Brand identity is one of an organization’s most valuable possessions and you should go to great lengths to nurture it. Barnes & Noble is an example of a brand that didn’t. In this post, you will learn how to carry out a brand identity analysis using Barnes & Noble as an example.
In this post, I will carry out a brand identity analysis using Barnes & Noble as a case study. Barnes & Noble provides an interesting example as it has been through many significant strategy shifts and leadership changes in the recent years, leaving the brand identity fragmented.
By going through this article, you will get an idea of how to analyze brand identity and how it forms and shapes over time.
About Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble is an American bookseller that has roots drawing back to 1873. About a hundred years later the brand started to make radical changes to its business model that to this day still shapes the brand image Barnes & Noble reflects. The changes involved moving a way from an indie bookseller model through acquisitions, new store layouts, and an initial public offering in 1993.
Barnes & Noble is the largest national bookstore chain operating in the United States. It moves about 155 million copies of physical books throughout its network of over 600 bookstores every year. On top of that, the brands sells toys, games, music, DVDs, gifts, Starbucks coffee and its own line of e-reader; the Nook.
What is brand identity and why is it important?
Before digging in, I want to put a few words to what brand identity is and why you should care about it.
You will find several definitions but I always like to look at it in terms of brand identity vs. brand image. Here, brand identity is the representation that the organization wants to portray and communicates to the world. Brand image is how consumers and other stakeholders view that same brand.
People form brand images based on a lot of factors. A big one among them is the brand identity communicated by the organization. That’s why brand identity is important. It, as the name suggest, identifies you and enables people to recognize you and build brand associations from a certain base.
Barnes & Noble has a quite fascinating history. The brand has gone from a beloved indie bookseller, to the industry villain, a lagging dinosaur, and ultimately a hopeful hero in the eyes of American book lovers.
Once a disruptor in the book industry, the brand is now in choppy waters struggling for air. A series of CEO’s and major operational changes in recent years has not done anything of not to fix the situation. Meanwhile, Amazon is wiping away Barnes & Noble’s profit margin and the resurgence of experiential independent bookselling beating the brand when it comes to an intimate customer experience1Knowledge@Wharton. (2018, June 7). Can Barnes & Noble Survive? . https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/can-barnes-noble-survive/.
In short, the brand doesn’t excel at anything. It doesn’t offer the lowest price and it doesn’t offer the best experience. Barnes & Noble have failed to keep the brand relevant by not moving with the times and adapting to customer needs.
On top of that, a series of shifts in strategic directions, overextending into new product categories and regular changes in leadership have put the brand into a kind of an identity crisis. In trying to be all things to all people (a megastore, online retailer, community hub, and so on), it is now barely relevant to anyone and without any kind of personality whatsoever.
But there is hope. Barnes & Noble has a huge brand recognition and people still really want physical books and a cozy, warm and intimate shopping experience. The brand can leverage this into a successful business, especially now with the opportunity of positioning itself against the new industry villain: Amazon.
Brand identity analysis
To understand Barnes & Noble’s brand identity issue, I will use Kapferer’s Brand Identity Prism. You can click the link to get a thorough explanation of how exactly to use this tool since I won’t be going into those details here.
I decided to use the identity prism here for a few reasons:
- The tool accounts for both the intended brand identity and the actual perceived identity (can also be thought of as brand image).
- Brand management at Barnes & Noble has been quite unstable and it’s not unlikely that different generations have formed different perceptions of the brand.
- The prism connects both sides together in a brand essence which should in most circumstances be clear and coherent. If that is not the case, you likely have an identity issue on your hands.
Intended brand identity
Physique is largely influenced by store layouts. Despite conceptual fluctuations arising from strategic decisions of multiple leaderships, the brand has kept a fairly stable design of a spacious superstore2Sax, D. (2016, October 21). What Barnes & Noble Doesn’t Get About Bookstores . The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/what-barnes-noble-doesnt-get-about-bookstores that promotes or at least tries to promote lingering, relaxation and experience. The brand’s flagship product is an assortment of hardcopy books which represents the brand’s core offering, the touch and feel of paper and leather, and is complemented with other product categories.
