Boots’ brand refresh shows big brands need targeting as well as mass marketing

Boots is trying to reach almost all UK consumers with its new ads, but is pairing them with targeted performance marketing – and it needs both.

Horst Schulze horrified his parents. Despite growing up in a relatively well-to-do family in western Germany, at 11-years-old he had only one career in mind. He wanted to work in hotels. Eventually, at the age of 16, his exasperated parents enrolled him in a nearby hotel school that allowed him to work as an apprentice bell boy six days a week and spend the other day studying hotel operations.

It was during that first year of school, while writing an essay, that Schulze coined a phrase that would one day become a legendary part of the hotel business. He wanted to capture the fact that the great hotel staff he was now working alongside were just as fine and impressive as the clients that they worked for. These men and women did not just serve guests, they delivered such first-class service that they became respected and elevated because of it. “We are ladies and gentlemen,” he explained in his essay. “And we serve ladies and gentlemen.”

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Decades later, Schulze had moved to America and become a specialist in hotel marketing. One day a team from Atlanta called and offered him a role running a new hotel company called Ritz-Carlton. The minute Schulze took the reins he knew exactly the motto he would use to empower and inspire staff and attract high-end customers. He reached back to his teenage essay and made the phrase ‘Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen’ the core promise of the nascent hotel chain and the cornerstone of the brand’s now legendary ‘gold standards’ of service.

It’s a very 20th-century story. Not only because of its setting and provenance, but because of the nature of the motto itself. Schulze was looking for a way to stand out and differentiate his new hotel chain from the others in the category. His double-barrelled motto was not just an attempt to make the Ritz-Carlton appear exclusive, it was doubly so. It aimed at a certain kind of employee and certain type of customer who looked for something more than the typical hotel experience. If the motto were a geometric shape, it would be a triangle with its tip pointing vertically upwards from the base.

Of course, that’s all terribly unfashionable today. If young Schulze had written his essay in 2021, he would likely have been given an F and reprimanded for failing to acknowledge the new reality of ‘sophisticated mass marketing’. In barely a decade, most marketers have moved from trying to be as targeted and exclusive as possible to becoming completely open and mass-marketed. If I had a dollar for every time the world’s most important marketer, P&G brand supremo Marc Pritchard, expressed his regret at going too narrow in interviews, I would have enough money to buy a lot of razor blades.

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Marketers once looked to target a specific segment and ignore the rest of the market, crafting positioning statements that alienated as much as they resonated. Now a new generation of marketers eschews targeting and embraces the mass with the kind of positioning that opens the door to essentially everybody and anybody. All the time.

When Johnson & Johnson went to work on a new position for its Neutrogena brand this year, for example, the key words were accessibility and ubiquity. The subsequent slogan, which it launched in April, provides a perfect encapsulation of the mass marketing era we now inhabit. ‘For people with skin’ is the remarkably unremarkable new slogan the beauty brand now operates under.

It’s an almost total repudiation of the double exclusivity of the old Ritz-Carlton mantra, in that it’s open to literally everyone. The triangle of positioning has been completely inverted. Now the point sits at the bottom and the base at the top as the brand opens out to everyone.

Professor Byron Sharp and his little red book are to blame for most of this. In a quite outrageous example of industry influence he not only killed the sacred cow of targeting, he reinstated mass marketing, that most abhorred strategic failure, as cool and effective once again. I saw it when I looked at 50 years of Effie submissions. Around 2010, many big brands started sending Effie submissions in which they not only avoided any mention of target segments, but openly boasted of their attempt to aim for the sophisticated mass market – ie not quite everyone on the planet, but everyone who could buy in the category.

As usual, things have now gone too far. Most marketers are mediocre thinkers and fail F Scott Fitzgerald’s basic test of intelligence, in which they have to entertain two or more contradictory thoughts while still operating a marketing budget. They have swung from the starboard side of the marketing ship named ‘targeting’, to the opposite port side of the ship and its focus on mass marketing, with all the grace and nuance we might expect from a bunch of proverbial drunken sailors.

And yet it should be obvious to anyone with a decent functioning brain and some experience of marketing that mass marketing and target marketing can and should be fine bedfellows. We speak of long and short. ATL and BTL. Digital and traditional. Direct and indirect. And in each case we appreciate that both of these opposites provide a better path when conjoined together than separated and chosen over each other. Why not targeting and mass marketing too?

