In this episode:

Wendy Liebmann talks with Tim Girvin, founder and chief creative officer of Girvin Inc., about how companies need to tell their stories in this age when shoppers are more focused on their health and wellbeing than on accumulating things.

They discuss:

  • The importance of truth in storytelling when shoppers have access to so much information
  • How to integrate the story through everything – packaging, store, website – so the relationship to the brand is unforgettable
  • How to “walk around the backside” of a brand – product or retail – to prove the story from a shopper’s perspective
  • The importance of building a human connection across all touchpoints
  • What it takes to train internal teams to tell better stories
Don’t miss upcoming episodes, stay up-to-date by visiting the WSL Shopper Insights Library, or our Podcast page.

Wendy Liebmann 00:09
Hello, I’m Wendy Liebmann. I’m the CEO and Chief Shopper at WSL Strategic Retail and this is Future Shop. This is where I chat to innovators and disruptors who are transforming retail today. But before we get started with today’s podcast, I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to wish everyone a happy and ,of course, a very, very healthy new year, I want to thank you all for listening to Future Shop. This podcast is one of several innovations we’ve made to our WSL portfolio of retail strategy services during the pandemic. And we built a great following around the world, not just my relatives, which is encouraging. So I just want to thank you all. And as I said, I wish you all a very, very healthy 2022. So let’s get started. The topic today is branding. Specifically, how do we think about branding our businesses telling our stories in an age when people are more focused on their wellbeing than actually accumulating the things we sell. Even before the pandemic we saw in our How America Shops® research a growing desire on the part of many Americans to achieve a greater sense of wellness, and maybe more accurately, a greater sense of wellbeing. As I said, it was less about accumulating stuff anymore, and more about being happy and fulfilled. As far back as 2016, in a study we called Buying Happiness, we saw this new sentiment emerge. It was about less stress and more financial security, and a greater sense of general wellbeing for themselves, their family, their communities, even the world. Today as we move through the pandemic, we see this desire growing even more. The big issue, however, is that companies, brands and retailers, are struggling to tell their stories in relevant ways. So that’s what I’m going to talk to my guest about today. My guest today is Tim Girvin. He is the founder and chief creative officer of Girvan Inc. He’s a designer, a writer an illustrator, photographer, a calligrapher, a man who speaks many languages. He’s traveled all over the world working with clients to support their strategic planning and brand development. His focus, as he says, is fulfilling emotional and holistic sensory content, meaning so he says, “How does this place or this brand feel? What is the story being told?”  His work covers companies like Nordstrom and Procter & Gamble, and even our very own WSL. Hello, Tim. Welcome to Future Shop.

Tim Girvin 02:51
Hey, hi. Nice to be here. I wish I was right next to you in your studio in New York.

Wendy Liebmann 02:59
Thank you, dear Tim. Actually, I got to see Tim in Seattle in real life in October. So that was a big treat that have been too long. And Tim and I first met many years ago at a retail conference. And after I had made a presentation, he came and talked to me about storytelling, and I was just intrigued hence the work he helped us do to cement our own positioning in the in the retail world. So Tim, let’s jump right into this. You’ve been at the forefront of telling stories and branding for a long time. How have you seen this the consumer sentiment evolve? How is it different today?

Tim Girvin 03:34
Well, I think I would say because of the global scenario with an absence of wellness, there has been a lot more fear about not being well or being potentially getting sick. And I think that there’s a significant psychic character that many of us feel about our protection, our self-protection and examination of well-making processes in their own lives. And that then extends to brands in terms of how does a brand tell a story about being able to improve someone’s immunity or someone’s healthy outlook or better worldview in the context of this crisis that we’ve all experienced over the last year or so.

Wendy Liebmann 04:23
I think about this tendency, perhaps even before the pandemic of companies to slap a message on their product or in their stores about how they make you feel happy or how they make you feel healthy and all of those sorts of things. And now certainly what we’re hearing from consumers as they shop is they are very cynical in many ways about all of that, whether it’s greenwashing or anything else. So as somebody who really does talk about a sense of place and a sense of sentiment, how do we have to think about communicating a sense of wellness?

