Mary Portas’ programme is a great lesson for marketers who have little exposure to the coal face

Anybody seeking a career in marketing could do worse than watch Mary Portas’ new series, Mary Queen of Shops, as the retail marketing guru plays mentor to a selection of Britain’s independent shops. I particularly enjoyed last week’s series opener when Portas clashes memorably with the owner of a failing stuck in a time-warp bakery in South-west London.

The programme is a great lesson for marketers who spend their working life developing strategic brand plans but have little exposure to the coal face. When consulting with smaller businesses you tend to have to deal with the owner or founder of a business. This is good in that you can talk directly to the organ grinder, but challenging in that privately owned businesses are typically full of irrational people with emotions running high. In such a situation, there is little room for marketing hyperbole. Straight talking is required and there is no chance of hiding behind long PowerPoint presentations.

The show also provides a wonderful insight into what most business people think of as marketing. Put simply, they think we do a bit of design or maybe the odd advert or promotion. In my book, Mary Portas is a very good intuitive marketer. She is not just a luxury designer girl. She understands how to connect with consumers and how to add value to products. More often than not, this is not about design or advertising, but about getting the basic brand offering right. On her visit to the bakery, Portas dares to suggest that the iced buns, smiley-faced jam tarts and sliced white bread are not perhaps what the yummy mummy and commuter folk of Raynes Park are looking for these days. She is right, though I suspect there are a fair few Raynes Park oldie regulars who remain delighted with the lack of change and progress at their local bakery.

“Mary Portas’ programme is a great lesson for marketers who have little exposure to the coal face”

The challenge is how to attract a new generation while not completely alienating those loyalists who still pay your bills. It is a challenge facing many brand managers across the country. In my experience the only way to crack this is to be crystal clear about who your target market is. Get this right and the rest will flow.

However, if you own your own bakery and have personally served many of the same customers for 36 years, it is utterly terrifying to tell your loyalists that they no longer represent your core target audience. Marketing is much tougher in the real world.

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