People don’t buy what you sell – they buy what you stand for

Not another book on branding, I thought, as I flipped open the pages of ‘People don't buy what you sell - they buy what you stand for’ a book by Martin Butler, former CEO of one of London's leading retail advertising and marketing agencies and renowned retail observer.

But at the same time I was intrigued. You see, this book was recommended to me by Jeannie Willis of the British Shops and Stores Association (bssa) when I was in the UK. And it promised case studies on some of Britain's best-known retailers including John Lewis, Carphone Warehouse, Oddbins, Topshop, B&Q, Selfridges and HMV. It would be fascinating to get behind the scenes of these companies.

But then again, most books on branding seem to be full of pretentious drivel. Could this one really be a good read? The answer is an emphatic YES. This is a must read for anyone with an interest in retailing, in marketing or who finds shopping in British stores a fascination.

This is without a doubt the best book on retailing, since the wonderful ‘Why We Buy The Science Of Shopping’ by Paco Underhill. The best way I can think of to describe it is to give you some excerpts. Here goes:

“The natural inclination of retailers is, rightly, to focus on what they have to sell. I say rightly because the table-stake of being a retailer is being able to make a turn by selling something. It's the basic talent of any good retailer. If you don't have this quality or instinct, then you're in the wrong job. It would be like a professional footballer that couldn't kick a ball. However, it's not enough.”

“The great retailers (the ones who get past one or two shops) do much more than just think about how they are going to make a good turn on what they've got to sell. They see the bigger picture; they understand what their customers want now; they anticipate what they will need in the future and they appreciate the importance of differentiating their role from that of their competitors. To pull this off requires a level of customer knowledge that can only come from adopting the customer's position, by standing in their shoes.”

Which is more important, the brand or the merchandise?
“While merchandising is hugely important, something else is probably a little more important. Anyone who doubts this should take a look at Starbucks. For 16 years, they worried about their coffee. For the next 16 years, they worried about their brand. Product-centric Starbucks grew to six stores. Brand-centric Starbucks grew to more than six thousand.”

Martin Butler's premise is that those retailers who think of themselves as a brand rather than a stockist of brands are the ones who will win.

So you’ve changed the logo!
“I hate it when someone says they've re-branded their business when all they've done is change the logo. What kind of re-branding can that be when customers are subjected to the same old dismal service, when the window displays remain as dreary as they ever were and when the merchandising continues to look as if it was designed by a colour-blind accountant.”

What Makes You Special?
“Nine out of 10 shops are set up and defined by what the shopkeeper has to sell rather than what the customer wants to buy.”

“Any good retailer needs to rent space in the mind of its customers, so that they will think of the store even when they are not there. Out of mind, out of business.”

“If you don't stand for something, you stand for nothing; and if you stand for nothing, why on earth should anyone choose you?”

“Did your company define itself in relation to its competitors, or has it got a sense of its own identity, of what makes it special in its own right?”

The Embodiment of Your Brand
“I've yet to come across a great retail brand with only adequate staff. It's simply not possible. The staff are both the embodiment and the manifestation of the brand. If the staff are mediocre and indistinguishable from any other shop assistant, there is effectively no brand.”

Customer Conversations Count
“Go into each customer conversation with the mindset that this conversation is going to change your company in some way.

“Don't forget the people who work on the manufacturing side, have to book an appointment to listen to what their customers have to say. You've got your customers beating a path to your door. Be sure to use it.”

What Does Your Carrier Bag Say About Your Customers?
“Ask your customers what they feel your carrier bag says about them. A good research technique is to show pictures of people with different carrier bags and ask respondents to describe what the people in the picture are like. It's surprising how much can be read into a carrier bag.
• What does your company's carrier bag say about your company?
• What are your customers saying about themselves when they go out with one of your carrier bags?”

‘People don't buy what you sell - they buy what you stand for’ is a wonderful read with many insights from a fascinating, knowledgeable marketing specialist, whose parents owned a local hardware store. His chatty style and down to earth turn of phrase make this by far the most readable book on branding I’ve ever come across.


Jurek Leon is a storyteller, trainer and coach who presents courses and addresses seminars on word of mouth marketing, motivation, customer focussed selling and managing the customer experience. Subscribe to Jurek's FREE monthly ‘Terrific Tips’ e-newsletter at Alternatively, email

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Jurek Leon is a storyteller, speaker and trainer. Subscribe to Jurek's FREE monthly 'Terrific Tips' e-newsletter at Alternatively, email