Tim Girvin 04:59
Yeah, I think that there’s a number of things that are important to consider, and probably the most is the truth. I think that brands that are considering the idea of pushing more towards a well-making proposition or immunity boosting or healthfulness creating brand strategy really need to be authentic, because as you say, and what we experience is that if you throw out phrases that speak to this idea of your brand being capable of offering some better, more well solution for someone in terms of their life, whether it’s a food or whether it’s a restaurant, or a product of some kind or another, the issue really comes down to the truth, because, as you point out, many consumers are far more cynical and far more critical of brand positions that are false. So I think the most important thing in any strategy is really to get to the center of the brand, the spiritual center of the brand, what drives the brand, what is the meaning of it, what does it stand for, and to really examine that critically, in terms of is that real, because there’s always a lot of cynicism. So if you talk about your ingredients, or the care of where you derive attributes of your brand from, where they’re made, etc., you have to be certain that is really not just invented words, but it’s real, and is being truthful, because it’ll come out if it’s not, as we know, everyone sort of walks around the backside of a brand to try and understand more about what they are,

Wendy Liebmann 06:53
When you just said walk around the backside of the brand, I do think about how, in some ways, it’s so different today. Now, as shoppers, we could uncover the truth really easily. And that we have this sort of mindset as shoppers to challenge the accepted practices or accepted benefits that people tell us about when we’re buying things. And we see all that in our work all that homework people are willing to do, and then expressing that through social media in terms of their dissatisfaction. So that notion of walking around the back side of the brand, really is appealing idea.  How different is that if I’m a product brand versus a retail brand? Is that the same sort of thinking?

Tim Girvin 07:41
Yeah, absolutely. Because I think that as you are approaching a retail brand, a presence of street presence, there is a whole string of cues and emotional reach outs that are possible in terms of how someone comes into an environment around with someone’s perceives it from the street. Generally speaking, there is many consumers are going to have some awareness about the brand in terms of internet website or social influence or experience they’ll have, they’ll have an opinion on that. And then the key is how deeply is that integrated in terms of the relationship between the interactive content, the online content and its relationship to the interior experience. So if you talk about the warmth of the brand, or the uplifting character, the beauty making aspect, whatever it may be, in terms of what the benefits of that product are in terms of their retail presence, they need to be synchronized between the interactive environment and how things are visualized and how the stories are told from that standpoint. And then they need to be actively referenced in the interior so that as you walk into the store, whether it’s a luxury store, or a supermarket, or a small retail organization of some kind, the storytelling has to continue to evidence itself in a way that trust happens. And people believe in what that is. So if someone walks around the backside of a brand to check it out, to learn more about what kind of storytelling exists on the backside, you want to make sure that that is synchronized with what that experience is in terms of what is told on the packaging, what is told in the production facility, what is told in their retail environment, and the people that are there, who are there and what do they like how do they treat you? That’s really important.

Wendy Liebmann 09:49
You’re describing the universe of the whole story that every piece of this has to be connected.  But I think about a lot in that is this notion of now I’m a manufacture with a product and a story that I can communicate in my advertising in my social media, and now I dropped myself into a retail environment where I’m now selling, and the retail environment doesn’t do much for that at all. How do you in this very commercial world, think about that, as you say to a retail partner, this is who we are. And we need you to tell the story consistently. That’s the other challenge, their ability to manage their message with their retailers.

Tim Girvin 10:31
I think that you start thinking about it holistically in terms of what is a brand stand for? What is the basic stance of what is suggested with a brand? What is the attributes and attitude, the brand-ittitude? What are these characteristics of what are their core messages the the heart and soul of the brand that the real spirit of the enterprise, then you as you’re moving into the built environment, then how do those elements synchronize whether its use of color, or message or patterning or metaphor, or allegory, or sound, or scent in a space? How do those move together, and what I find oftentimes is brands that espouse a certain character, when you get into their space, it’s not a place it doesn’t really evince the characteristics of what they said they were really about. That kind of disjunction is something that can be disturbing, and lead to people not being as intimately connected to the relationship,

Wendy Liebmann 11:44
I always think about the work you’ve done around packaging. If I don’t know in my space, then my product and the way that product is presented in the packaging, and the calligraphy and all of those things — you talked about scent, all of those things have to do a lot of work to ensure that when I Wendy walk up to the shelf, or go online and click, that the story is told on the product that at least it shouts that out more effectively if I can’t control my selling space. Is that something you see?

Tim Girvin 12:16
Yeah, I think that there’s a Japanese word which is tsutsumi. And that means the wrap the wrapping, it also ties to the idea of the gift, and what is the gesture between a person to a person in terms of the gift of a carefully wrapped object, but in a way for me that really links to layering and storytelling, you know, what is my relationship to you? And what is the story about me? And how do I share this story with you. And so when you think about the degrees of experience that can happen with the purchase of a product, the whole store is going to either tell you a story about the brand or not. And in a way store design and packaging design are almost the same thing. They’re really just scales of package. And so you’re really looking at how do you bring those two together, as well as the plethora of online experience potentials? How do you weave them together? So it’s a seamless synchrony or tapestry of expression that is very carefully managed,

Wendy Liebmann 13:32
I can see our some of our packaged goods clients listening to this and saying, you know, it’s a toothpaste, it’s a, you know, soup, it’s a beer, it’s a whatever, and we’re selling it on somebody else’s shelf. And how do I do this? How do I think about that? Are you seeing companies that do really good jobs at that, packaged more packaged goods, mass distributed brands that do a good job at that?

