IN MY OPINION

Imagine walking into your local supermarket and finding a Starbuck's-style kiosk where the coffee aisle used to be -- brought to you by a national brand, say, Maxwell House. Instead of the usual lineup, you find floor-to-ceiling bins, dispensing a wide variety of Maxwell House beans, roasted and ground to your order. Maxwell House employees serve you a piping hot brew in a Maxwell House cup, while

Imagine walking into your local supermarket and finding a Starbuck's-style kiosk where the coffee aisle used to be -- brought to you by a national brand, say, Maxwell House. Instead of the usual lineup, you find floor-to-ceiling bins, dispensing a wide variety of Maxwell House beans, roasted and ground to your order. Maxwell House employees serve you a piping hot brew in a Maxwell House cup, while also telling you a thing or two about a new bean from Oaxaca.

You're at this particular store, even though it's not the one where you usually shop, because of a direct mail piece you received, co-sponsored by the store and the brand. They pegged you as a coffee drinker and sent you a four-color piece announcing a frequent buyer program -- buy 10 pounds, get one free -- plus a travel mug with a logo as a bonus if you were to sign up by Saturday. When you saw and heard the supporting radio and television commercials, well, you just couldn't resist.

Welcome to the world of Interactive Branding at retail, where marketing means informing, entertaining and involving shoppers through sight, sound, smell and personalized service.

For retailers, interactive branding represents a way to reclaim the shoppers they have lost to the category-busters and club stores. The idea is to create more excitement and add value to the shopping experience, so shoppers aren't tempted to make special trips elsewhere for certain purchases.

For brand marketers, the rationale is manifold. First, quality and performance can no longer be a point of difference, because the speed of technology makes all performance improvements concurrently available to all competitors. Further, consumers are today demanding customized solutions. They want to dictate brand benefits rather than passively accept whatever marketers offer them.

Most important, the rising power of the retail trade almost mandates that brand building be integrated with the shopping experience. Retailers are taking ownership of the consumer relationship. They see their consumers regularly, and many have designed their in-store environments to support positioning or imagery. By cultivating relationships with shoppers in this way, retailers leave consumers with less emotional energy to invest in the items on the shelves.

Interactive Branding changes all that. Not only does Interactive Branding build on the relationships retailers have established with their shoppers, it restores the consumer's brand affinity. Key to this is what Hunter Hastings of Ryan Management Group calls the "get value-feel valued" elan of Interactive Branding. "Consumers become confident that they are buying a brand that's right for them at the right price -- that is, they are 'getting value,' " says Hastings, who coined the term "Interactive Branding." They also come to feel that the brand marketer understands their value as consumers -- i.e., they feel valued."

J. William Sinnott is president of Ryan Partnership Field Marketing, Westport, Conn.