Barnes & Noble describes its personality as “fun, friendly and full of possibilities”.3Barnes & Noble. (2012, p. 20). Company Brand Guidelines. http://portacreativeserver.com/vault/manualescorporativos/BRANDBOOK BARNES & NOBLE.pdf The brand guide further states that the brand is “keeping up with the times […] while not risking our values and standards” .4ibid. The brand cites customer service, quality, empathy, respect, integrity, responsibility and teamwork as core values
Looking at how Barnes & Noble talks about its products and services also reveals an societal bond that is communicated with much excitement. For example, “We take great pride in inspiring and enriching minds in all our communities around the U.S” and “… tailoring our stores to become pillars of the local communities”. 5Barnes & Noble. (n.d.-e). Inside Barnes & Noble. Retrieved January 8, 2021, from https://careers.barnesandnoble.com/inside-b-n
We can link majority of the traits above to the down-to-earth, honest, wholesome and cheerful sub dimensions in Jennifer Aaker’s brand personality scale. However, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that this makes Barnes & Noble an example of a sincere brand personality. We can see some minor influences from the competence and excitement dimensions. More importantly, it would be more correct to say that Barnes & Noble wants to be perceived as sincere, but being so requires much more than brandbooks and value statements.
Culture refers to the ideology that drives a brand’s outward-directed communication and product marketing efforts. Barnes & Noble’s slogan (“More than just books”) captures this ideology well. Now in the eyes of the book lovers, more would speak to the experiences and other benefits such as relaxation, homely environment, imagination, fresh book smell, etc.
It seems, founder Leonard Riggio, is on the same page:
“Books are a powerful tool. They are different worlds, new ideas, laughter, and altogether an experience. In today’s society, we are losing the sense of experiencing the tangible and real. At Barnes & Noble, we aim to ignite that part of humanity that will always thirst for this.”
“Our brand embodies this idea. We appreciate your respect and collaboration to maintain our identity in a consistent and precise manner to truly capture Barnes & Noble.”Leonard Riggio, founder of Barnes & Noble, in the 2012 brandbook (p. 7).
But the problem is that the company simply hasn’t followed through. It has taken “more than just books” to mean more product categories, less experience, Starbucks, and other things. Taken together, it certainly hasn’t maintained their identity in a consistent and precise manner.
A last thing of note is the positioning against Amazon. When evaluating the above statements, it’s clear that Barnes & Noble view themselves as defenders of physical books and experiential bookseller; however, well they are actually doing on that front. New CEO James Daunt has even gone so far as to refer to Amazon as a ruthless money-making devil that strips away every aspect of humanity involved in the bookselling process.
This is a powerful position that has every capability to resonate strongly with readers who value shopping for books offline. As Amazon is scrutinized more and more for various reasons, this position keeps strengthening and may eventually express some iconic symbolism in the form of a David vs. Goliath identity myth.6Holt, D. B. (2006). Jack Daniel’s America. Journal of Consumer Culture, 6(3), 355–377. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469540506068683
Perceived brand identity
From the receiver’s side, the prism starts by looking at relationship. Here we see some more issues.
Relationship describes the identity the brand creates based on its conduct and the type of connection it has with its customers.7Kapferer, J.-N. (2008, p. 185). The New Strategic Brand Management: Creating and Sustaining Brand Equity. In Kogan Page. Kogan Page.
Barnes & Noble wishes to project a friendship full of experiential adventures through the world of books. For theoretical support, we can relate this back to Susan Fournier’s brand relationship type of best friendship.8Fournier, S. (1998). Consumers and Their Brands: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research. Journal of Consumer Research, 24(4), 343–353. https://doi.org/10.1086/209515 and further find support for it in Barnes & Noble’s aspiration of being a “home away from home”.9Barnes & Noble. (2012). Company Brand Guidelines. http://portacreativeserver.com/vault/manualescorporativos/BRANDBOOK BARNES & NOBLE.pdf Yet, as with the personality perception, the company has tried so many different things through the year that you likely have very different relationships across generations.
By reviewing forums, social media and articles, I find the strongest support for two types of relationships: childhood friendship and enmity. In the former, people connect to the brand over nostalgia of what it meant to them before, most often in childhood.
Enmity on the other hand represents a somewhat forced connection to Barnes & Noble from book lovers that see it as a relationship for the greater good. In other words, they are customers of Barnes & Noble mainly because they want to preserve physical bookstores, and in some cases, specifically not do business with Amazon.
Reflection refers to the stereotypical image of the brand customer as projected over time in marketing and product offerings. Today, such image is distorted and may not even exist. This is due to failed brand extensions into new product categories that pollute the brand. Brand messaging is very much inside-out and aligned with whatever strategy being pushed at the time, thus failing to build any sort of stable reflection.
Because of this disarray, I cannot put forward a concrete reflection of how customers want to be seen as a result of using the brand. However, I can make an educated assumption that the reflection is book lovers and avid readers that value authentic and traditional book experiences and want to keep physical books in their lives.
