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August 2011
Iconic Southern Style
By Barbara Fagan

     The Belk name is iconic for southern style and firmly entrenched in the bedrock of Charlotte history. The department store business that bears the family name of its founder, William Henry Belk, opened in 1888 in Monroe, N.C., as The New York Racket, serving local farm families. Since that time, the philanthropy and public service of subsequent generations has yielded a mayor and many Charlotte institutions graced with the Belk name including, to name just a few, a freeway, a theatre and the School of Business at UNC Charlotte.

     But along with its rightful place in history, Belk is also very much a part of the present. From its modest beginnings as a leased store on the corner of Monroe’s Main and Morgan, to its present 304 stores in 16 southern states, Belk is currently the largest privately owned department store in the nation. And with the rebranding initiative they kicked off in October 2010, their first major rebranding since 1967, Belk’s focus is clearly set on the future.

     “It was time,” states Jon Pollack, executive vice president of sales promotion, marketing and e-commerce for Belk. “So many things had already changed or were in the process of changing. In response to our customers needs, we’d modernized our assortments, changed the way we buy and how we advertise, we’d updated stores—the way they look and feel—and made huge investments in IT and e-commerce. Everything had changed except our face to the world.”

     Embracing change is a theme for Belk and its importance is reflected in the first of its six core values: be encouraging of growth and change. In its 123 year history, Belk has evolved from a bargain store to a fashion retailer and successfully made the move from traditional downtown locations to suburban shopping malls; even partnering with a competitor to purchase land that became SouthPark, Charlotte’s first regional shopping mall, when developers had little interest in the project.

     Monitoring and managing change is also a core Belk merchandising practice. Every two and a half years, Belk’s research area commissions a comprehensive survey to assess key customer information. Data gathered in these efforts was a factor in prompting the rebranding.

     But changing the face of a company, especially in tough economic times, is risky. Rebranding lore has many tales of failure, some massive and memorable. If that isn’t enough to dissuade the faint of heart, rebranding is also expensive, often counted in the millions, if not tens of millions of dollars.

 

A Purposeful Journey

     For Belk, Inc., the journey of a $70 million rebranding effort started simply enough.

     “It all began with a series of conversations,” explains President and Chief Merchandising Officer Kathy Bufano. Bufano joined Belk in 2008 as president of merchandising and marketing and was promoted to her present office in 2010.

     Prior to Belk, she was CEO of Vanity Shops and has held key positions in several well known retailers. During her tenure at Macy’s and Lord & Taylor, both companies underwent large mergers, and Bufano was at Sears during their acquisition of Land’s End. But Belk would be her first rebranding. She was surprisingly enthusiastic.

     “The ability to accept and be a champion for change is a foundation block for success,” she explains. “The ability to embrace ‘the new’ is very important.”

     With this positive attitude, she and Pollack, a Belk veteran since 1985, started talking with Belk Chairman and CEO Tim Belk about updating the mission statement, core values and “face” of Belk in 2009.

     “The South has changed so much since 1967,” notes Pollack. “So many people have moved into our 16-state region. We needed to let them know who we are.” According to Bufano and Pollack, the Belk family has always had the courage to invest in the future.

     “Tim thought it was great from the beginning,” remembers Pollack, adding that it was Tim Belk who suggested changing the logo. “But Tim was insistent that it not be a mere physical change of logo; it had to be a philosophical change on every level so that every associate understood it and embraced it.”

     The Belk logo has its own history, originating with a star design created by founder William Henry Belk with each point of the star indicating a store location. But the unique practice of growing the company by setting up partnerships with managers and opening new stores under both the Belk name and the managers’ names led to a confusing assortment of stores.

     Hudson-Belk, Belk-Matthews, Belk-Tyler and Belk-Leggett stores, all with different logo styles and designs, dotted many Southern cities and towns. The adoption of the “Big B” logo in the rebranding effort of 1967 sought to unify the many partnerships under one logo as well as reflect the company’s updated image for that era.

     The partnership era of Belk came to a dramatic end in 1998 when the Securities and Exchange Commission approved Belk’s 7,358-page request that all remaining 112 separate store corporations consolidate into one entity, Belk, Inc.

     More changes followed with 13 operating divisions merging into four divisions in 1999, the launch of Belk’s e-commerce online shopping and the opening of a state-of-the-art distribution center in 2001. And in 2004, the transfer of leadership to the third generation of the Belk family; Thomas M. “Tim” Belk Jr., John R. “Johnny” Belk and H.W. McKay Belk, sons of the late Thomas M. Belk and nephews of the late John M. Belk.

