different options. That's a for sure way to build a great brand. Focus on the customer experience, experiment with new ways to make them happy and treat them like family.

Published on: Apr 18, 2018