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Specsavers CMO’s exit lessons on in-housing, crisis management and effective marketing

"People make judgements of a brand on how they turn up in a crisis," Whitton insists on Specsavers' Covid-response

As Katherine Whitton counts down her last days as Specsavers’ marketing boss, she can do so in the knowledge she leaves a lasting legacy behind at the optical retailer. But before she goes anywhere, we catch up with her to hear about the lessons she has learned during a short but prolific tenure.

Since first boarding the boat to St Andrew, Guernsey on her way to take up the chief marketing spot at Specsavers, Katherine Whitton has been an eye of providence across the brand, restructuring its 90-strong in-house agency, attracting leading industry talent and developing a new brand strategy. Oh, and she’s also steered the spectacle seller through the Covid-19 crisis this year.

Having achieved more there than a lot of chief marketing officers could hope to achieve in their career, she now feels the time is right to make the homeward journey back to London with her partner, two dogs and a heavy heart.

As she readies herself for April’s return voyage (by which point she will have done three years), Whitton reflects on the top lessons she learnt during her time at Specsavers.

‘It’s not about telling, it’s about storytelling’

From travelling the world while leading Specsavers across 10 markets, like most, Whitton’s commute was cut considerably this year thanks to the pandemic. ”In the first three months of my job, I did not pick up a pen,” Whitton recalls. ”I wanted to go out and explore. I did world tours – I went to China to see our manufacturing, I went to Hong Kong to see our quality assurance.” And, by doing so, Whitton says she saw clearly where Specsavers’ tried-and-tested comms was falling short, which lead her to develop and implement a refreshed brand strategy that included a refreshed visual identity, global store format and logo.

”Every market I went to, I recognised we sent two messages out really well – one, that we have great prices, and two, that we make you laugh. Around 50 times a day, the line ’should have gone to Specsavers’ is used on social – it’s part of the vernacular, but we had unspoken truths about the brand we needed to tell,” she says. ”We have exceptional expertise in our optometrist and audiologists, and amazing human stories from our colleagues who care for our customers. So there’s a humanity and an expertise about the brand that we hadn’t spoken of enough.”

Her strategy was to put authentic storytelling at the heart of customer communications, bringing to life the invaluable care and expertise that store colleagues deliver. As a hybrid between a retailer and a healthcare provider, she explains that when it comes to the humanity of the brand, ”it’s not about telling, it’s about storytelling”.

‘Know why you’re in-housing’

Specsavers is unique in that it has had an in-house creative function in place since 1988. Currently headed up by Havas London’s former chief client officer, Nicola Wardell, the ’agency’ has doubled in size over the past few years, to a now 90-strong unit.

”When I joined, the in-house team very much focused on the creative product, with a growing capability around digital,” Whitton recalls. ”Over the last three years, we’ve been emerging from a pretty traditional mindset around marketing and shifting it to be in-line with the progression of modern marketing, by bringing in CRM, social and programmatic specialism. We took a creative department that was predominantly art directors and copywriters and built around them with what a modern integrated agency would be in terms of skills.”

Prior to joining Specsavers, Whitton was already an in-house advocate. While chief marketer at Barclays, she brought in-house agency specialist Oliver in to set up a dedicated unit, and at BA she worked with its implant production team. So what advice does she have for brands that want to make the leap to in-housing?

”Make sure you know why you’re doing it,” she stresses. ”It may seem obvious, but there are many ways you can answer that question. Is it cost saving? Is it about integration? Make sure you know what you’re trying to achieve and that you’re cognizant of the fact that, culturally, it’s different to working with your external agencies.”

‘Marketers aren’t the best at marketing themselves’

Through this restructuring, Whitton put the focus on improving the effectiveness of the commercial marketing agenda, with the introduction of predictive capability in CRM and digital marketing, delivering efficiencies through identifying content, martech and skills programmes that have been used across all markets.

”It’s important to align your business strategy with whatever your brand and marketing challenges are,” she says. ”Whether it’s about growth or retention, make sure you’re driving a culture internally which is about what I call ’evidence-based marketing’.”

She explains that marketers aren’t the best at marketing themselves. ”We sometimes don’t cover ourselves in glory internally – it is about being able to prove the efficiency and impact of your marketing.”

‘People judge brands on how they turn up in a crisis’

”In 2020, the world sped up and it slowed down,” she says, noting that while digital innovation changed at an unprecedented rate, life itself decelerated.

Credited with successfully navigating the brand through this time, Whitton shares how she reinvented how the business engages and communicates with its customers so they could continue to receive essential sight and hearing care.

”People make judgements of a brand on how they turn up in a crisis,” she insists. ”Three-quarters of people said they would lose trust forever in a brand that puts profit before people during a crisis.”