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Pick up some lessons from the supermarket

Ian Humphris, joint managing director of marketing consultancy Life Agency.

Ian Humphris

Ian Humphris

When it comes to marketing, fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and fashion seem to be polar opposites. What lessons can a trudge around a supermarket provide for an aspirational brand?

But marketing lessons can be found where you least expect them. FMCG grocery is the most competitive category there is
and FMCG brands are masters at understanding customers.

Brands that achieve results in FMCG use sophisticated tools to mine great insights, create sales-focused creative ideas, plot the consumer journey and execute brand strategies to generate sales. When it comes to applying these marketing techniques, most fashion brands are in the foothills.

In FMCG the product, packaging, store position, promotion and every little detail has to work towards convincing the consumer in the few seconds it takes for them to choose a brand.

If brands don’t win at this point, then it’s game over.

One effective insight of shopper marketing is that it may not be the consumer who is buying the product. For example, 100% of marketing spend on beer is targeted at men, yet 73% of beer in grocery is bought by women. In fashion, two-thirds of men rely on women to buy their underwear.

Do communications in store acknowledge this dichotomy and, more importantly, act on it?

The best fashion retailers realise they can learn from FMCG. Zara gorges on consumer feedback and introduces changes so quickly that consumers barely notice.

Like a supermarket, it constantly restocks and creates impulse purchases with a “when it’s gone, it’s gone” approach.

Elsewhere, the lessons still need to be learned. Supermarket owners don’t have it easy - right now the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons are trying to grab back some of the market share lost to discounters such as Aldi and Lidl. But maybe it’s time that other fashion marketers stopped looking at Vogue for inspiration and took a trip to Waitrose - which is enjoying a very warm spring at the moment.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Ian,
    You raise some interesting points but I feel you're missing the one crucial piece of the equation.

    Fashion is fast but it isn't FMCG. We don't need a new blouse or a new skirt in the same way that we need a loaf of bread or a tin of beans. I would be the first to admit that I'm not an expert on the supermarket retail model but, as I understand it, lots of stuff on the shelves (as long as it's the right stuff correctly displayed) allows supermarkets to sell lots of stuff. The more stuff they show, the more they sell.

    Back to fashion. The grand old lady of the British high street is currently being run by a man credited with turning round the fortunes of one of the UK's big supermarket chains. The rails are crammed with product; the marketing is based upon consumer insights "Would Mrs Smith from Macclesfield want to wear that?" and the public are staying away in droves.

    You said, "In FMCG the product, packaging, store position, promotion and every little detail has to work towards convincing the consumer in the few seconds it takes for them to choose a brand." I'd argue that the choice of brand has been made long before then.

    I don't know who originally said that a product is something that lives on a shelf but a brand is something that lives in our heads, but there's a lot of truth in it. Id take it a step further with fashion. I'd say in fashion the place the brand lives is in our hearts, and that's why the FMCG model simply isn't enough. Fashion is all about desire. Our job, as marketeers, is to create desire around fashion brands. And that has to be done not with a headline or an explanatory piece of copy, nor even a clever promotion. It's done with an image and a logo. We have to create something that makes our audience want what we're selling. Not think they want it, want it, viscerally. Whether it's a piece of film or a still: see it, love it, want it.

    Great if you can make them want a single thing, even better if you can make the brand the thing that they want. What's the difference between a pair of Zara jeans and a pair of Primark jeans? The mark-up. And the mark-up is only a reflection of the level of desire.

    So I don't know. The days of retail success being about having the right product on the rail at the right time are gone. There are too many rails out there - a lot of them online - and they all have the right product and it's all at the right price. Now it's all about getting the consumer to come to your rail first. And I'd say the way to do that is through the creation of desire.

    So far from stopping looking at Vogue, I think we should be spending more time looking at it. There's a reason its pages are filled with those colossally expensive Burberry and Prada and Gucci ads. And there's a very good reason those ads look the way they do. They're from brands that understand the value desire. That's where fashion marketers need to be looking for inspiration, not among the broccoli and the quiches.


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  • Thanks Paul…appreciate your comments.

    The job of any marketer regardless of sector is to, amongst other things, create desire. And all things being equal I suspect there’s a direct correlation somewhere between increased desire and robust P&L. However desire isn't the be all – Kotler’s AIDA model is a simple way of looking beyond this window dressing.
    FMCG is recognised as one of the most competitive markets, with the most overpopulated categories, in the world – run by the globe’s largest firms (Coke and Wal*Mart sales = $1bn a day). This scale is not impressive in isolation. Rather respect is due to the competitiveness it creates and the sophisticated marketing demands this places on FMCG companies across a multitude of formats and channels, just to stay in the game. For clarity, I’m not talking about the communications here, the advertising, the output. I’m talking about targeting, segmentation, distribution, pricing, supply chain – all the marketing tools that make this environment work so well. The communications are just another piece in this jigsaw.

    It’s widely acknowledged across many sectors that P&G and Unilever are the most successful marketing organisations in the world. They’re credited with this because for well over a century they have allocated more resource to the discipline than anyone else, and in return, this investment has created some of the most valuable brands in the world. This takes massive academic and commercial marketing stewardship – no wonder that over the last 5+ years other sectors have been so keen to poach significant numbers of people from their marketing teams to re-shape their own. From fashion and Formula One to cosmetics and luxury goods. And what they’re buying isn't their ability to pull together and execute a comms programme. Rather the far more complex job of creating and managing a product and brand’s development to sustainably grow its P&L; a marketers only real measure.

    It’s these principles where FMCG companies are streets ahead and it’s these principles other sectors are learning a great deal from – fashion or otherwise. However, the comms aren't always to everyone’s tastes; but like fashion brands and others you can't judge a marketer’s output by the advertising alone.

    Ian Humphris, LIFE

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