Tim Girvin 13:58
I think that larger brands tend to operate in a very operational mechanistic way. They say, Well, here’s our social strategy. Here’s our advertising strategy. Here’s our brand guideline. And then here’s our packaging that comes out. And it should all work right. But I think that one of the things is really important is to think about that human connection, and how if I’m buying a certain brand of toothpaste, is there some way for me to connect with that emotionally? Is there some story that ties me to a person or a team or a vision that is more than just pushing another product on me there’s something deeper to what that is. And I think that what I find in working with smaller brands, they tend to think about the identification, the individuation of personality. So It’s not just about kind of pushing the product and getting the next flavor out and trying to be innovative in that higher level, there’s an active attempt to integrate a humanistic characteristic.

Wendy Liebmann 15:12
It’s interesting you say that. So one of our colleagues, and somebody we’ve had on the podcast is a fellow named Craig Dubitsky, who founded the oral care brand, Hello. The sense of what he called that by itself said something, and then the flavoring, and then the packaging, and all of those things. Even if he was on somebody else’s shelf, it had a very clear, disruptive message. And it was very clear that the brand wasn’t like one of those others. So is what you’re talking about?

Tim Girvin 15:44
Yeah, I think so. I think that Craig is a great exemplar of that, because he is an entrepreneur that sort of slides out in front and has a point of view, an attitude, a personal attitude about what he’s trying to achieve. And then he builds product strategy around that in a manner that is inherently uplifting.  It’s world constructive contributions. It’s trying to do things better for people. And so that as a driver is part of the soul of the brand and part of that characteristic. So you see that when you walk down the shelves of mouth care, dental care products, and you see the Hello, it’s like this standalone kind of statement. And I think that that’s really kind of what you’re looking for in terms of retail strategy. And in terms of a packaging strategy is how does this entity stand alone? How is the story told in a way that is part of the visual language, the messaging language that is expressed to customer in a way that is capable of being loved.  Because ultimately, that’s the goal is you want people to love what you do, and you want people to see that brand relationship as unforgettable. That’s both ways that applies to what happens in an online experience that happens in a retail experience, and it happens in the package, you want someone to be able to look at that and tell you, Oh, I remember that store. Or I remember going in there, I remember the people I remember the floor, I remember the lights, I remember the scent, I remember the little box of toothpaste.  It all kind of synchronizes in a way that is memorable. And that, I think is another really key point as part of this conversation.

Wendy Liebmann 17:46
Before I continue my conversation with Tim, I just wanted you to know that you can access my interview with Craig Dubitsky on our website, at, or any of the usual places you get your podcasts. Also on our website, you’ll find our latest How America Shops® research. In particular, two recent national studies we did one called The New Shopper Truths, and, the other, My Random Shopping Life®, both of which will give you great insight into why you have to communicate your stories differently today. But before you click to that, let’s get back to my chat with Tim. The thing that you’ve alluded to several times is smell scent. You talked about sound, I recall when Nike created Nike Town in the beginning, and you would walk into that store and you would hear the tap tap tap of a basketball being dribbled on a court. And it immediately put you into that place, and being in places, and I remember in Europe where one of the large grocery retailers had these like sound machines above the fish counter that sounded like water, and that the implication was this is fresh, it’s coming from the sea. And I think about that in the context of the retailers that we know at least in this country, either they’re not thinking about sound and touch and smell. It feels many of them,  feels very operational.  Am I being my own cynical person here? Or is that something that you see, too?

Tim Girvin 19:17
I think the the challenge is that oftentimes what happens is a brand, there’ll be an envisioning of a brand and they’ll be the core sort of heartful beginning of it in terms of a higher ideal and a principle, and then once you start getting things compartmentalized with operations, store design, store construction, etc., etc. Then there’s this fragmenting that happens, and there needs to be that key sort of brand driver in the beginning that creates this genetic code that will allow people to integrate those elements as part of the strategy. So sound becomes a natural, like what are we going to do with sound? And what about scent? What can we do with scent. It’s better to look at distinct relationships just like your European fish market and creating a sound character that is specific to the ocean. Another example was there used to be kind of an early sound strategy that was very connected to Nordstrom, which was piano. So when you would go into the store, there would be the sound of piano. And sometimes it was because there was a real person playing the piano in the store. And sometimes it was a modeled sound that was was credited. But you start creating these tiers of how people can psychically connect with the memorability of a store, like, what was it like? What was the feeling? What did you remember about it, and the more senses that you touch, pardon upon the better chance you have of being able to look at a way in which people remember things.

