What role marketing?

In marked contrast to our event in Asia last week, the last two days have just seen the Retail Week Conference here in London and you couldn’t get a more different set of issues being discussed. Celebrating it’s 20th anniversary, it brought together nearly a 1,000 people from the UK retail industry. Where our delegates in Hong Kong last week spoke of the enormous growth opportunities and the blank canvass of development, the UK scene was far more challenged. With the threat of a consumer slow down and rising cost pressures it was surprising that the retail mood was not more downbeat. Instead, there seemed to be a realistic that they had to embark on “self help” strategies to find growth if the economy wasn’t going to do them any favours.

Retailers identified a series of things to be tackled if they were to keep moving forward including more efficiencies, more innovation in product, greater emphasis on service and trust to create competitive advantage, to internationalise and finally of course, to fully embrace the digital revolution. In particular, there was the realisation that mobile was growing at an incredible pace and had to now form part of the wider strategy.

There were many points of discussion around the rise of online and mobile. It was striking that so many talked about how retail brands needed to present themselves in ways that suited the different channels. Also, it was stated how they are all truly linked and mutually support the brand proposition just so long as the consumer feels comfortable that each channel is providing the same brand experience.

But from this debate there came many comments that this new channel explosion is putting enormous premium on the data that is being thrown off about consumers visiting the sites. Many people openly questioned whether this is moving the power within a retail organisation to the technology team who are now able to provide all the analytics and away from the marketing team.

This is clearly going to build as a theme as the technology delivers more and more powerful and useful data. Does this mean that it diminishes the role of marketing? To my mind, it may shift it somewhat, but the real premium surely falls on the ability to build the emotional and inspirational side of the brand, in knowing what makes existing customers want to return and new customers try it out for the first time.

One of the most powerful presentations at the Retail Week Conference was from Ogilvy’s UK managing director, Rory Sutherland. He argued that there were always tensions between the rational functions of a business and the creative. Ultimately one cannot function without the other. It would surely be a mistake if pure analysis without creative interpretation and inspiration was allowed to take over a retail business.

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