Merchandising strategy might not be a hot topic on Twitter, but smart merchandising can make the difference between mere profitability and exponential growth. One path to becoming a merchandising rock star is to incorporate some discussion of customer challenges into your product development.

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Identifying the glitches and shortcomings that frustrate buyers in your industry will pay dividends, especially if you consider how those problems affect people's overall brand experience. Fixing the things customers hate about your product (or a competitor's) can help you to establish and grow a positive relationship that will keep those buyers loyal.

Some brands are merchandising rock stars, and Andrea Syverson has turned their experiences into lessons for other marketers. She's an independent branding, merchandising, and creative strategist with more than 20 years of consumer and B2B branding experience. Andrea's clients have included Celestial Seasonings and Hershey.

The founder of IER Partners, Andrea has also written two books: Brand About: A Seriously Playful Approach for Passionate Brand Builders and Merchants, and Think About, a book that has 77 creative prompts for innovators.

I invited Andrea to the podcast to talk about what makes a company a merchandising rock star, how your company can become one, and how you can use merchandising to address customer pain points. Along the way we also discussed branding, empathy, "verbifying" your brand, and so much more.

Here are a few highlights from my conversation with Andrea:

To achieve merchandising greatness, listen "adventurously" (03:36): "What I practice in my work with my clients is actually encouraging them to spend time like an anthropologist with their customers. And by that I mean facetime, not just reading their social media feeds. Every single time that I have been with my clients' customers, they have learned new things simply by observing and being very, very attentive to their customers' personalities, their customers' thoughts—all those things that don't happen across a device or a computer screen.

"The idea of 'listening adventurously' is going into these interactions with your customers without preconceived ideas, going into these conversations with customers' not knowing where the conversation is going to go. Being willing to take detours to learn more about our customers' needs, their pain points—[how] your brand might be able to connect with them in ways that your competition might not be doing."

Don't just find new ways to talk about your products: Create new products that solve customers' problems (05:53): "All good brands spend time trying to understand their customers' problems and how the brand leaders could solve the problems that are in their space to solve.... One example I love to share with my clients is from L.L. Bean.... That company was founded when Leon Bean tried to craft...a better hunting boot.

"His hunting boots were always getting wet. His feet were getting wet. And over a hundred-plus years ago, he created a boot that would solve that problem, and it was very well made. It is now—one hundred-plus years later—still one of their iconic products because it solved a problem for their customers."

Observe your customers at your brick-and-mortar locations (if you have them), but make field visits, too (07:49): "I recommend both [field visits and in-store observation]. Certainly, if you have a retail location, spend as much time. that's the beautify of retail. It's constant interaction with customers. The genius of Apple's 'genius bars' where they have the folks in the blue shirts helping customers day in and day that Apple has a two-way conversation with customers every single day all across the country. Think about the knowledge that Apple is gathering from their employees about those conversations.

"They're coming in with their products. They have pain points. They have things that aren't working. They have questions. They have concerns. They want to learn how to make the most use of their new product from Apple. That's a beautiful way to have a daily conversation with customers.

"I love that customers come to a brand, but I also feel it's very important for brands to go to customers. It's really important if you're Container Store to see what kinds of closets and what kinds of clutter people have so that you can create the right, next 'best product' to solve those kinds of problems."

To learn more, visit the IER Partners website, and be sure to find Andrea on LinkedIn. You can also get copies of her books, Brand About: A Seriously Playful Approach for Passionate Brand Builders and Merchants, and Think About.

Andrea and I talked about much more, so be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

Intro/Outro music credit: Noam Weinstein.

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