Little & Company has a unique role in the world of marketing. It is a Minneapolis-based firm that floats between agency status and the role of consultant. It helps other companies with designs for their brands. It helps provide sales tools for staff on the showroom floor.

Launched in 1979 by founder and board chairman Monica Little, Little & Company is a 30-member organization with annual revenue in the neighborhood of $7 million.

Its roster of clients range from Target to Microsoft to Wells Fargo. It recently took on Sealy, the No. 2 two mattress seller in the United States, as a client.

Little & Company President Joe Cecere sat down last week to discuss the firm's latest works and retail trends.

QLittle & Company just added Sealy to its client roster. What is your assignment with them?

AOur main assignment is to relaunch the Posturepedic brand in January. The bedroom is the second most popular gathering place in the home after the kitchen. You spend a lot of life there and you should enjoy it. We want to add some sassiness to the dry, stale mattress market. We've found that the stores are confusing and lack inspiration. There are a lot of mattresses to look at and the public doesn't know what the different features and benefits mean to them. One of the big challenges is that mattresses are mainly sold through independent distributors so the manufacturer can lose control of the brand. The sales associate needs the right materials to represent and articulate the brand. It's important to get away from the technical data and get to the emotional core. It's about lifestyle. It's important to get that story out and update the Posturepedic brand.

QHow do brick-and-mortar retailers survive in an Internet economy?

ABrick-and-mortar settings are more important than ever. Consumers still like to go to a store and have that shopping excitement, the thrill of the find. The store purchase is still only part of the shopping experience. The best retailers have a robust site to start the process. You have associates prepared to represent the brand and post-purchase follow-up to have the consumer become a brand advocate. Bricks and mortar and the Internet go together.

QWhat about the concept of "showrooming," where consumers compare products in a store setting but then purchase online?

AThat is challenging for retailers like Best Buy. Target has the same problem. It comes down to the whole experience and brand affiliation to win those people over. Best Buy didn't stay consistent with the brand experience whereas the Nordstrom experience ranges from personal service to gift cards to personal notes in shipped purchases. That makes the Nordstrom experience unique and that's why people go back there.

QHow do you empower your sales staff?

AYou give them a purpose, a goal. It's about more than just a paycheck. What is your place in the company and how do you represent the brand every day? You have to let people know what their place in the company is. You can't just tell them that during orientation; you have to consistently get that message to them.

QHow does design drive sales?

AConsumers are more savvy than they've ever been. Consumers think of great design the moment they are on the Web, the moment they set foot in the store. Every touch point should be well thought out. Consumers will smell it if it's not. Target is a great example. So is Microsoft. Consumers get that design experience in those stores.

QWhat are the core shopping trends of 2012?

AMillennials are the largest emerging demographic. Their attention span and expectations are very different from the traditional shopper. Shoppers also are looking for a greater value proposition that extends beyond price. For them, the shopping experience is important. And it's very important for the front-line sales staff to have the right tools to represent a brand in the best way. A brand can be damaged with the wrong sales associate. Consumers expect associates to be there to help them. Little touches matter, even with big companies.

QTalk about different shopping behaviors and how retailers respond to them.

AFor a lot of shoppers, the big thing is the social part of shopping rather than just the purchase. They like talking with sales associates and with friends. A sense of community is important. There are treasure hunters who like a challenge. Pampered guests expect the experience to be really good. They want a personal attendant. Brand worshipping has been going on for a long time. That consumer expects something from a brand and, if it fails to live up to that, it can be a problem. The self-expressive shoppers wants to be unique, wants to stand out. The millennials are a big part of this.

QWho gets it in this economy?

ANordstrom is doing it right. Nike is doing it right. They have defined their audience and have a consistent message even if their market is big. Consistency is a big deal in strong brands and strong retailers.

QWho doesn't?

ABest Buy has the opportunity to do better than they are doing. They've changed directions so many times. They need to pick one course and stay with it. Sears is struggling. Sears is not a fashion label. People trusted Sears and brands like Kenmore and Sears lost it. Target felt pressure from Wal-Mart to lower prices and it didn't work. You have to stick to what you are good at and not to change with every temperature change. Keep to what people know you for.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269