Splendid Ideas: The Bridal Bar

Monday, September 13, 2010

wedding marketing - harmony waltonThe next company in the Splendid Ideas series, which focuses on businesses in the wedding and event space that are truly innovating and shaping the future of the industry, is The Bridal Bar. The Bridal Bar is an advertising platform for wedding professionals that mixes both offline and online elements. Currently, three cities are home to Bridal Bar storefronts: Los Angeles, San Diego, and Atlanta, and each one offers couples the opportunity to find reputable vendors for their wedding all in one location. The service is free of charge to couples, and the members pay a fee in exchange for actively being promoted to their target audience in a variety of ways by the Bridal Bar. The founder, Harmony Walton and I have known each other since 2006 and first met in person in June 2008 at the first Engage! conference. My respect for her and what she has built has only grown over the years and she has a smart business sense that is paralleled by only a handful in the wedding industry.

Name: Harmony Walton
Company Name: The Bridal Bar
Website: bridalbar.com

What was the motivation behind starting your company?

The idea was a mixture of several different motivations. It stemmed originally from watching a friend fight a legal battle with a wedding photographer who had advertised in a magazine (and that I referred her to). After that experience, I wanted to provide a place not only of education and inspiration, but a hub for honest business professionals, and a model that acted as the clearinghouse to make sure they stayed that way. Second, I wanted to use my PR background and marketing skills to help small businesses grow beyond what they could do on their own as artists. And third, I wanted to create a stable business environment for myself that didn’t rely on incredible highs and lows or peak seasons and off seasons, but was within the wedding business that I loved. So I found a way to channel what I loved and what I was good at and fill a void in the marketplace, while creating a structured business environment to fit my lifestyle.

Your company name and concept are taken frequently by others. What do you do to stay innovative in the midst of this, and what is your advice to other companies who may be facing the same intellectual property challenges?

What I try not to do is react and change something that doesn’t need changing just to try and outdo a competitor. There is a reason we are number one in the market, and it’s important to remember why; stick to what we know works and simply do it better. That being said, I’m always on the lookout for the right ways to diversify or add greater value to our core business without losing sight of it. So I listen: to clients, to market changes, to the needs of those we service and to the needs of my business and improve accordingly. If we simply become stagnant, we won’t stay on top, so I pay attention. Sean Low once told me to always work to provide more, whether it’s service, deliverables, etc., so we’ve modified our program over the years to relate better to our clients’ needs and give them more.

My advice to someone facing this challenge is to ignore those recreating your work. It’s easier said than done (I’m learning), but the more I put them out of my view, the better we do what we do, because we act according to our business needs and intuitions and no one else’s. The best advice I can give is to PROTECT your intellectual property legally. Without that, you don’t have a business at all. And do it early! You may not expect to get as big as quickly and then it’s too late to protect what you’ve built either in name or copyright or patent, or all of the above. It is the best investment you can give your business if it is going to be anything more than a hobby.

Over the years I've watched several companies attempt to recreate your model and many have ultimately failed and closed their doors. Some though, have expanded rapidly and now currently have more stores than you do. Why did you choose to roll out in other markets at a slower pace when competitors are picking up speed?

We have a higher barrier to entry for one. I would fail all of our vendor clients and all of our store owners if I allowed even one store to open and close its doors. So we pick and choose and require more of anyone interested in becoming one of our partners. We’ve turned down great people in markets that just weren’t big enough for our goals; amazing partners that couldn’t devote full time careers to this model; people who are active wedding planners – and that’s a big reason for slower growth; any hint of indiscretion to the bride, and the business will never succeed in the long run, so we don’t allow it. There are faster ways of growing, but in my opinion, none more stable. Slow and steady may not always win the race, but fast and furious with your eyes closed never does. I look for the right people with the right long-term agenda for the program, and if that means fewer stores, then I am happy with that. My model has always been quality over quantity, right down to the bridal consultations. In the end, I’d rather have 25 Bridal Bar stores open in 20 years than 25 stores open in two years with none still standing down the road.

You recently launched a line of products called Bridal Bar Home. How did you decide to go in that direction?

That opportunity actually came to me. By building a solid foundation and creating a true brand, we’re able to grow in spaces where opportunities aren’t always as obvious. In this case, the designer, Jennifer Adams, had been looking for the right project to do with us for years. Organically, during one conversation about her new endeavors and products, I gave her my two cents on how she could leverage the collection to drive sales through registries. That was it – she found the link that worked, and eventually we teamed up to launch the line. After years of product development under her company, it was right for what we wanted to do, the right quality for both companies, and the right partner. Although I had always thought baby would be our next extension, we actually support home goods and nesting more immediately and directly. Now registry provides brand awareness for our stores, while our stores support the marketing efforts of the home products in registry.

How do you feel that expansion will help your brand?

Because the product is rolling out nationally, it gives us an opportunity to build a brand presence in cities we don’t yet have locations. So when we do go into future markets, couples will better recognize us instead of simply showing up and shouting that we’re there. Again, it is a slower, more organic process, but if we can be known for having the best quality in everything we do, each business extension will help support all the others, in all the markets. It also doesn’t hurt that this keeps our name on the tongues of couples long after they’ve said their “I do’s,” opening a door to other forms of expansion as well as additional clientele.

You are in a unique position with your company, because you literally touch every aspect of the wedding market, from each vendor category to the business side to working with brides themselves. From a business perspective, what direction do you see the industry moving towards in the next five years?

In the next five years I see the industry getting even more fiercely competitive. We know that the number of brides will vastly increase, but with a continued low ceiling of entry for businesses, so will the number of competitors. Coupled with the launch of lifestyle social media platforms that allow the consumer and volume groups to dictate what they will spend, the power is in the hand of the bride more than ever. Price wars aren’t going away, so we have to provide better and different service. These price wars will ultimately weed the market of companies that overextend to compete, but in the interim, it should get pretty interesting.

We are also going to see an increase in the big brand players (Urban Outfitters, J. Crew, etc) playing in the bridal sandbox, with more marketing dollars behind them than most of us could ever imagine. Vendors need to be smarter, better at what they do, connect more personally with the market, and provide more value for the money (not necessarily in discount but in perceived value). Even still, some of the boutique brands are going to be largely impacted by the national chains entering the low- to mid-level markets.

Do you feel that social media is leveling the playing field in the industry by making it more democratic or do you think it is hindering it?

Currently I think social media is making the business of art more difficult, but ultimately it will become more democratic. You no longer have to be an artist to be good at what you do, according to social media; you only have to be able to “sell it or shout it” and a lot of true artists don’t do this well or won’t. In the long run, though, as with any new medium, the fringe will fall off and the cream will continue to rise to the top. Social media is quick to sing your praises but just as quickly can show your cracks. This will ultimately make the “playing field” better in general - we as business owners have no margin for error in service thanks to consumer generated content; so social media will make us perform at a heightened level, which they will benefit from.

In an industry where there is little regulation and anyone can open up shop overnight, what types of companies do you think will survive in the future?

The companies that will ultimately survive know how to blend art and business and do it uniquely and with exceptional service (that is a lot to ask). They have to occupy a space along the lines of the Blue Ocean Strategy, and then build on a solid and strategic core. I’ve seen the busiest companies fold overnight because they couldn’t get the dollars and cents right, and vice versa when the price is there but the art isn’t. There has to be balance between beauty and reality at the end of the day. Pair that successfully with intensely superior customer service and quality of experience and those are the companies that will survive. But those that win, think ahead – they act from the start with an end goal in mind that they use to base daily decisions on and come from a place of intentional strategy.

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