VOWS breaks down the six major areas where brand is presented in your business, as well as provides helpful suggestions for ensuring yours is as strong as possible.

Store Exterior: Lasting Impressions
    Your store’s location, neighboring businesses, traffic patterns and structure design all figure into how your brand is viewed by passing drivers and pedestrians. You may or may not own your space and the adjacent parking, but appearances do count and impressions, good or bad, can become indelible.
    Whether in person or online, the face you present must clearly reflect your brand. Even a little bit of wear and tear can detract from your status as a professional bridal expert and master of trend awareness. It’s good policy to regularly review the condition of your store’s exterior for signs that repairs, updates and conversations with other tenants or landlords may be overdue.
    It’s a fact of retailing life that neighborhoods change over time. Tenants come and go. Even the stand-alone building on a good-sized lot can be impacted by business conditions in the vicinity. When business is thriving, it’s easy to miss the signs that your exterior branding may need a facelift.
    Your maintenance schedule should encompass an overview of all exterior components. You may be accustomed to potholes in the parking lot, that noisy bar two doors down or the bleak, empty storefront next door that detracts from the entire shopping complex. However shoppers noticing it for the first time may see things quite differently

Store Interior: Making It Work
    Unless your brand is “cluttered, chaotic and disorganized”, every detail of your interior design should work in concert to deliver a single message. There should be a sense of continuity from the waiting area and reception desk to the last dressing room in the back. In other words, little things mean a lot.
    Overall, there should be a protocol for keeping racks tidy and organized; a logical reason for why certain gowns are placed where; and a plan for accessory displays, whether they be kept in close proximity to dressing rooms or scattered around the store on fancy pedestals.
    Elements of design should tell the same story and not clash or distract from your overall atmosphere. Maintain a high level of cleanliness in your store, so that dust on a shelf or fingerprints on glass don’t distract from the merchandise and the ambience you’ve worked so hard to create.     Look to such details as using the same style, material and color throughout the store, if possible. Check for damage and wear and replace hangers that have seen better days. One broken hanger on a rail can spoil the whole picture.
    A messy, unkempt, dusty or cluttered dressing room can leave a less-positive-than-desired impression on the bridal shopper, so monitor each room’s status. That means returning gowns quickly to racks or closed-stock rooms, so that each bride’s experience is optimum. Since this is also a display area for many accessory items like veils, make sure they are kept tidy as well; replace samples with fresh ones as needed.
    Don’t forget the overall ambience of your store. Wedding shopping is a very emotional experience. How it feels to be ensconced in a beautifully decorated, warm and welcoming shop tells your brand story. Brides may not consciously soak in the lighting, background music, comfortable seating or climate control, but they will feel they are getting something special in terms of attention.

Service: This Is What We Do
    Your physical store is the central showcase of your bridal brand. You’ve created a unique environment with your bridal shop where special dress shopping experiences can happen. Every bride is treated as if she is the only bride – and for each bride’s appointment, she is. Every aspect of the search for the dress, and all that goes with it, should be on brand.
    Pre-registration, as well as visits to your website, should prepare the bride for what will happen. Your challenge is to make sure the experience fulfills those promises, and then make it even more exciting. If you promise the bride will be treated like a princess or a queen, she shouldn’t be kept waiting in the reception area past her appointment time. Refreshments should be refreshing. Consultants should be interested and encouraging.
    And, special events should be special. “Let’s just throw a party” isn’t a solid promotional plan. Details do matter in a detailed-oriented business like bridal. You carefully measure the bride for that dress; you should do due diligence in delivering branded service down to carrying the bride’s gown to her car during a monsoon or a 100-year blizzard.

