House of Fraser’s new marketing boss signals shift in ‘theoretical’ strategy he inherited as he mulls cutting TV from media plan

House of Fraser

House of Fraser’s marketing boss is bringing in a new marketing plan that will prioritise original content and “hyper-local” out-of-home over its previously preferred route of TV, as he aims to get the brand in front of a more clearly-defined shopper.

David Walmsley joined the retailer as chief customer officer six months ago, inheriting what he described to The Drum as a “theoretical” strategy that tried to appeal to too many people.

“The definition of the House of Fraser customer [when I joined], was a little…confused. We had six different customer segments, which might get direct marketers excited but doesn’t do much to mobilise teams or bring a clear understanding of who our customer is,” Walmsley recently explained.

Of these multiple segments, House of Fraser’s key demographic was previously thought to be “much younger”. Revisiting its most recent advertising highlights the commitment it had to attracting this crowd, namely with a big-budget music video-style Christmas campaign.

Looking to simplify things, Walmsley embarked on a massive research project upon arriving and identified one ‘core’ customer which the whole company– including the marketing function – is now rebuilding against.

Dubbed ‘Jo’ – “the most common name in our database” – she is a degree-educated mum, “the chief executive of a household” which has an income four times the national average and someone who “falls for the perfectionism of Instagram but gets annoyed at herself for doing so.”

This customer is the same one that Marks & Spencer (M&S), John Lewis or Next might go after. Indeed, the strategy might sound strikingly familiar to that of main rival M&S, where Walmsley served as digital director for five years. Last year it embarked on a major overhaul of its business to put the woman it described as ‘Mrs M&S’ at the heart of every decision it made – from what it stocks to where it advertises.

But Walmsley believes those same retailers are targeting this female demographic as a mum first, woman second; by doing the reverse he believes the retailer can carve itself out a new place in the market.

“It came to us time and again that no one talks to [her] directly about who [she] is and where [she] is going with her life. This is increasingly rich terrain for our dialogue with our customer,” he said.

Forgetting ‘pool party in Ibiza’ marketing

Off the back of the heavy lifting to redefine the customer, House of Fraser has repositioned its marketing away from what it described as “pool party in Ibiza” to something a bit more sophisticated.

The media-plan will similarly be reinvigorated, with plans to potentially take a step back from blasting messages out on TV and instead “hyper-target”.

“I’m actively looking at whether I want to do TV or not,” Walmsley continued. “Billboards don’t sound like the most exciting thing in the world we’ve identified those in our catchment area and the times of the month that we want to advertise – there’s a granularity in local marketing that we haven’t had before. We’re putting more [budget] into below-the line as well.”

Although TV is still the dominant advertising medium when it comes to video, the marketer is not alone in casting doubts over its effectiveness when compared to direct-to-consumer mediums. Earlier this month, Adidas chief executive Kasper Rorsted said that it has ceased advertising on TV in favour of mobile and other digital platforms.

Supporting his plan is a series of new hires to shift from what Walmsley described as a ‘brand marketing’ mindset – which saw it lean towards only advertising during key discounting periods – and towards ‘creative marketing.’

“The choice I had was, do I want a series of ‘heads of brand’ or do I want a really strong creative director and editor-in-chief for content and creative led marketing,” he rationed. “Practically, that means it’s the creative team doing the commissioning, editorial and styling rather than the brand marketing. It’s a different mindset.”

The editor-in-chief will spearhead the new ‘House of Fraser Journal’, a magazine which from launch in April will have a distribution of around 900,000. Meanwhile, it has also stopped using a third-party supplier for its photography and instead moved that skill in-house.

Of what this means for its creative and media agencies - 18ft & rising and Goodstuff respectively – remains to be seen. The two received critical acclaim for the retailer’s Christmas work the past two years running after steering it away from the tried-and-tested tearjerker format and towards the more musically minded adverts, which featured break-dancers and rappers.

Walmsley gave few details on what future creative might look like although insisted that despite moving away from ‘youth-focused’ marketing it will continue to seek an “edgy” tone of voice. And both agencies, he added, have been “fabulous” at delivering against House of Fraser’s new set of needs.

Unifying the customer experience

But beyond marketing, Walmsley is looking to overhaul the entire customer journey.

He arrived at House of Fraser following the sudden departure of Andy Harding and was handed responsibility for a three-month old ‘customer team’ which had been created to turnaround a business struggling to remain relevant as rivals overhauled their own offerings and new online disruptors appeared on the scene.

“We’re working across marketing, store and digital teams to create one unified plan and customer experience and genuinely integrating planning to a level the business hasn’t before,” Walmsley explained.

Following a cash injection from Chinese conglomerate Sanpower, the retailer is gradually refurbishing the store estate. This year £45m will go into store improvements with champagne bars, yoga studios and slick cafés to soon sit alongside family restaurants.

Elsewhere, a large chunk of cash has gone into creating its own e-commerce platform. Previously it rented its digital platform from a third-party, but as its online business has grown, so too has the need to actually own what it’s selling on. As such, it will shortly launch a new website which, from the outside, might not appear to have been transformed, but the systems powering it will work better and faster for online shoppers.

And finally, by its own admission, the House of Fraser brand had become “subdued” and lost itself among the swathes of brands it housed. The store, equally, had been heavily criticised for overwhelming customers with choice.

It has culled four of seven own-brands, leaving it to focus on top-performers Linea, Biba and Label Lab and is currently in talks with a number of clothing retailers about the future of their brands in store.

Although Walmsley refused to be drawn on which businesses face the axe, under this new vision for creating a store fit for ‘Jo’ the likelihood of it being those retailers appealing to younger shoppers, such as Miss Selfridge, Lispy or or Quiz, is arguably high. Instead, it plans to boost labels such as Jigsaw, Barbour, North Face and All Saints.

It all forms part of a five-year plan in order to reinvigorate the business which chairman Frank Slevin revealed earlier this month. But given John Lewis will invest five times as much in-store improvements (£230m) in 2017 alone and House of Fraser is doing all this still without a chief executive at the helm, the road to recovery still very much seems like a long one.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.