Wendy Liebmann 21:07
So it’s, I think about this in a world, certainly, in this country, where so much of retail has become fairly commoditized, big chains, even if it’s a department store, big chains, big number of stores, and efficiency has become so important in all of that, what are the skills I have to have now if I’m either a brand marketer, or a retail marketer, or a retail design person? I mean, how you were talking about this integration? How do we think about that when we train talent today?

Tim Girvin 21:39
I think the one of the pieces, it’s very important with training is that there needs to be a leader, there needs to be someone who is out in front, who is driving this strategy. Not that they’re above, but they’re simply in front. And so it’s core that there has to be some emanation from this leadership that is clarified in the teams that are involved that they understand what the story is, they understand the idea that the store has been designed as a multi sensate proposition. And that is intentional to create this sense of embracement that people will develop a relationship with a brand.

Wendy Liebmann 22:23
You see in these big companies, whether they’re retailers or manufacturers, their mission on the wall, all of those sorts of things. And as you were describing this, I was thinking, actually you need to walk in the door in the days when we’ll walk in the door one one more time. And you need to what does it smell like? I was just thinking about what this WSL smell like? And you said that to us when you were doing our own branding work. It was really sort of understanding the touch, feel sentiment of the brand. As I think about training teams, whether they’re brand teams or R&D teams, or packaging teams, sales teams, how do they tell these stories now, when consumers and shoppers are looking for a much deeper meaning in their lives, that isn’t just about your teeth will be whiter.

Tim Girvin  23:10
I think that again, it’s about the layering of that process. And you need to be able to allow someone to grasp the bigger character of a retail environment or this brand storytelling of a place in just a scan of the environment just as they are looking around. They can they can get a core feeling. But then as they move into different areas, as they move through this procession, this journey, which I know is an overused phrase, this wander, then what do they discover? What do they see? What are the tiers of that experience that they can uncover? That’s part of how that journey works.

Wendy Liebmann 23:55
You know, you make me think we’ve just finished some new research that we’re actually about to publish imminently. And it starts to define more accurately on a national survey basis, what shoppers are now telling us about what they want from their stores.  They want Happy Places, and they want fast places. And now that they can order online click and get the sort of things on the list off the list, pick it up at the store at the curb, they regularly park the car and then go into the store. Now sometimes it’s because they forgot things, but often it’s because they now have time to experience things. So what you’re talking about and the nature of overuse word journey really resonates a lot because now people are saying okay, yeah, I got it. I got the Why am I sticking on toothpaste? I got the toothpaste I got the Sodor I got the diapers I got all that stuff. Now I’m ready for x experience or x category that I want to find more out about. So it feels like what you’re saying now is even more important than ever because the stores matters. But it’s not the store about just pure efficiency.

Tim Girvin 25:03
I do think that what I find in the people that I communicate with is, how do you tell the story in a way that’s deep enough that it resonates at a deeper level. So that means that you need to proceed into the brand. And define what those key activations are, what are those sort of Spark points in terms of what that brand can be about, and authentically look for ways in which those can be manifested, either in the packaging, or in the store or the website?

Wendy Liebmann 25:36
Well, that’s an incredibly inspiring way to think about all the ways we deliver, whether it’s a company like WSL, or it’s a big global brand, or it’s a little a big retailer, that’s messaging is more important than ever, as we see the changing values that shoppers have. And the huge expanse of places people can buy goods and services, that that need to craft and manage and build brands and tell stories really does have an even stronger role to play today. And the sense of wellbeing does come from our ability to touch and feel and connect with these sorts of stories. So I can’t thank you enough. It’s always great to see you always a pleasure. And I look forward to seeing you on the other side in 2022.

Tim Girvin 26:28
Yeah, absolutely. I hope is helpful.

Wendy Liebmann 26:31
As Tim said, it’s all about telling our stories in relevant, honest and truthful ways. That’s certainly our mission in 2022. Yours too, I hope so. Again, from all of us at WSL. We wish you good health and wellbeing in the coming year and we look forward to seeing you in the future. Cheers for now.

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