     All of these developments factored together with updates to stores and merchandise selection made the time ripe for rebranding. Tim Belk gave the go-ahead and as Bufano puts it, “We were off to the races.” A rebranding working committee formed in August 2009, but the process was anything but a race.

     “We didn’t rush it,” Bufano says. “We knew it would be a very big undertaking. From Day One we knew we wanted to hire an outside consulting agency. They gave us a framework. We had a lot of people involved in the rebranding process.”

     A lot of people might be an understatement. According to Bufano and Pollack, everyone from Tim Belk and Johnny Belk (President and COO) to store sales associates played a part. They reached out for input from all 16 states, conducted a third party survey of 37,000 customers, performed extensive focus group testing and involved key vendors, even reaching out to partners in Asia for support.

     Pollack tells the story of how they gathered management from all stores in a meeting, broke them into groups and asked each group to create a mood board to reflect who Belk was. Each group was given a variety of images and words they could use so some difference in opinion was expected; expected but not realized. Surprisingly, the images and words chosen by the groups were remarkably consistent. In many cases, the identical words and pictures popped up on mood board after mood board.

     Feedback from a cross section of the company proved consistent as well. “The core values bubbled up from within the company,” says Pollack. “We were striving for authenticity. We weren’t making up what Belk should be.”

     All of this led to Belk’s new mission statement: “To satisfy the modern Southern lifestyle like no one else, so that our customers get the fashion they desire and the value they deserve.”

 

Modern. Southern. Style.

     Logo and tagline changes were given equal, thoughtful consideration. “We went through lots of different logo designs and several taglines,” Pollack admits. “But when it came down to the final choices, we decided quickly.”

     Belk’s new rounded lowercase logo is a big departure from its curlicue predecessor, and the three petals in the new logo are not just a nod to the blooms of the South, but also reflect the three generations of the Belk family who’ve led the company.

     “In rebranding, if a new logo gets a 60 percent acceptance, you’ve done well. This logo got 80 percent,” Pollack says.

     The right tagline was essential. “The words were chosen carefully,” notes Pollack. “We wanted to be clear about who we are.” Several taglines were considered before “Modern. Southern. Style.” evolved as the winner.

     The actual modernization of Belk began well before the rebranding. Pollack heads up Belk’s marketing research. “Belk’s customer overwhelmingly views herself as modern,” he says. “She’s a fashion customer, married, family-oriented and often works outside the home. She socializes regularly with friends and looks for occasions to bring her family together. She’s feminine, colorful and is the decision-maker for family purchases.”

     In order to better serve the modern customer, Belk had already updated merchandise categories of woman’s’ apparel, shoes, handbags and jewelry. Changes continue under the rebranding. Customers will find expanded and newly updated collections of Calvin Klein, Michael Kors and Anne Klein and the launch of two new private label brands: TheVia Neroli line of womens’ shoes and the ND Weekend line of womens’ sportswear.

     In conjunction with modernizing their product, Belk also modernized their marketing. Ad changes preceded the logo launch. “We wanted to show customers the new modern, southern style even before they knew what it was,” says Pollack. Ads now have a lifestyle photography feel with new backgrounds and models. Belk also changed their media mix, investing heavily in cable, network TV and Internet ads.

     Use of social media was another major initiative. Belk can now be found on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. “Our fashion director, Arlene Goldstein, sends tweets about what’s going on in fashion from buying trips in New York and runway shows in Europe,” explains Pollack. “Belk even has its own blog.”

     Even with all the changes, Belk made sure it never lost sight of its roots. “Southern” is part of its new tagline for a reason. “The South is a state of mind, not just a place,” explains Bufano, who while a Northerner, could easily be mistaken for a Southerner in her friendly, charming manner. “Many of the people working at headquarters are from the North and we comment on how our lifestyle has changed since we had the good fortune to move here.”

     “There’s a different feel to being in the South,” adds Pollack, “how we treat each other, how we greet each other, our connection to the outdoors, devotion to religion and family. It’s very event-oriented. Going to a college football game is different in the South.”

     When asked whether this regional focus limits them in other markets, Bufano shakes her head. “We’ve shipped to all 50 states,” she says. “Over 25 percent of our online business is outside of our 16-state footprint. I think the Southern lifestyle is attractive to other regions.”

