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Client Profile: Matalan

By The Drum | Administrator

November 8, 2002 | 8 min read

As far as I know, I don’t often interview marketing directors who wear £50 suits. If I do, they certainly don’t boast about it. Euan Sutherland quickly proved to be the exception to that rule. But then again, at six foot six and only 33 years old, he’s a bit of an anomaly when it comes to industry standards anyway. As with his £50 suit, it’s fair to say that he’s cut from a different cloth.

Upon meeting him at a Marketing Society event in Manchester, first impressions suggest that Sutherland is the epitome of the “young and upwardly mobile” businessman. He has a wholesome look that would lend itself well to US TV (in fact, I’m sure I’ve seen him on an old episode of Quantum Leap), tempered with a steely focus and obvious drive that suggests he knows what he wants and is determined to get it. In short, he doesn’t look like the sort of person who gladly suffers fools – an observation that makes this interviewer slightly more nervous than normal.

After recovering from a hand crushing introduction I ask him why he’s joined Matalan after a high flying career that involved positions as head of soft drinks marketing for Coca-Cola Schweppes and, up until five months ago, marketing director for Curry’s?

“Because I saw it as a huge opportunity,” is his immediate answer. “I’ve had a mix of retail marketing (he started his career at Boots) and FMCG marketing, and for me retail is where I want to be. It’s so much faster, so much more immediate than FMCG. Retail is where the biggest marketing challenges are these days and the opportunity at Matalan provided me with the chance to really prove whether I could deliver or not.”

The next question I wanted to ask is what you’re undoubtedly thinking now. “Yes, but why Matalan? I mean Coca-Cola to Matalan, what were you thinking?” It became rapidly obvious that this question was as naive as it was inappropriate.

Matalan currently operates 154 stores, employing a workforce of almost 12,000 and recorded a turnover last year of nearly £900 million. To date, the number of stores has doubled every five years and, according to Sutherland, “we expect that to continue”. He clearly sees this as his chance to truly make his mark and is absolutely passionate about the Matalan brand and how he envisages developing it.

“For me Matalan stands for quality and value. It’s quality product at incredible value for money and that’s it. We mix desirability with affordability, the desirability of seeing a shirt and knowing that you want it and then the affordability of seeing the price and realising what fantastic value it is. It’s a great balance.”

Blinking at this rose-tinted view through my cynically shaded lenses I can’t help but question if that is really what the name Matalan represents? “Value” often springs to mind, but is “quality” really synonymous with the brand? It’s at this point that Sutherland’s suit comes into play: “The suit that I’m wearing now is a poly-wool suit that was made at the same factories as suits by Hugo Boss and M&S. The suit was £50, it’s a Hugo Boss cut, and everything that I’ve got on, with the exception of the watch and my shoes, came to £79. I think that represents absolute value for money.”

And it’s hard not to agree with him. It is, after all, a very nice suit ... although I’ve always preferred an Armani cut myself.

The challenge for Sutherland lies in convincing everyone who isn’t in a position to appreciate his wardrobe up close just how good Matalan produce is. This is something he seems to have acknowledged already; as illustrated by the first major advertising campaign he’s spearheaded.

“If you look at our new TV advertisements,” he observed, referring to the campaign that broke last month, “the emphasis is on representing the product at its best. Whether you’re seeing the TV ads, or the printed media, the quality of the imagery, the quality of the photography, focuses in on the product detail. It’s a focus that should give the audience the confidence that the quality is right, before very simply hitting them with the amazing prices. It’s creating that desirability and then, bang (he claps his hands, I jump like a big girl), hitting people with the affordability.”

“That’s what we’re trying to do, demonstrate that the Matalan brand stands for quality and value, make sure that that brand image is consistent, and then build upon it. We want to get to the point where we have a sustainable brand position, where everyone understands ‘Matalan’.”

At the moment, from my perception at least, I’m not sure that everyone does. Asking friends what they perceive Matalan to stand for, I get the responses “cheap and cheerful”, “a bit downmarket”, “a value brand” and a couple of things that it’s probably not politically expedient to print. Given the purported quality of both their products and their proposition, this seems a tad unfair. Perhaps the new campaign will go some way to redressing the balance on the scales of brand justice.

The irksome “downmarket” tag is obviously something Sutherland is aware of – shown by his robust tackling of the issue in his speech to the Marketing Society. He argued, “If you think Matalan is for poor or stupid people think again – Matalan shoppers cross all demographic, age and social boundaries.”

As an example he cited the case of the firm’s new store in Knaresbrough (“one of the places with the highest standards of living in the UK”) where the shop’s customer profile mirrors that of the town itself. He added, “Our customers see themselves as savvy shoppers, not ‘cheap’. And if you think back to our customer profile you’ll see as many BMWs and Mercedes in the parking lots as you’ll see people getting off the bus. That’s because all these people have worked something out, and that is – ‘why pay high street prices when I can get the same things from this store at half the price?’” Looking at his suit and then down at my own, I resolve that maybe it’s time I found that out for myself.

Getting back to our private chat, the next question to make its way to my verbal checkout concerns competition. In an increasingly competitive and value-driven marketplace (with new players like Primark and Uni-Qlo alongside ever expanding rapacious retailers like Tesco), is Matalan’s position at risk?

A confident smile and a shake of the head set the stage for Sutherland’s response. “I wouldn’t think so,” was his first assessment. He expanded, “Tesco are a threat to any sector because of their footflow, but I don’t see them as a major concern because their product and their pricing is inferior to ours. They haven’t stated that they’re going to attack our pricing position and from what I can see they’re not doing so. As for Uni-Qlo, I think they’re kind of quirky, but I’m not sure how long they’re going to last, and with people like Primark the big difference between them and us is the quality. They have a brand position that is cheap price, and it’s quality to match. Our brand position is that it’s high street quality, just at 50 per cent less. It’s my job to get that message across.”

Of course, Matalan’s other advantage, which is far more tangible than the quality of some stitching or the water-capturing capabilities of its towels, is the fact that it’s still a retail “club”. You have to be a member to make a purchase (lifetime membership costs just £1) and every time a transaction is made you must use your Matalan card. Sutherland recognises that this is “a unique marketing tool as, unlike loyalty card schemes, the card captures 100 per cent of the customer base 100 per cent of the time.”

In this sense it’s a marketeer’s dream, giving individual customer insights that other retailers, and just about every direct marketer, would die for. Basically, this means if you shop at Matalan, Mr Sutherland and Co know a hell of a lot about you, right down to what underwear you may have on and very probably how long you’ve had it. Which, slightly uneasy “Big Brother” feelings aside, is pretty bloody impressive.

With this in mind, Euan Sutherland and his fellow “retail voyeurs” have an enviable platform for communicating to their current congregation of 8.6 million members. The challenge for our marketing evangelist is in recruiting more converts to the Matalan fold and eroding those blasphemous misperceptions of what the brand stands for. Now, that could be tricky, as some resolute sceptics may find it difficult to see the light. But, believe you me, if you’d seen the quality of that £50 suit, then you’d know that miracles can happen.

Hallelujah, people ... and amen.

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