First of all: put your name in lights.

If you’ve visited Toronto, chances are you’ve been dazzled by Honest Ed’s – inside or out. The local purveyor of all things kitsch is a city icon. Its sign, a veritable light show of retail enticements, assaults your senses in the best possible way. Since 1948, when they opened the doors, Ed’s has been a TO landmark, a place to find piles of bargains, deals and other assorted stuff.

But what strikes me about the establishment is that at its heart, Honest Ed’s is a pioneer in social media. Why? Because every corner, nook and cranny – inside and out – is chock full of content, designed to dazzle and delight its customers and keep them coming back for more.

Here’s what I learned:

Set the stage and deliver: A bright, garish array of lights and corny jokes sets the tone. The personality of the eponymous brand character is everywhere. A lovable buffoon. A cheapskate, as loud as his merchandise. But also someone, who, above everything, has a sharp eye for deals he’s happy to pass on. This story is woven throughout the displays, merchandise, aisles and signs. It harkens back to vaudeville and rises above the street noise, tantalizes and draws you in. It’s the original form of multimedia storytelling and it delivers on its promise – always.

User experience, part 1: Look at the windows. The UX starts from the outside gazing in. Each window display tells another part of the Honest Ed Mirvish story and the department it represents. You may not know that the buyers, Honest Ed’s extended team of loyal “community managers”, are responsible for stocking and running the various departments and making the windows into visual teasers. Think of them as real-life landing pages, customized by interest, with a simple and direct call to action from each one.

User experience, part 2: Once you enter, the place is utterly experiential, from the cluttered shelves to the maze of aisles and walkways that takes on a long and winding road through the store. They’re guiding the flow, the way you discover content, every step of the way.

Community first: Honest Ed knew how to build and nurture his audience and he did it by thinking about what they want and need and presenting it on a 99 cent platter. He kidded around with them, celebrated them and gave things away for free – like the turkeys at Christmas or treats at the annual birthday bash he used to host. He created a loyal following because he understood his audience and they knew from his self-deprecating humour that underneath his brash persona, he was there to serve.

Paid, earned, shared and owned media: Long before digital, Honest Ed’s was a model of integration. Its old black and white newspaper ads were jammed to the borders with offers, just like the store. He both paid for awareness and earned his customers’ and the media’s attention by crazy stunts he pulled on a regular basis; over the top, certainly, yet with elements of empathy and heart. His antics encouraged word of mouth and a reputation that spread far and wide. And all of this centred on the property he owned, the retail establishment that spanned a couple of city blocks and was the proverbial content hub.

Ed Mirvish created a retail strategy from a sticky, consistent story with a familiar plot that played out over time. He stuck to his bargain-hunting core. He reused his ideas in the extreme and in immersive, memorable ways. He made his brand iconic with its own customs and traditions. And aside from the company’s one-page website, he built a lasting content machine. You can imagine how many people will miss it when it closes its doors to become a condo development in a few years. I know I will.

What other content or social media lessons have you learned from Honest Ed?

A version of this post was originally published in Marketing Magazine.


About Martin Waxman

Martin Waxman conducts social media and online crisis training workshops, is a digital and communications strategist and speaks at events across North America. He's the co-founder of three PR agencies, president of a consultancy and has worked in the industry for over 25+ years. Martin is a LinkedIn Learning and author, teaches digital strategy and social media at University of Toronto SCS and Seneca College, and is a past-chair of PRSA Counselors Academy.

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