     From the beginning of the rebranding effort, Belk was mindful that all this change might be disconcerting to their longtime customers. “We wanted to strike a good balance between attracting new customers while still keeping our loyal Belk customer happy. We didn’t want to alienate our traditional customer,” Bufano says.

     Belk handled this challenge in a unique way. “We spent as much time communicating internally with our associates as we did in planning the rebranding,” Pollack explains. “Our sales associates have a close relationship with our customers. The first person a customer will ask about the changes is the sales associate. The associates were involved in the rebranding, understood where Belk was going and why, and could answer their questions.

     “Loyal customers could also see that Belk was a vibrant, healthy enterprise that was investing in the future. That resonated with our customer.”

     So far, feedback on the rebranding has been positive from both the modern and traditional customer, Bufano reports.

 

Fabric of the Community

     While Belk is a regional department store, that region is not necessarily homogeneous.

     “One of the strengths of Belk is that we’re adaptive to the communities we serve,” says Pollack. “Some companies may put the same merchandise in each store, but that’s not what we do. We give the customer what they want, not what we think they should have.”

     Bufano agrees, “We are in different neighborhoods with different demographics. We don’t do a cookie cutter approach.” She explains that Project Impact, a significant expansion in their planning department, goes even further to ensure that each store receives the proper merchandise for their demographic.

     A $150 million investment in their merchandising, planning and point of sale systems over the next three years, will give them even better tools, allowing them to better connect with their customers. But Belk’s emphasis on community doesn’t end at merchandise allocation.

     “One of our core values is to be involved in our communities,” says Bufano. “Our associates are brand ambassadors and we have grass roots events in each store’s community. Those connections to community didn’t change with the new logo. It’s part of our company DNA.”

     Belk stores host over 400 community appreciation days annually and proceeds from Belk Charity Days go directly to local charities. Belk associates also donate to causes such as the United Way, Classroom Central and the Good Neighbor Program. The Belk company donates millions to several causes, and The Belk Foundation, a private family foundation, has supported youth education since 1928.

     The less well-known stories, however, are the ones that best demonstrate Belk’s commitment to community.

     The Belk store in Tuscaloosa, Ala., took a direct hit in the recent tornado tragedy and while, fortunately, no one in the store was hurt, the devastation to the area was tremendous.

     “Belk had ‘feet on the ground’ within 24 hours,” recounts Pollack. “We conducted a campaign to account for every employee.” Tim Belk arrived within 48 hours and a Belk ‘Truck of Hope’ carrying clothes, diapers, pet food and other relief supplies was sent to Tuscaloosa within days. “We were there before FEMA,” he notes.

 

The Unveiling

     Belk’s new logo was kept a secret until its official unveiling last October at a celebration dinner with over a thousand associates in the Charlotte Convention Center. Country music recording artist Kellie Pickler made a special appearance and in honor of one of her one songs, she was awarded a pair of red high heels.

     “There was so much excitement,” says Bufano, “but my favorite part was the Sentiment Wall.”

     Pollack explains how during the rebranding process all 22,000 associates were given cards and asked to write what they would do to support the brand change. The 22,000 cards were then turned into a gigantic and impressive rendition of the new logo. The Sentiment Wall now hangs in corporate as an iconic reminder of everyone’s contribution to the new Belk.

     Another big celebration is in the near future for Belk when the company celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2013. When asked about plans for that, Pollack smiles.

     “It’s big,” is all he’ll say.

     In the meantime, Belk is looking forward to New Year’s Eve 2011 when they take over title sponsorship of what was The Meineke Car Care Bowl. The Belk Bowl is a new addition to their sports marketing campaign and a “great fit” with the rebranding campaign according to Tim Belk.

     So what is the verdict on the rebranding? All signs indicate it’s a success. Sales for fiscal 2012 are planned up 3.3 percent and Belk reports that they are currently exceeding the planned sales target by a significant margin. They also note growth in both total customers and in new Belk proprietary credit card customers.

     “We are committed to fulfilling our promise to our customer; delivering modern, Southern style,” Bufano says, “and giving her the fashion she desires and the value she deserves. Our branding journey is to please our loyal customer and to attract the thousands of new customers who are moving into our footprint. Our branding journey is all about embracing change.”

     “But I’m not sure the job is ever finished,” Pollack says with a smile. “Rebranding is ongoing. We listen to the customer and the customer is always telling us something else they’d like. Belk has a philosophy of changing before we have to and that’s what’s always kept us ahead.”

Barbara Fagan is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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