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This Christmas, spare a thought for the retailers

Jo Arden is head of strategy at 23red and a passionate advocate of the good that marketing can do, working on social purpose and behaviour change projects for the past 10 years.

Spare a thought for the retailers this Christmas

2016 has been a funny old year for retail. Second only to house prices as the barometer of economic stability, the ups and downs of the high street have never been far from the headlines. As we all (or possibly only those that work in marketing) await the arrival of the Christmas ads, it’s never been as important to ensure that what is promised on screen, is delivered in store.

We have all become very used to the Christmas ads that that dial up our emotional response. In more recent years retailers have partnered with charities, in some part to salve the prickly collective conscience about mass consumption. It’s a strategy which so far has worked well. It delivers financially for the retailers (Rachel Swift of John Lewis, speaking at Effectiveness Week last week, said that the ROI delivered by their Christmas ad overshadows all other campaigns in terms of sales, let alone brand value); it helps remind us that Christmas above all else is a time for humanity and compassion. And a handful of charities get a much needed boost to their fundraising. But will emotional response be enough this year?

The debate about the balance between emotional and rational responses to advertising will no doubt continue into 2017 but one thing is certain - marketers can no longer rely on controlling the conversation with consumers. The John Lewis Christmas campaign, inarguably the high watermark for all Christmas campaigns, may still have TV at its heart, but it’s the in-store, the social, the PR, the search and the partnership that create the deeper connections that drive results.

But not all retailers find themselves ending 2016 with a workforce as relatively unscathed as John Lewis does. Even in retailer terms it has been a dynamic and challenging environment. The Centre for Retail Research has 22 retail companies failing in the year to October, with 1,200 stores and over 24,000 employees affected; other retailers are, they say, facing tough choices as a result of both the National Living Wage and the Apprenticeship Levy; and upheaval in terms of consumer offer was only narrowly avoided during the ruckus between Tesco and Unilever over price rises. With that context, those Christmas ads better have very broad shoulders.

One of the challenges marketers will face is very elegantly detailed in the new book by Patrick Barwise, emeritus professor of management and marketing at London Business School and Thomas Barts. ‘The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader’ suggests that there are three gaps between what marketers want to achieve and what is often in their power. Perhaps the most challenging of which is the Power Gap. In simple terms this means that marketers often do not have control over all the levers that make marketing work. For most, that includes colleague recruitment and retention. Which is where we may be hit by the perfect storm this year - an increasing necessity to deliver the Christmas promise across multi-channel, including many for which a successful narrative is highly dependent on excellent customer service; and an industry workforce that has, on a macro level, had an extremely tough time of it.

Professor Barwise has some sound advice that, in the spirit of retail health, I’ll leave you to read when you have bought his book. There are some very long term changes to consider in terms of how businesses structure themselves to resolve the inherent tensions in a people powered model. But there are also some very good and practical ways in which marketers can make a difference more immediately. The Christmas campaign needs to be one which genuinely reflects the spirit and vitality of the retailer. Authenticity is crucial and engaging staff in the campaign as it develops (without breaking anyone’s embargo) will mean it feels more authentic when those same people live up to it in store and online.

We are proudly a nation of shopkeepers (in the Adam Smith sense, not the Bonaparte sense) and that is evidenced in the relative resilience of our retail sector in extremely challenging times. But the shopkeeper is not the one with which we emotionally connect once a year on our screens, it’s the three million people that work in retail in the UK. Marketers need to remember that this is still, despite the dominance of e-commerce, the sharp end of the consumer meets brand relationship.

Brilliant colleagues carrying your brand message on the shop floor are not just for Christmas, even if some of them are.

Jo Arden is head of strategy at 23red

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