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Wise before the event

With the World Cup and a general election on the horizon, plus a growing interest in ethics, there are plenty of issues around which retailers can build marketing campaigns in 2010. But beware of overkill, say experts

Now that the hubbub of Christmas and the January Sales is fast becoming a distant memory, the question of what is next follows almost as inevitably as the appearance of a rash of red hearts marks the fact that Valentine’s Day is once again around the corner.

Valentine’s Day is the first post-Christmas bandwagon that retailers can jump on in terms of getting additional footfall through their door. But in what looks set to be a financial year of two halves, pre- and post-general election, the need for successful marketing messages that will assist in the task of keeping the tills ringing has rarely been more pressing.

The problem for every fashion company’s marketing department is determining what are the key events, messages and significant moments that are likely to garner incremental turnover and how they can be successfully promoted.

Marks & Spencer director of store marketing and design Nayna McIntosh says: “I think this year there are a combination of topics. There are the obvious things that are based around calendar events, because whatever happens there will still be Valentine’s Day and Easter. But then there are exceptional things, like the football World Cup, which we will begin promoting at the end of April.”

For M&S, as for many others, the World Cup, which kicks off on June 11, will be a selling opportunity in which sales of sports-related casualwear and streetwear are expected to rise dramatically. However, this is just eight days after the latest date at which a general election can be called. There is, therefore, a danger that any feel-good factor surrounding the footie-fest might be subsumed by a vague sense of panic as the nation changes its political leaders - or not - and the full reality of a debt-saddled UK becomes apparent.

Event horizon

Martin Smith, head of planning at advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, is optimistic about the World Cup/general election double whammy. “I’m hoping it will have a positive effect. When we’ve put communications out there whose intention has been to make people feel good, we’ve been really surprised by how people have responded to that.

“People are looking for good news and are prepared to see the better side of things if you give them the chance.”

Rodney Fitch, founder of retail design company Fitch and also an independent consultant, says: “There are two parts to 2010. The first is the bit that has to do with promotions and opportunities. So taking advantage of events, whether it’s sport or culture, has to be done, because this year is going to be very tough.” He adds: “It’s also worth noting there’s research that shows women in particular are very event-driven, so against a tougher background promotions will be incredibly important.”

Fitch makes the point that on the other hand trust and value will also be key messages that retailers and brands will have to press home if they are to weather what he anticipates to be the coming storm. “In election year, putting the trust message across matters.

When I did a presentation last year that looked at consumer views of 12 institutions, politicians were at the bottom, while Tesco was the most trusted,” he says.

If Fitch is correct, this looks like good news for retailers and brands - trust levels tend to be higher than that afforded to politicians. There is, of course, the matter of how you build this trust and this is likely to vary from retailer to retailer or brand to brand.

Trust also dovetails with the green and ethical agenda, which, in spite of its being more or less a given for many retailers, continues to be considered a point of difference by some. For fashion retailers, the ethical agenda has proved to have a sting in the tail from time to time and there is a sense perhaps that it might best be left alone.

The ethical agenda

Robert Clark, senior partner at business intelligence firm Retail Knowledge Bank, recognises the danger but says it remains an opportunity for small and medium-sized retailers. “Labour conditions have been an issue for fashion retailers as far as ethical messages are concerned, but I still think there is ground to be won. So far, green has been for the biggest retailers. For the smaller players, if they can team up with charities and perhaps be seen to be active with projects overseas, that could give them an in with consumers.”

Maybe so, but Howard Saunders, creative director at trend consultancy Echochamber, says that whether to be green or not is entirely dependent on the retailer. “You won’t be able to fudge it. It’s no good trying to be ethical when that’s not what you’re about. Primark should say: ‘If you don’t like it, then go somewhere else’.”

Smith agrees, saying retailers need to be clear what they are about when promoting themselves this year, otherwise things can be “confusing”. He cites the attempts by McDonald’s to sell salads in its restaurants as a cautionary tale. “People go in there for burgers, so if you try to offer them salads, then things aren’t clear.” The message seems to be that if you’re at the value end of the fashion market, stick to being good at what you’re known for and don’t try to be something different.

Finally, there is convenience. Fitch highlights convenience as a major message that retailers should be considering during 2010. At a time when budgets are likely to be under pressure and shoppers will be working harder than they might have done in the past to secure their jobs, then being able to get what you want, when and where you want it, will be vital. The only point to be considered is that what constitutes convenience will not be the same for the Harrods shopper as for those seeking clothing in a supermarket.

The one point that most commentators and retailers seem agreed upon is a need for consistency. Fitch head of insights Matt Haywood says 2010 will be the year in which those retailers that fail to deliver the same experience across multiple platforms will be rumbled as shoppers opt to go elsewhere.

Therefore, this year will be one in which fashion firms will have a large number of messages to consider. Which one they decide to act upon is likely to be specific to their particular circumstances. Whether it’s convenience, a measure of ethically based marketing, a straightforward value message or taking advantage of specific events in 2010, there is much to choose from.

However, perhaps both retailers and brands should pay heed to McIntosh’s warning about the dangers inherent in over-promotion. “Sometimes less really is more. Sometimes we do have a habit of overestimating how much the customer can take in. The thing is not to make the stores too visually noisy. How much is too much?”

A little and often might seem to be a suitable strategy. Overkill could cause shoppers to further tighten up the purse strings.

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