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What Would Warhol Do?

In the future, everyone will be a retailer for 15 minutes. Andy Warhol never said that. But he did say this: “The people who have the best fame are those who have their names on stores. The people with very big stores named after them are the ones I’m really jealous of.”

In the future, everyone will be a retailer for 15 minutes.

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Andy Warhol never said that. But he did say this: “The people who have the best fame are those who have their names on stores. The people with very big stores named after them are the ones I’m really jealous of.”

Warhol, no doubt, would be cracking a Marilyn Monroe smile over one of the latest, hottest trends in brand building — “Pop-up shops.” Target has opened at least three of them so far. Song Airlines has popped up shops in SoHo and Boston. Even the ostensibly stodgy J.C. Penney has popped up a store — in Rockefeller Center no less.

Pop-up shops? As the name suggests, they are shops that pop up for just a few weeks, or even a few days. Usually they move in on a storefront that’s between tenants. Sometimes they set up in odd places. Target, as you might recall, sailed in on a barge, and docked its “store” for a couple of weeks in New York City’s harbor during the 2002 holiday season.

In a way, “pop-up shops” are the retail equivalent of a 30-second television commercial. Song, for example, is using its stores to convey a sense of what it is like to fly its airline. “Shoppers” can plop down in one of Song’s airline seats and sample its in-flight food… as giant plasma screens project images of sky and clouds streaming by.

Unlike television commercials, however, Song’s stores also ring up sales. “We took a lot of reservations out of our store in SoHo,” said Song’s Tim Mapes in an interview with Reveries magazine. “The same thing happened in Boston. The stores lead to sales, to enrollments in our Sky Miles program and they drive awareness.”

J.C. Penney’s Michael Cape is similarly enthusiastic about the return-on-investment of its pop-up shop. “It costs a minimum in the scope of the entire marketing campaign,” he told USA Today. “What we got back outweighs the cost.”

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This sudden interest in pop-up shops actually comes as something of a surprise. Even though much-admired marketers like Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, and Apple have made retail central to their brand strategies, stores remain substantially ignored as an element of the marketing mix. Where people shop is still often regarded more as a distribution channel than as a marketing medium.

Presumably that’s because marketing’s world remains so heavily populated by those who just can’t imagine their brands as anything but television commercials. Such traditionalists, however, at long last are fading to black.

That much is clear when we see thought leaders such as John Hayes, the chief marketing officer of American Express, telling The Wall Street Journal that television is no longer the center of his brand’s universe: “We just don’t feel we are going to get the impact and sustainability by just doing a TV ad,” he said. “We are trying to look for better ways to reach consumers.”

American Express actually has been on that path for quite some time. Ten years ago, the brand reportedly invested about 80% of its budget in television; today, that figure is said to be just 35%. The flow of those dollars is not entirely to retail, of course. But retail’s marketing potential is not lost on AmEx, either. In perhaps its own take on a pop-up shop, the brand turned L.A.’s House of Blues into a Warholesque statement for its Blue card — complete with waitress in blue outfits and blue wigs, serving blue cocktails.

Nor is retail’s sales-and-marketing “pop” missed by certain forward-thinking ad agencies. Zimmerman & Partners of Fort Lauderdale, for example, is bringing a decidedly retail-centric sensibility to its work. Zimmerman has even coined a buzzword — Brandtailing — to tag the concept that a brand is only as good as the place that sells it.

As reported in Business 2.0, Zimmerman brought Brandtailing to bear on behalf of Miami Subs, a local chain of sandwich shops. When the Zimmerman team pitched the account, it showed up not with storyboards but with buckets and mops. Their message: “Clean up your stores!” Miami Subs did — and backed by, yes, ads, the chain saw its declining sales transformed into a seven percent per month rebound in revenues.

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What Zimmerman did for Miami Subs may not have been a work of art exactly. But, you know, Andy Warhol was not just an artist, either. He was an artist, it was said, who “silk-screened money.” He created a great brand for himself, and skillfully merchandised it at the crossroads of art and commerce. And today, more than ever, those roads cross at retail.

Pop-up shops are but one example of that emerging reality, and it is likely we will be seeing many more of them… for at least the next 15 minutes or so. What will endure is the indisputable truth that retail is not only bursting with creative marketing potential but also inherently accountable for sales results. What could be more critical to consider when “accountability” weighs so heavily on the future of marketing?

Indeed, with the gulf between marketing and sales — between a brand and its return on marketing investment — as wide as ever, it is worth asking one very simple question:

What would Warhol do?

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