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Comment: ‘Darwinian Theory’ in the current retail climate?

There is no doubt that the cursed letter in the English language for the British economy in 2008 is the letter ‘C’.

By Alan Scurfield

With the adverse effects of the credit crunch infiltrating its ugly tentacles into the retail marketing sector, brands and their communications agencies are finding themselves under increasing pressure in two areas of valid concern. Firstly, to find more innovative ways of proving, maintaining and yielding a healthy return on spend. The second is to ensure that their channels and modes of communications effectively reach increasingly disenchanted consumer groups, who are chaotically seeking the best value for money in an environment where brands who once flourished during ‘better’ times are now furiously fighting to gain visibility and get into shopping trolleys with a hitherto unknown ferocity. A further blow to brands come in the shape of even more media fragmentation and tougher government legislation, which restricts whatever marginal freedom they may have had, to maintain market position and survival. This pessimistic outlook is not just a kink in the loop – according to the experts it is set to stay and probably get worse, before it gets better. So, 2008 will really be a test of survival of the fittest and if we stay with the scientific theme, it is worth bearing that eponynomous physics principle which states that, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. A slight glimmer of hope here then.

When faced with adversity, the major household brands we know so well, don’t rest on their laurels. With increasing prices on even the most basic of groceries, supermarkets for example, have been quick to react to the pinch in consumers’ whether they be stockbrokers’ or kids from a C2 DE backgrounds pockets. We have seen Jamie Oliver cooking for a family of four for five quid, Tesco offering a range of day-to-day household goods at knocked down prices and even M&S, that matriarch of luxury (and premium priced) goods, wining and dining its target market with a rather mouthwatering slap up range for just a tenner. However, it begs the question, is it enough to just implement a retail strategy which consists merely of copy cat ideas without tackling the real crux of the problem, which only results in a ‘me too’ syndrome, which quite frankly, consumers will get jaded with, given the test of time. This is particularly true when it comes to specific segments of target audiences, who, due to their very nature, whether it is as a result of disjointment, lack of message retention or even pure fickleness, will be far more challenging to reach and keep hold of or gain brand loyalty from. Take the kids market as a prime example and this phenomenon doesn’t ring any truer as a perennial challenge for the brand marketer. Getting kids to eat their greens

The fact is that brand value absorption by kids should never be underestimated. With decreasing disposable income, parents are unlikely to be anywhere as lavish at handing out pocket money to their offspring compared with just a few months ago. With restricted amounts of spending money, kids are in danger of seeking more and more alternatives such as lower priced junk food, to get the psychological feeling of quantity over quality and all the hard work done to educate and get them to lead a more balanced lifestyle, soon unraveling before our very eyes. So, forget thinking that the credit crunch only has an adverse bearing on grown ups – as with any enclosed macro-economic population system, the effects will have an intertwined cause and effect amongst all its inhabitants, even at micro level.

Directly targeted messaging can have a combative solution to this problem as far as kids are concerned. The increasing sophistication of how these next generations of adults perceive communication is the subject of continuous top level study, particularly in Western Europe and the US as new data streams into the public domain on a constant basis. Some of the findings are indeed cause for fear, which prompts governments and regulatory bodies to introduce harsh and restrictive guidelines on how brands may or may

not engage with this impressionable audience. However, if analysed closely, some of these inferences provide opportunities for brands to interact with this market in a conscientious and responsible manner, which has the power to create a true win-win scenario. The clever aspect is for the marketing and advertising industry to take a highly intelligent viewpoint in order to maximise the route paths which avail them. In the UK, bodies such as Ofcom, are proposing and introducing stringent covenants of restrictions. With alarming social issues such as obesity, teenage pregnancies and other shocking facets which need to be resolved at grass roots level, communication to this target audience at their stage of development is absolutely key.

In my opinion, you cannot underestimate the power of the psychology of today’s kids market. With access to a myriad of information channels such as the internet and social networking platforms where views and ideas are exchanged as never before, rather than shy away from conversing, brands need to implement a more robust level of dialogue with them. No one encourages food and drink with high fat, high salt and copious amounts of sugar (HFSS) to be targeted to kids. Far from it. However, turn it on its head and effect proactive campaigns which eschew these unhealthy categories and you have a clear winner. The mantra of ‘five a day’ is now ubiquitous amongst our day-to-day lives. Why cannot food and drink manufacturers who have a genuine mandate of producing healthy foods be prevented the opportunity to reach this audience in a creative and compelling way to drive the message in a positive manner? Surely, with such responsible brands bearing the cost of the communications programme’s, this reduces the government’s own spend of having to find ways and means of spreading the healthy gospel.

Why the KIS principle is best

With teenage killings, road accidents and unsocial behaviour at an all time high in Britain, the powers that be are constantly scratching their heads and debating that “something must be done – we have to tell these kids about the perils. But how?” The solution is quite simple. Communicate your message to them at the most optimum point of contact. Where do kids spend most amount of their awoken time during the day? At school of course. With little else in terms of brand messaging to distract them, the absorption of highly targeted, responsible advertising can be the most effective and potent method of communicating to them within this highly captive environment.

We are not talking about fancy plasma screens which run advertising content on loop either. Sometimes it is the simplest solutions (‘Keep It Simple’ or KIS as is popularly known in the ad industry), which are the most effective tools. Independent research has shown that a a two week poster campaign carried out within a school will have an OTS of 2.5 impacts per pupil, per day. Now, that is a serious amount of exposure, which has no wastage and is targeted directly to the right audience. We know that the amount of airtime advertising ‘consumed’ by children is on the decline. Yet on the other hand, brands – including the government – are quite rightly, keen to enter a responsible, moral dialogue with them to make them more healthier, ethical and sensible citizens of the future. The alternative channels are there, if you only care to seek them.

Alan Scurfield is Managing Partner at Ten Nine.

First published July 2008 in the Retail Bulletin

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