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The practicality of strategy in retail

The practicality of strategy in retail

By Didy Andersson

The world of bricks and mortar retail is on rocky ground. The likes of Edcon and Massmart, among others, have suffered locally, and globally brands such as New Look, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer are struggling.

Those that are future-focused, having evolved, innovated and managed their efficiencies, are the pack leaders. Think Ikea, Target, Amazon, Alibaba. They have been nimble, relevant and above all they have launched imaginative products and services. They listen, and often co-create product line-ups with their consumers.

The questions are: Do agency strategists have a role to play in this aggressive landscape? And do modern day brands honestly have time for strategy at an agency level?

The nature of retail

The days of receiving a written brief, digesting it, trafficking it, and descending into a dark hole for a few weeks to emerge with a long presentation filled with content, as a result of ‘thinking’ are over. The days of a strategist being the automatic precursor to a piece of creative work (a bit like a pre-wash in a washing machine cycle) are also over.

The nature of retail is about designing solutions on the fly. The agency and their strategist should be a step ahead of the client, and ultimately have a seat at the chief marketing officer’s table to share the responsibility of key strategic conversations. The strategist should be another part of the future-proofing brains trust for the brand, working within the parameters of the business rather than the strictures of an agency.

Strategy is not something to be out-sourced, but neither is it something to be owned in-house. It would be irresponsible of marketers to not welcome external perspectives into their inner sanctum.

It has become more organic than ever before. And yes, I do still believe in the sanctity of the one-page brand mission and consistent brand golden threads. But not without a lot of imaginative, bold, and clever thinking that is executable quickly.

It is, after all, a marketing world of fast-paced technology, innovation and communication channels that didn’t even exist five years ago. Marketing tools have extended into voice activations (anything from ordering your coffee to getting your news), AI, intuitive data-based tracking and behavioural analytics that make it feel like you’re not being marketed to at all.

A truly useful communications strategy is really just a way to solve a particular business problem. The answer will not always be in a positioning statement or brand solution. Nor will it be what agency creatives like to call a ‘unifying thought’ or deep insight. More often, it comes from a lethally tactical activation and product solution – combined and played out as a killer blow in-market.

Co-creating powerful market plays

This new way of co-creating ‘powerful market plays’ with expert partners and cross-industry networks is considered to be the number one priority by CEOs and executives in future business development today. This idea, of building an ecosystem of experts rather than a static business of employees, needs a long-term vision more than ever in order to ensure that all partner members are on the same page before the real work begins.

Strategy, especially long-term, is about being different and consequently difficult to emulate.  It is the same for marketing and communications. Today’s strategies have to be built with the cornerstones of any modern business: sustainability, technology, employee culture and ecosystem thinking in order to stamp any form of authority on a shifting landscape.

In a recent article by Harvard Business Review, entitled ‘Sustainability Can Be A Strategy’, the research suggests that “some companies are creating a real strategic advantage by adopting sustainability measures that their competitors can’t easily match”.

Strategists are there to question, challenge, give opinions and build solutions, and this external perspective is still vital, notwithstanding the realities of business pressures, target audience knowledge (one can never have enough) and constant change. A strategist is not always right. They have opinions, just like everyone else.

And lastly: If there is one thing that strategists can do on their own in this new playing field it is help, rather than hinder, a marketer’s plan and vision. A practical, quickly implementable and forward-thinking plan that saves the client’s time and money is really all they are looking for in the end.

So put down the PowerPoint presentation and look around the table. Create work groups that ensure your audience, your consumers, your employees and your partners all have a voice at the outset. That is clever strategy. And it’s almost incredible what you can solve together.