Thinking creatively in retail

Hot on the heels of Morrisons’ announcement that it is moving its proposition closer to discounters Lidl and Aldi comes the news that Tesco is reorganising its marketing C-suite.

Moving chief marketing officer Matt Atkinson to the new role of chief creative officer responsible for product and service innovations, Tesco is also moving other marketing disciplines into the role of chief customer officer, held by Jill Easterbrook.

So what do these two roles now mean? Both are part of marketing yet separate. A recent Marketing Week article on underselling marketing at board level had a unanimous call: marketers cannot do their jobs effectively if they do not act as the customer champion.

Tesco is one of the few companies in the UK to introduce the role of chief creative officer, but perhaps it is also one of the few of size to justify it. In the US, Starbucks and Land’s End have chief creative officers and they have been commonplace in the fashion sector for some time.

Why does retail need a ‘creative’ officer? We are well into the digital age but retail continues to reel from its influence. Moving on from clicks and mortar, retailers are now tangling with the effect of mobile. Price checking on the move means one of two things: retailers either strive to always win the race to the bottom and are therefore sure of being the cheapest on the market, or they cease to compete on cost and look for another differentiator.

Waitrose TV content
Waitrose has produced magazine and TV content with the aim of inspiring people rather than selling to them

“The meaning of creative is to dream up something new and be innovative. You want to create desire in customers and identify a requirement in the market,” says head of ecommerce at Hudson Shoes, Jonathan Dicks.

Hudson is a mid to premium shoe maker and online reseller. Available through retailers such as Selfridges, the company is keen to ensure it drives customers directly to its online site where margins are bigger and the ability to create loyalty greater. “It’s the constant challenge to make sure they buy from us and not a third party. We have ultimate control over what we talk about. Our unique selling proposition is to offer web exclusives that you can’t buy in store, limited short runs and mixing colourways to create a unique shoe. We can’t undercut our retailers so we have to think creatively,” says Dicks.

He notes that competing on price does not necessarily mean being uncreative. Dicks says Aldi’s advertising navigates the commoditised low-price supermarket segment successfully. “The product is already available in many different places but it spins the positive.” Its ‘I like that but I also like this’ is in reference to Aldi’s unfamiliar but invariably significantly cheaper lookalike products.

Once again, marketing creatively means looking at what a brand can offer a customer, where someone might ask ‘what extra can I get’ in the case of exclusive shoes online or ‘what worries me about this offering’ in the case of unfamiliar food brands, and working out what the business can do to meet those concerns. Creativity in retail is increasingly about building added value into existing product or creating extra products and services to support the proposition.

The meaning of creative is to dream up something new and innovative. You want to create a desire in customers and identify a requirement in the market

In many ways, marketing is about influencing what a product is in the first place.

Last month, Waitrose was named best supermarket at the Which? Awards because it performed ‘consistently highly for its online and in-store offerings”. Although it does have its own-brand ranges with high profiles such as Duchy Originals and Heston from Waitrose, what it sells is similar to other supermarkets. So what creative measures has Waitrose taken to differentiate itself from the pack?

In April, the supermarket said it would shift its communications to focus on inspiring people rather than selling to them. It is running a cookery show on Channel 4 – Weekend Kitchen with Waitrose – in light of this, and in response to the popularity of food channels on YouTube with its core demographic of 35- to 55- year-olds.

Head of in-store communications Emma Beale says: “We are a retailer and that’s our passion but we talk about how to entertain guests and inspire people and make them confident in doing different things. And ultimately they shop with us more frequently.”

Keeping content fresh is about responding to customer needs. It also has Waitrose magazine in-store, online and in tablet form along with a strong presence on social media and Waitrose TV online.

Responsiveness, says Beale, is the key to creativity. “The exciting thing about retail is the speed from making a decision to taking it to market. Weekend took 10 months to go live and Waitrose TV was four months from concept to being on air. In the first 12 months we were playing around – looking at how long customers watch for and what do they want to hear. Being nimble means we can get involved in test and learn.”


Uniqlo’s low cost brand in Asia, GU, is experimenting with the showrooming techniques

High street retailers are always seeking creative ways to stand out from the competition and ensure consideration and loyalty. Showrooming began as a customer-driven trend where they controlled the ‘try before you buy’ experience. Now retailers are trying to embrace that customer need while looking for ways to ensure the transaction is completed with them and not a competitor.

Uniqlo’s low cost brand in Asia, GU, is experimenting with the showrooming technique to break out of the comparison shopping mould by letting customers do exactly that. In-store changing rooms have city backdrops to encourage customers to take selfies and share their outfits with friends. One store is even experimenting with letting customers walk out of the store in full outfits for a few hours without paying to see if they can find alternatives they prefer elsewhere.