Mixing mass with targeted

There is a perfect exemplar taking place at the moment in the UK, with the reboot of the Boots brand. Pete Markey carries the double-edged sword of being a VFM – very famous marketer. At any one time in any country there are usually half a dozen marketers that everyone in the profession knows. Markey, the ex-CMO at TSB and now CMO at Boots, is one of them. And I say double edged because although his status gets him the pick of the big marketing jobs at the biggest brands, it also means that expectations are ridiculously high when he does something big like reintroduce the UK to the Boots brand.

And yet, remarkably, he seems to be not fucking it up. The new Boots brand creative is all the things you would want from top-of-the-funnel work. It’s emotional without being cloying. It’s not asking of anything from the target consumer other than attention. And while it tips its hat briefly to all the various different product territories that Boots spans, this is squarely about the brand itself and not any specific product sell.

The new campaign manages that magical trick of being both true to the heritage of the brand, and refreshing at the same time. The tagline ‘Good as New’ speaks to freshness but comes directly from the old-world phraseology of your grandma. It’s good in other words.

And, one more point, the new Boots campaign is demonstrably aimed at the whole of the UK. There are no target segments here. No pretty segment portraits or specious slicing-and-dicing of identities. This is Boots talking to every British person because the size and scale of the brand mean that the ‘sophisticated’ part of this sophisticated mass-marketing campaign is almost completely redundant. Everyone shops at Boots, therefore the new brand campaign must speak to everyone. Something that Markey is keenly aware of.

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“Ultimately this is about driving a reappraisal of the brand through the lens of what we offer today,” Markey explained last week; “the role we play in people’s lives today, and the stronger role we can play in people’s lives in future – not just on the high street, but on our online business.”

The campaign’s universality is apparent from its media goals too. Over the next 12 weeks Boots intends to reach 97% of the UK population. And in a further slight to another popular current cliché about prioritising reach completely over frequency, it will aim for an average of 12 exposures per customer over that period too. This is as broad and as deep a campaign as we are likely to see this year or next.

It should be obvious to anyone with a decent functioning brain and some experience of marketing that mass marketing and target marketing can and should be fine bedfellows.

But before everyone jumps on the Ehrenberg-Bass express to Mass Marketville, we should pause and remember that this is Boots we are talking about. The retailer is owned by Walgreens Boots Alliance and its bigger, American sister Walgreens is probably one of the most advanced performance marketing companies on the planet. That performance DNA is evident in how Boots goes to market too.

The Boots Advantage Card has more than 10 million users. And the company uses that huge army of consumers and phalanx of associated data to create an incredibly powerful first-party database which can, in turn, drive an equally powerful second-order database via lookalike targeting.

Boots is constantly, repeatedly, targeting specific segments of the market that have been split out from the mass using demographics, location, time of day and a myriad other slicing variables. These segments are being served performance marketing fare. It is product-focused, it aims at specific customer needs, it makes a very specific offer to the consumer and it focuses on the final few stages of the funnel and driving sales. And unlike the singular campaign around the Boots brand, there will be literally hundreds of these smaller, bottom-of-the-funnel, targeted campaigns running across the current year.

Importantly, Boots’ marketing also demonstrates the cliché of traditional media for long, mass branding work and digital for the targeted, performance activation stuff is also nonsensically binary. Sure, Boots is using a shit ton of TV and digital out-of-home (DOOH) to rebuild the Boots brand. But a significant slice of its branding budget will go to digital channels, which can also (clutches his pearls and inhales) build brand brilliantly.

Similarly, while the targeting capabilities of digital media make it a shoo-in for much of Boots performance marketing, the company is adept at also using so-called traditional media like addressable TV and DOOH to play a role in more targeted sales activation campaigns too.

The message from the Boots campaign should resonate with marketers in a very different way from how it will work on the target consumers. For British people the message is the chemist is back, refreshed and ready to serve and it is as important to you now as it ever was in the past. For marketers the message is that you still need to segment markets, when appropriate, to serve effective product activations that resonate and return on the short-term investment. You need lots of these campaigns. But you also need to embrace sophisticated mass marketing for the overall, overhead brand-bombing that builds the top of the funnel and sets up the more targeted fare for faster and more effective success.