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Marketing Strategy: Big brands need to make up lost ground

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What does Marks & Spencer have in common with J.Sainsbury, Boots, and W.H.Smith? The fallible foursome all rank as long-term marketing leaders, famous retail brands, which have seen that branded heritage dwindle relatively or absolutely - for no good reason, but many bad ones.

None of the explanations for the on-off decline and fall of M&S flatters the many (too many) successive top executives. The inconstant changes of the latter rank high among the problems. Each swing of the revolving doors in Baker Street has ejected one doomed strategy, to be shortly replaced by another. But the non-revolutionary revolutions are a symptom rather than a fundamental cause.

That root cause has generic elements. Across the globe, even megabrands are more vulnerable today - witness the revenue and profit problems through which Procter & Gamble and Unilever have had to wade. These megabrand powerhouses enjoyed decades of relatively effortless superiority until the pace in fast-moving consumer goods hotted up. Reputations rapidly became only as good as the last shopping experience. At one end, newcomers like Prada flourished: at the other, the Wal-Mart era was born.

The boys from Bentonville have sales of $256.3 billion, 2.6 times those of P&G and Unilever combined. Their respective revenues depend far more on Wal-Mart than vice versa. The same truth applies to Tesco. The champion retailers have shown greater energy and sharper responsiveness to volatile marketplaces than their chief suppliers - and retail also-rans, like the fallible foursome, have felt the champions' pressure.

There's more to the megabrand problems, though, than swings in the balance of retail power. Every business is a corporate brand. Its identity is shaped by the reactions to the business of all its constituents - employees (including management), investors, suppliers, competitors, opinion-formers and, above all, the customers. This sovereign fact applies with special clarity to retail: what you see in the shops is what you get.

M&S once ruled the retail roost because customers (and employees) knew what to expect from the business, liked what they expected, and found that those expectations were largely delivered. Even at its height, the St Michael label (though it should never have been dropped) pulled nobody: the pulling power lay in the names on the fascia and the contents and standards of the stores behind.

Retail surveys once gave M&S an enormous lead over the competition (including Tesco) - best of the bunch on every customer criterion. This strength was created, not through massive advertising spend and starry promotion, but by the integrity of the system. Priding itself as 'a manufacturer without factories', M&S was a forerunner of the virtual company. From design to display, the system delivered the customer's greatest desire: VfM - Value for Money

When VfM vanished from the customer's eye, and standards began visibly to slip, the deterioration showed up fast in external and internal surveys. It always does. But the top managers fatefully delayed taking corrective action. They always do. Every great business is heading inexorably towards the moment of truth, which Andrew Grove, chairman of Intel, called the 'strategic inflection point'. That occurs when critical external developments (in technology in Intel's case) leave the megabrand company floundering in their wake.

You face a stark choice. Either you radically rebuild the corporate brand, or it passes over the brow of the hill - maybe for ever. It's desperately hard to arrest the downward progress. There's a consolation: it's hard to kill the resonance of a big brand, too. That of IBM continues to have remarkable global recall, even though its world market share in hardware for electronic data processing, once a near-monopoly, has wilted - think only of PCs.

But herein lies a deadly trap. Nobody believes more in the once and future strength of the megabrand than its own managers. They cling to its formula like shipwrecked mariners to an upturned boat: and, like them, they often sink. In IBM's case, they clung to mainframe computers; at Intel, it was memory chips; at M&S it was the now failing formula of top-down management dictating to suppliers and customers alike what would move through outmoded stores. Feet and heads stayed stuck in the sand as the tides of spending changed.

The irony is that M&S escaped from a similar trap long ago. Just as Grove's Intel was saved from the strategic inflection threat by the mighty microprocessor, so M&S, when its post-war clothing sales turned sluggish, was rescued by brilliant diversification into food, led by Sir Marcus Sieff. In both cases, the brands proved strong enough to bear the extra weight with ease. More; the managements had developed sufficient internal strengths to force through this radical change.

In the present fix, M&S (like other fallible retailers) finally felt compelled to turn to outsiders for succour. As the latest immigrants depart, Stuart Rose steps in - one of the far too many bright young people who served their time with M&S, learnt their lessons well, and then found pastures new - and rich. Here crumbled another pillar of the Marxist system, which was supposed to nurture talent galore, with the cream rising to the very top. But there lay part of the problem. Top-down management, dominated by the chief executive, imposed too stifling a burden lower down.

That is never surprising in cultures that feature potent overlords, like Sir John Sainsbury, Lord Marks and the Sieffs. The antidote makes some sense - people coming from outside should be free of the history and able to judge strengths and weaknesses dispassionately. The M&S brand, still embedded in all those stores, all those customers, all those product lines, gives a turnround man like Rose (or Philip Green) more than enough basic material with which to work seeming wonders.

Whether the former magic of Marks can be wholly restored is another matter. When great companies pass over the brow of that strategic inflection hill, customers are put off further, employees are more demoralised, opinion formers form worse opinions - and, like heavyweight champions, the lost leaders seldom come back to their full former glory. They hardly deserve to.

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