Last, Self-image: how people see themselves as a result of using the brand. First, Barnes & Noble, like independent bookstores, speaks somewhat to the zen in people. Book browsing, having coffee, interacting with staff or the store ambience all create a relaxed, warm and stress-free atmosphere. Like one redditor puts it: “with fresh smelling books (I LOVE new book smell), and tons to choose from. It’s quiet and neat and organized and smells good. That combo is the best cure for anxiety I’ve ever found.“
A second trend is consistent to what we have seen in other facets of the prism. People feel ethical by being customers of Barnes & Noble as they are purposely spending more money to support local bookstores. Some derive this straight from the fact that they are not supporting Amazon rather than the fact that they are supporting a traditional bookseller.
Connecting the dots
Putting together keywords from all sections of the brand identity prism, we can now visually depict it:
There is no way to clearly connect these dots together to a coherent brand essence. Therefore, we can confirm with this analysis that there is an identity issue (keeping in mind of course that this analysis draws on limited data and is far from being scientific). The results indicate that the brand identity is quite distorted as the intended brand identity is drastically different from how people actually perceive Barnes & Noble’s brand image.
Bonus: 7 brand revitalization strategies to re-establish the brand
#1 Get ahead of the brand narrative
Barnes & Noble has a strong brand recognition, a rich brand heritage, and a favorable underdog context to build emotional brand associations. But to do that, the brand needs to figure out what it really wants to be and communicate that to people. They could go back to their roots and embark on a campaign based on heritage and altruism in traditional bookselling. With time and patience, Barnes & Noble could come out on the other end as an authentic brand that people consider parts of their own identities.
#2 Embrace co-creation
The people who go out of their way to shop physical hold books very close to their heart. They will have their own meanings and associations, and Barnes & Noble should accept that while communicating a coherent identity from the company’s side.
#3 Become an authority in the industry
Barnes & Noble should use their brand recognition and scale to build authority within bookselling and publishing. The brand is already respected enough that it should have no problem organizing author signings, author Q&A’s, and other community events.
#4 Invest in online marketing
In line with #3, Barnes & Noble should up their digitization efforts. Where is the YouTube channel that live streams community events? Where is the podcast that interviews interesting authors, gives recommendations and discusses the latest trends?
#5 Establish and host local book clubs
Barnes & Noble could form and host local book clubs around each of their locations. This is a good way to get people in the store and associate the brand with a routine. It could even establish a scheme in which people can rent this months book instead of buying it in an attempt to increase reading in each area and provide a further incentive to sign up.
#6 Host workshops for aspiring writers
This would be a perfect social responsibility initiative that would create strong associations for the brand.
#7 Put books first
Goes without saying, but if the brand wants to be a bookstore they need to behave like a bookstore. That means finding a balance in what percentage of the floor space to allocate for books and what to allocate for other things like toys and board games.
I need to make the point that Barnes & Noble actually does seem to be improving. I adapted this post from an exam I wrote about a year ago, and at that time, brand management at Barnes & Noble was truly shocking. However, today sales are up and costs are down and the brand used the lock down to reorganize their stores, regroup and coming up with a new strategy that puts books back at the center.
The point of this post is not to highlight all the things Barnes & Noble has been doing wrong through the years, though it does that too. Rather, its about showing you how you could go about doing a similar analysis for your brand. As a small business owner, you likely don’t have Reddit forums and other review threads to draw from like I did here. But you have your own customers, which is the absolute best source you could ask for.
- 1Knowledge@Wharton. (2018, June 7). Can Barnes & Noble Survive? . https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/can-barnes-noble-survive/
- 2Sax, D. (2016, October 21). What Barnes & Noble Doesn’t Get About Bookstores . The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/what-barnes-noble-doesnt-get-about-bookstores
- 3Barnes & Noble. (2012, p. 20). Company Brand Guidelines. http://portacreativeserver.com/vault/manualescorporativos/BRANDBOOK BARNES & NOBLE.pdf
- 5Barnes & Noble. (n.d.-e). Inside Barnes & Noble. Retrieved January 8, 2021, from https://careers.barnesandnoble.com/inside-b-n
- 6Holt, D. B. (2006). Jack Daniel’s America. Journal of Consumer Culture, 6(3), 355–377. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469540506068683
- 7Kapferer, J.-N. (2008, p. 185). The New Strategic Brand Management: Creating and Sustaining Brand Equity. In Kogan Page. Kogan Page.
- 8Fournier, S. (1998). Consumers and Their Brands: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research. Journal of Consumer Research, 24(4), 343–353. https://doi.org/10.1086/209515
- 9Barnes & Noble. (2012). Company Brand Guidelines. http://portacreativeserver.com/vault/manualescorporativos/BRANDBOOK BARNES & NOBLE.pdf