Staffing: This Is Us
    Much has been made, and rightly so, of the fact that for an independent specialty shop, the store brand often is a reflection of the owner’s personal brand. Whether you are on the sales floor or out in the community running a 5K, you are representing your business. The same applies to your staff. They might wear shop “team” logo’d T-shirts during their non-working hours as a subtle reminder that your business is local and your employees belong to the community as well.
    Because your staff is integral to your brand messaging, you need a protocol for recruiting, hiring and training talented employees. Each consultant and manager needs to be onboard with the company’s mission statement and know his or her role in brand messaging. Brand comes into play in various ways: what consultants wear, how they are identified to shoppers, how they greet brides, and how well they are trained to listen and respond.
    The definition of “uniforms” in bridal is an ongoing debate. Some stores insist only that consultants are well-groomed and neatly dressed, in attire that is comfortable for gown wrangling in crowded dressing rooms. Other stores mandate employees wear dressy clothes in all black or the store’s signature colors. In busy shops on hectic days, it’s helpful to everyone if staff easily can be identified. Signature pins or necklace charms also are useful identifiers.
    Using the combined skills of your staff to reach out to current and prospective shoppers should be part of branding your store. When they can pass along a business card, a written note or a quick message to shoppers, they are reinforcing the “we are experts and we care about your wedding” brand message. Encourage continuing education, both formal sessions in staff meetings and informal review of training materials, by staff. This keeps the brand message front of mind as well as sales and people skills sharp.
Media: Communicating
the Brand
    No matter how and where you market, it’s paramount that your message be consistent across all platforms. Active and passive media options are many, and each salon must carefully weigh where and when to spend those precious advertising dollars for the best results. Obviously, not every store can afford to be everywhere 24/7/365.  
    Put your imprint on each and every platform, as well as on printed material. Periodically, evaluate how each one performs, how much time is spent on each and which works best to reach and educate potential customers in the most efficient and true-to-brand manner.
    For example, a neglected website can spell branding disaster. Shoppers will quickly click away from your site if the first impression is poor or they can’t immediately navigate to the information they need. Basically, know what you want to say and make sure it’s clear every time you post, blog, e-mail, message, advertise or speak to groups within and beyond your target market.
    Key information about your store should appear in all media. Users should know immediately who and where you are, and what key products and services you offer. Contact information should be on every page of your website, ideally in the permanent frame that remains steady as the user clicks onto different page options.
    It’s also vital that communication be two-way. Monitor comments on sites like Yelp, for example, and respond in a positive, professional manner. Boost your ratings by asking your happiest brides to comment about their experiences. Don’t just post on your social media; check out other sites and post there as well. Highlighting fun pins from Pinterest also helps keep things current.

Giving Back: Making a Difference
    Giving back to the community is a great way to demonstrate your commitment to the market you serve. Whether it’s making donations to an auction for favored causes or staging your own events, being involved matters. The independent bridal retailer brand claims expertise not only in wedding fashion and customs, but also in what’s happening in the wedding world in your individual market.
    Again, you are the brand outside the store and being active and involved is one solid way to begin relationships with future customers and build on existing relationships for heartfelt referrals. Consider all of your contacts out there in the real world beyond the bridal shop. That speech you give to a high school or college fashion class or that appearance as a wedding specialist on a morning talk show can only add to brand recognition.
    On the charitable giving front, donations to worthwhile organizations, acknowledged by a small store logo on a sign or a mention in an event program, have a cumulative effect on your brand resume. People do store away these images and when weddings become a focal point of their own lives, you will be remembered as a place where expertise and exquisite bridal gowns reside.    

The Bottom Line: Brand It All!
    No two bridal shops are identical, which is one of many awesome things about this industry. As such creating and promoting a brand should be unique to your business. You must have a strong sense of who you are and what you stand for in order to effectively communicate this message to customers.
    Making the world aware of your brand does take work, but it’s well worth the effort. Every so often, it is crucial to review the six categories listed above and be sure that each element of your store is on point. After all, you are in your salon every day, therefore you might not notice subtle changes that creep up. Taking a fresh look at things can reveal areas that need polishing up.
    Picture this: when a customer closes her eyes, you ask her to name the top three adjectives that pop to mind when she thinks of your store. What are those adjectives? Do they align with the message you want to convey? Your ultimate goal is to have these two things align. When that happens, you can see the results in full appointment schedules, referrals from happy couples, positive reviews and comments on social media, and the pride that your staff takes in working at your unique and special store.