Retailers' Christmas trading updates have brought the woes of the high street into sharper focus. However, amid the tumult, there are clear signs that marketing has a role to play in helping retailers buffer and buttress their fortunes while they get their houses in order.
A case in point is Marks & Spencer, whose chief executive, Steve Rowe, identified a renewed focus on product marketing (rather than a blockbuster ad) as the key to helping steady the M&S ship in today’s choppy retail waters.
By doing so, the M&S marketing team helped to ensure the high-street mainstay’s trading figures were better than what analysts were expecting.
In this tough trading climate, we are likely to be witnessing a realignment of retail media strategies into two strands: purpose-driven ads, as articulated so excellently by Iceland’s repurposed Greenpeace film, and product-focused ads that aim to drive footfall and desire in the centrepiece items.
In the latter case, M&S’s focus on creating "consumer desire" for key fashion pieces, and then capitalising on the halo effect of this, seems to have paid off.
We are, after all, witnessing consumer shopping habits shift from destination shopping (buying all or most wares at one retailer) to purchasing several items from different retailers (buying ready meals from Tesco and exotic meat from Waitrose, for example).
M&S has seemingly recognised this change with its focus on the centrepiece product and not necessarily on the brand itself.
Focusing on product is tangible and more ephemeral in nature, but this is ultimately what drives peak footfall and consumer desire.
Indeed, many retailers have lost sight of one of the fundamental marketing principles: the balance between product and brand.
So does this mean the end of the blockbuster ad? Absolutely not. It would, for example, be unthinkable for John Lewis to forgo the blockbuster Christmas ad that its customers now associate the department store with. Nor will we see brands stop spending big during next month’s Super Bowl.
However, a refocus on product should be rearing its head in 2019. A surprisingly small percentage (18.2%) of retail spend was online as of August last year, according to the Office for National Statistics, so driving customers to stores is key.
Beyond that, retailers also need to consider the effectiveness of their ad placements.
Sophisticated advertisers treat media as a direct lever for growth and, just like any other part of a business, they want optimum effectiveness and efficiency from their media investment.
This is often a lot harder to achieve than in other business areas. Advertising is ultimately about changing behaviours through emotional or rational appeal – the role of media is delivering that with the right mix of TV, radio, digital channels and so on.
Growth is therefore intrinsically linked to media through advertising – and we all know how much advertising contributes to the bottom line.
The call to arms for retailers this year, therefore, is to drive footfall through lean, intelligent, effective media strategies.
This is not a silver bullet. But, in the end, every storm passes and those that have constructed sturdy marketing – the "load-bearing walls" of their business – should weather the storm afflicting most high-street retailers more effectively.
Martin Vinter is UK head of media at Ebiquity