08/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Duane Reade Rebrands. New Yorkers Rejoice.

At least this New Yorker did. Like red, white and blue ivy, creeping insidiously and inexorably into the fabric of the city, Duane Reade outposts have become as commonplace as banks and Starbucks. They are never more than a few blocks away and can be spotted from great distances, maybe even space, given their garish branding and huge store fronts. If those damn shopping bags weren't so excellent for carrying everything but the kitchen sink I believe there would have been public outcry at this eyesore.

As a marketer I know that aesthetically pleasing branding and advertising doesn't necessarily sell products, but I have always believed that the two need not be mutually exclusive. You can get someone's attention without shouting. Brand owners, be respectful of your customer; don't design to the lowest common denominator; don't under-estimate the intelligence of the consumer. Challenge conventional practices.

While Duane Reade stores are indeed convenient and partially fill the void left by the demise of Woolworth's and the old five and dime, their branding never hinted at "wellness" to me. It said "sell". I think this is where brands often go wrong, local and regional brands in particular. They associate low prices with a certain design ethos. They think they can't look "aspirational" if their products are bargains. But this isn't necessary. Target is just one brilliant example of a brand that has made an art of marketing their lower priced goods without compromising on high quality, clever design and advertising. Of course, they can afford top talent. But there are a plethora of gifted free-lancers and smaller agencies out there just dying for work.

Duane Reade has done a lot of the right things with their rebrand. In addition to a contemporary logo with unadorned font and palatable color palette, their store design is more spacious, with aisles you can see over and attractive, helpful signage just slightly above eye level. They're also updating their product offering, starting with the addition of fresh food daily, mostly salads, yogurt and sandwiches - a nice alternative to their splendid aisles full of every junk food imaginable. Though there was still a special promotion on beef jerky (teriyaki-flavored, for the discerning palate).

Hopefully for them, they have not started on this new course too late. I assume they will be retro-fitting all stores. But with CVS already on their heels and now huge national player Walgreens expanding in the market with a bang (including a huge billboard in Times Square), something's got to give. One two block stretch on the Upper West Side boasts all three stores.

How can they differentiate themselves from their competitors? Certainly through branding and store design. The CVS brand identity is modern and clean; Walgreen looks dowdy and outdated. I have not done a price comparison but imagine there is relative parity on pricing among all three so they won't be able to stand out on price. But I think where any of them can make their mark is through (improved) customer service. I might be tempted by the one who has the most cashiers so I can avoid long lines - these places can be notoriously understaffed behind the counter.

Personalized service at the pharmacy is one area where they can really differentiate. Henry, the pharmacist at my neighborhood CVS, gives me the kind of caring service I was used to from "mom and pop" pharmacies. He remembers what I'm taking, what I've had a bad reaction to. Henry is worth walking the extra two blocks.

But I do bemoan the closing of neighborhood pharmacies. They carry funky old brands you never see anywhere else (remember Yardley?), human sized bottles of shampoo and single bars of soap, and they deliver Nyquil and tissues when you can't get out of bed. But of course they can't compete on price with these regional and national brands, and fall prey to rent increases when their leases expire. Is it too much to hope that landlords, facing an increasing number of empty storefronts, will make life easier for these and other small businesses? It could be a little step back in time for our neighborhood streets. Fingers crossed.