The Practicality of Strategy in Retail

The Practicality of Strategy in RetailThe world of bricks and mortar retail is on rocky ground. The likes of the Edcon and Massmart groups amongst others have suffered locally, and globally brands like New Look, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer are meeting their demise.

*** This article first appeared in the Journal of Strategic Marketing

Those that are future-focused, have evolved, innovated and managed their efficiencies are the pack leaders: Ikea, Target, Amazon, Ali Baba, etc. 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 question is: Do agency strategists have a role to play in this aggressive landscape? Do modern day brands honestly have time for strategy at an agency level?

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 PPT of ‘thinking’ are over.  The days of a strategist being the automatic pre-cursor 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 CMO’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 behavioral analytics that make it feel like you’re not being marketed to at all 1

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 creative 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.

This new way of co-creating ‘powerful market plays’ with expert partners and cross-industry networks is considered to be the no.1 priority by CEO’s 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 2

Strategy, especially long-term strategy is about being different and consequently difficult to emulate.3  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 eco-systems 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 “that some companies are creating real strategic advantage by adopting sustainability measures their competitors can’t easily match.” 4

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 to help, rather than hinder a marketer’s plan and vision. A practical, quickly implementable and forward-thinking plan that saves the client’s own time and money is really all they are looking for in the end.

So put down the PPT and look around the table. Create work-groups that ensure that 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.

Didy Andersson, Strategic Director, One Lady & A Tribe


1  :

2  :  Accenture ‘ Ecosystems:  The cornerstone of future growth’ May 11 2018

3  :   Porter 1996, ‘What is Strategy?’  :  Harvard Business Review

4  :Sustainability Can Be a Strategy   :  Harvard Business Review:  by IoannisIoannou& George Serafin, February 11, 2019