Last weekend I visited two retail stores that had one thing, and only one thing, in common. They both had the word “hardware” in their brand name. And that’s all they had in common. One store delivered on my experience, one did not.

I visited both Ace Hardware and Restoration Hardware. I visited the former because I needed something particular and my wife said “they may be small in size, but they’ll have it. Besides, their staff will help you, just like a hardware store should. It even smells like a hardware store.” And she was right. My whole experience felt right. Every moment, from walking up to the moment I was back in my car, was what I expected. Ace Harware has more than achieved appropriate brand fit. The brand has hung in there, true to its brand equity, not flinching to “of the moment” considerations. The Ace Hardware brand works. I predict they’ll do well.

On another afternoon that same weekend, I visited Restoration Hardware. I went there because I was at the mall, and just wandered into their store. Peripherally, I was also thinking of poking at some high end fixtures and maybe grab some nice towels to pamper myself at the pool this summer. I couldn’t find either. Instead, I felt like I entered a dusty old Victorian home in the north of England. Don’t get me wrong, I more than get the current hipster aesthetic of ‘genuine’ and ‘worn craft’ and the dark tomes that exemplify this such as the Ace Hotels, where I’ve been known to frequent and where execution does work. This was different. I had no idea what kind of store I was in. It’s kind of turned into a furniture store, but not really. The furniture and accompanying accessories were so over-sized they appeared more to be cast-offs from a teen vampire show set, or a poorly conceived art installation. Some things looked interesting, but I saw no functional application of anything in anyone’s homes I knew. Hardware?  In sum, I believe their  ‘retro-forward’ brand expression is way off the mark. But who am I…

I conduct a lot of “brand stretch” work nowadays (i.e., trying to take legacy brands into new product territory) but their interpretation was more like a knock-off of an ethnographic installation I might conduct with W5 to springboad creative thought. They just seemed to stop there. It was weird. And when I left, no one else was in the store, save for patient sales people trying to balance a set of old dusty croquet balls, or whatever they were.

It just goes to show that a brand can stretch its meaning, and subsequently its product offerings. However, creative license should not come at the price of confusing the consumer. For in the end, both the company and its likely consumers suffer. There’s something to be said for brand honesty.

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