The ‘showrooming’ trend is returning to its point of origin and car retailers are also finding themselves the subject of ‘test drive here, buy elsewhere’ says TrustFord group marketing and ecommerce director Celia Pronto. “Customers are shopping around anyway. They’re doing research before coming in and are ready to challenge us with facts and figures. We have had to ask ourselves how we work with that. What innovations do we need to [develop], recognising that research starts on the couch at home and how do we create the tools that make it easy to find what you are looking for,” she says.

TrustFord, previously Ford Retail, wants to become a service brand rather than a purely product-focused one. To this end, the creative approach has been to personalise the customer experience from consideration online to purchase in dealership and beyond.

Pronto says that customers will automatically have their preferences from searching on the Ford site saved so that when they do come into the dealership they can pick up where they left off.

While TrustFord cannot affect the core Ford product, it can implement innovations the latter has put in place, such as in-showroom car customisation and the creation of personalised telematics services. These do not merely provide sat-nav and in car radio but perform running diagnostics of the car’s performance post-purchase and encourage a dialogue between dealer and customer when servicing is required.

This has the opportunity to drive a significant portion of business back to the Ford dealer network. A 2013 JD Power survey noted that 88 per cent of owners would return to pay for a service after warranty expiration when their satisfaction level was outstanding but it dropped to only 7 per cent when the experience was average.

Build delight for differentiation

TrustFord wants to become a service brand rather than purely a seller of vehicles

Being able to build a service around the product offering seems critical for retailers wanting to drive loyalty and sales. For Gatwick airport, neither showrooming or clicks and mortar competition have been an issue. With an average dwell time before flights of 70 minutes, the airport and its retailers enjoy captive audiences.

However, when the airport was sold by BAA in 2009, Gatwick needed to rely on more than flight operators to drive consumers through its terminals. Recognising that shopping has become a central activity for air travellers, the hub has set about turning itself into what could be described as Bluewater shopping centre with an airport attached.

“Our strategy is about being the airport of choice and that’s even more important now because of the debate around where additional runway capacity should go. Retail can make a positive difference about how people view the airport,” says Gatwick’s head of retail, Spencer Sheen.

With 80 per cent of its travellers UK-based and travelling on leisure, Sheen has stocked the airport with key lifestyle brands beyond the usual airport fare. Dune shoes, Aspinal leather, Jamie’s Italian and Nando’s all figure permanently, while pop-up stores, such as Havianas and Cath Kidston, can also be found. Some retailers will even ensure onward delivery to resort hotels to seal the deal.

Creativity is not limited to communications and in many cases becomes a central part of product development, shaping and often turning into an important part of the proposition itself. It is the ultimate expression of how marketing can influence the strategic direction of a brand. But it is anchored entirely in customer insight and born of customer trends. With a company as large and diverse as Tesco creating two distinct marketing roles – creative and customer – it will be interesting to see if the two streams can work together effectively.

Top three challenges

1. Avoid the race to the bottom: Where the only potential product differentiation is on price, retailers need to look at what else will set them apart and attract their core customer base. Even price-dependent Aldi’s proposition is on helping customers understand unfamiliar brands.

2. Allow marketing to drive added value: As the representative of the customer internally, marketers must show how propositions can be altered, added to or complemented to fulfil customer needs. Marketing has to challenge the view that it is there to sell what others produce, instead of being a reflection of what customers want.

3. Work with customers: Because shoppers are highly informed and price sensitive, brands need to understand what they want in order to tailor their offerings. For complex purchases, people want personalised service across all channels – the best hand-holder wins the race. For smaller purchases, they want to know they are getting the best deal or the best version without having to check. Uniqlo’s GU is so confident that shoppers will not find better elsewhere that it is experimenting with letting people leave the shop with merchandise to try before paying.

Case Study: Topps Tiles

Topps Tiles display
Topps Tiles has launched a range of boutique stores where customers can interact with displays in a more designer-led environment

Topps Tiles is a large, out-of-town tiling and wood flooring brand. However, it is running out of the suitably-sized retail spaces that it needs to give the desired customer experience. This is one sector where online cannot fully compete with the bricks and mortar stores.

“It’s a design-led marketplace and it’s difficult to see what is going to suit someone’s home by just going online,” says commercial director Brian Linnington. However, the chain has invested in multichannel features. It has a ‘live chat’ presence on its website as well as tools to help customers plan their décor.

“There is a visualiser online that is an important part of putting a look together. You can email ideas so everyone can take a look. From a multichannel perspective, this can be brought in-store, where advisers can help and the finished product emailed back to you with a quote,” he adds.

Linnington hopes the ability to visualise products in place differentiates Topps Tiles by turning it into a service-led retailer. The company noticed that customers were bringing in tile fragments to hold up to in-store displays, so Topps created ‘inspiration stations’ that have drawers of tiles which customers can use to work out their look.

Topps has launched a range of boutique stores where customers can interact with displays in a more designer-led environment. “With creativity in retail I think many feel it’s about proliferating ranges but they have to be targeted and relevant. Concept showrooms slow the pace down,” he suggests.



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