Developing concepts that stick

No doubt you’ve seen the business book Made To Stick by the Heath brothers, thanks largely to its can’t-miss bright orange cover and duct tape. Or you might remember Seth Godin’s book Purple Cow, packaged for a limited time in a milk carton.

In the sea of boring business books, these two garnered both reader attention and sales. As skillful merchants and marketers, these authors took unconventional approaches to standing out on the shelves and getting their messages heard. It paid off.

Years later, these titles are still going strong. But it wasn’t just about the duct tape and the milk carton or about being sticky and clever. It started with these writers knowing what their readers wanted and being sure that their products delivered or overdelivered in every aspect.

Dan and Chip Heath and Seth Godin realized that their books were indeed “products,” and that they had to be mindful of each and every aspect of these products — the relevance and quality of the editorial message, the pricing, the promotions, the channels, and, yes, the packaging. These writers are also masterful merchants.

Products have jobs to do for your customers and for your brand. Being “outcome based” is the job of every merchant. Merchandisers know that it’s all about the details behind the product, inside the product and all around the product.

Extraordinary merchants know they must advocate for the brand promise at every product decision point. This outcome-based merchandising stick-to-itiveness is what creates loyal customers.

From A to Z, here are a few examples from across a wide spectrum of product categories that demonstrate a merchant’s pertinacity for thinking through what the customer hopes to gain from buying these products.


Started years ago by two forty-something women for other forty-something women, As We Change is a solution-focused business. One issue top of mind for this age group is diet — not fads concerning money-making bestsellers based on one food group, but real day-to-day practical weight control.

For instance, the company offers a “Perfect Portions Diet Dish” for $30 with which you can organize your food accordingly and take it with you to the office or pop it in the freezer. Very practical. Very helpful. Also, very on brand.


After the seven-year-old has been given the historical dolls and the modern dolls, the mix-and-match clothes, the accessories and the storybooks, what else could a little girl possibly need? The merchants at American Girl continue to think through everything a young girl might dream about when it comes to play — and real life!

The category that most impresses me is “Doll Care,” for when a child’s doll might need a little TLC. American Girl offers a $30 Doll Wheelchair and a $26 “Feel Better Kit” that contains realistic crutches, ice pack, casts and even sports injury tips for the girls.


Want to celebrate a friend’s birthday but just can’t be there in person? Send a festive Birthday Party in a Box filled with over 20 pieces of cake, cookies and candy for only $39.95. The merchants at Cheryl & Co. know that celebrating special occasions with food brings joy whether you deliver it in person or not. They make it easy.


Delia’s merchants understand that teen girls come in all shapes and sizes, so in addition to organizing the company’s jeans by skinny, flare, boot cut and destroyed (yes, already ripped and patched!), they also display them by inseam and take another variable out of the guess work of sizing. Delia’s also knows that there are other things on teens’ minds besides fashion, and has a whole section dedicated to scholarships. Delia’s gets teens.


The founders of this company started it from a conversation across their backyard fences in 1984. Gooseberry Patch delivers practical yet charming country store goods to their customers all across America. The two founders are still actively involved in product creation, and they have a loyal following for their cookbooks.

Knowing how unwieldy cookbooks can create clutter in a kitchen without bookshelves, the cataloger has developed just the right size Wire Utility Baskets that hold these Gooseberry Patch cookbooks on a counter top. And with today’s customer so focused on value, the company has also started offering two-in-one cookbooks.


The folks behind this brand are passionate gardeners, and they do an excellent job of sharing both their enthusiasm and expertise throughout their catalog pages and their Website. Both are chock-full of what Tom Peters calls “gaspworthy” plants.

High Country Gardens does realize that not all their customers can dedicate full-time energy to this avocation — even though they may desire the outcome of a beautiful garden. So it offers products such as preplanned “Gardens in a Box” or “Basil in a Bag.” Bite-size gardens for those with light green thumbs.


This apparel cataloger/retailer may be lucky enough to be outfitting the presidential family, but it hasn’t forgotten its core customers — and their tighter wallets these days. J. Crew’s Website has a lengthy section called Instant Gratification — an edited collection of their product line (from shoes to accessories to separates) all priced under $100. Quick, convenient, relevant and affordable.


Each article of clothing, whether it’s a Silk Forest Bamboo Dress or a Pima Cotton Anatolian Kimono from this brand, is a true work of art and often a conversation starter for the wearer. Peruvian Connection doesn’t stop there, however.

It goes on to tempt its customers with a section called “Finishing Touches” that creates both a significant upsell opportunity for them ($159 for a Beaded Paisley Silk Clutch or $259 for Abalone & Leather Drop Earrings) and possibly completes an outfit for the customer, saving her from running all over town for just the right complementary accessory.

Next Page: REI

Previous Page: American Girl


The merchants at Recreational Equipment Inc. understand that their customers are active outdoor enthusiasts and readers of magazines like Backpacker, Outside and National Geographic Adventure. Prominent on REI’s home page is a headline about all the award winning gear that these magazine editors just bestowed on various products.

The REI merchants coupled their expertise with these editors and showcased products that their customers would find of value in an informative and easy-to-navigate collection.


Positioning itself as a more creative alternative to flowers, Vermont Teddy Bear Co. proudly advertises “More Customization” on its Website. You can now personalize the bear’s paws with a message, and choose fur and eye color to get just the right bear for your gift-giving needs.

The merchant does a great job of injecting humor all along the way with clever product naming and character creation: Mama’s Boy Bear wears motorcycle clothes and sports a tattoo that says “Mom,” while the Bear-Foot & Pregnant bear expectantly holds an ice cream cone.


What other company do you know that has “Packed with Happiness” printed on its boxes? Everyone at Zappos — from the president to the merchants to the customer service folks — works each and every day for one customer outcome: happiness. Not a bad goal. So far that mission has translated to over $1 billion in sales.

At Zappos, it’s not really about the shoes it’s selling; rather, it’s what the company calls the “PEC” — the personal emotional connection — with the customers. Sounds a little like the acronym the Heath brothers use to spell sticky success in Made to Stick: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and Stories.

So, how is your brand at merchandising meaningful outcomes for your customers? Whether it’s dolls or bears or shoes or gadgets or gardens, the best merchants know that this is their hardest job. It requires customer insight, passion for over- delivering on expectations, and a lot of stick-to-itiveness!

Andrea Syverson ( is president of IER Partners, a consulting company specializing in brand and merchandising transformations.

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