When you want to say “I get it!” to your customers: the art of merchandising your ideas to make an impact

One of my responsibilities in managing my old Borders store was overseeing merchandising. Each month or so, we’d receive a giant binder full of displays and sign changes to execute. Each display would come with a list of titles we could pull from our store inventory to create the arrangement.

Pulling titles and arranging them was a boring and never-ending process. Luckily, much of the store was merchandised according to the store’s preferences. We could create displays based on local events, timely trends, or staff interests. Those were displays I took real pleasure in dreaming up and managing.

I encouraged my staff to pay attention to the questions people asked and patterns in interest. We took those ideas and applied them to inventory requests and then fresh, store-driven displays. Our goal was to turn the pulse of our customer base into relevant and useful store displays.

It seems needless to say but those displays consistently outsold the merchandising suggestions of our corporate merchandising team. They also reduced our workload by countless hours since they preemptively answered common customer questions.

Merchandising was a key factor in both sales and operations.

So what is merchandising?
Despite my experience, I’m no expert. But this is what it means to me:

  • Making products visually appealing to the customer.
  • Putting like objects together to relate a bigger story or to tie into a trend.
  • Creating experiences that naturally lead you towards buying the products involved.

Merchandising is, sadly, a lost art in digital business. What’s truly sad about the lack of merchandising in digital business is that it reflects a lack of true understanding of the customers businesses are serving.

You see, merchandising is all about perspective.

It’s being able to see how other see, feel how others feel, take interest in what others take an interest in.

Merchandising is how you say to your customers, “See, we get it!” It creates a context that connects the customer to her desire.

Merchandising doesn’t just apply to physical products. Merchandising your ideas–especially bold or innovative ideas–can help you gain buy-in (and lead to “buy now!”) much faster than would otherwise be possible.

Faster buy-in means more subscribers, more sales, and less time answering email.

Chris Brogan & Julien Smith write about the importance of using emotion to create connections between your customers and your big ideas in The Impact Equation. Being able to hone in on the emotion your idea generates allows you to use that emotion to create a context around your idea that contrasts your idea from competitive ideas. That’s how you make a bigger impact.

“The goal is to build a bridge between the emotion you want them to experience and how your idea serves that emotion.”
— Chris Brogan & Julien Smith, The Impact Equation

What does merchandising an idea look like?

First, for the sake of this post, we’re going to talk about ideas in a very broad sense. It could be an innovative product that challenges the status quo, it could be a movement you’re leading, it could be a new discovery in your niche, it could be a brand-new formula for success.

1.) Identify the emotional context behind your idea. How do you want people to feel when the encounter your idea (i.e. project, product, movement, discovery, formula)? What other ideas or stories foster that emotion? What’s the “before” emotion, in other words, how do people feel without your idea?

2.) Focus on the visual element of your idea. Do particular colors or images portray the emotion or story around your idea? What environment (home, the great outdoors, fancy restaurant, crunchy coffee shop, etc…) would your customer associate with that emotion or story? Who are the other characters in the story?

3.) Gather related ideas. What ideas inspired you in this new idea? Are you playing with a trend or cultural zeitgeist? What well-known ideas or projects will help people connect with your new idea?

Once you understand the emotional context, visual elements, and related concepts of your idea, you have a loose story that you can create an experience from. That experience could be a well-styled photograph. It could be a reimagining of your brand or personal image. It could be a free event. It might just be the story of your idea told in its full context.

When Seth Godin created The Domino Project, the name he chose was part of the way he merchandised this brave new idea. He wanted to create & publish books that were inherently shareable. He wanted to spread tough questions and fresh ideas the way well-placed dominos cause each other fall in a neat line: effortlessly. The Domino Project was a well-merchandised idea.

When Lululemon created it’s Right as Rain jacket, it chose to harness the story of its Vancouver origins to create a cultural buy in. They identified with the Pacific Northwest dweller who just wanted to stay dry on a daily basis because they lived it. So they used that story to merchandise the idea of the perfect raincoat.

When I created Kick Start Labs, I chose to hone in on the thrill and childlike anticipation of experimenting with a chemistry set and tied it to the traditionally less thrilling idea of experimenting in your business. My goal was to reframe business learning by merchandising in relation to seeing what happens when you combine some volatile chemicals. Safety first, of course.

No doubt, you’re already working at merchandising your ideas. But bringing attention to the full process might mean that your idea goes from being spread at a snail’s pace to setting the world on fire.

Leave a comment to tell me one thing you could do today to improve how your ideas are merchandised.


Want more on seeing the world through your customer’s perspective? I’ve got a whole process for that. But first, check out these other posts.