retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

MIAMI BEACH -- The theme of the 2011 SymphonyIRI Summit was “gaining the competitive edge,” and the most telling phrase in this regard was uttered by Sasha Muradali, a blogger from the Millennial Generation who was part of a panel on generational marketing.

She told the audience of mostly male, middle-aged attendees that she was sorry “if it takes you six minutes to send a message on Twitter. It takes me one minute to send six Tweets...and they are all rich in content.”

And, she threw down the gauntlet to people and companies advertising price breaks via traditional means: “I am not buying a newspaper so I can cut coupons out. Never. No way. Not going to happen.”

What Muradali said she is looking for in the companies that she patronizes is an interest in an understanding of her needs and desires, and an ability to cater to them - and to marketers, that probably would mean a complete re-evaluation of existing marketing plans. And, she seemed to be saying, she is looking for specificity - not just vague and unfocused efforts.

It was, in fact, a consistent message from other members of the panel, which was moderated by Thom Blischok, global president, innovation and strategy, for SymphonyIRI.

Alma Klein, another blogger who was there representing Generation X, said that she was looking for companies with strong environmental and sustainability credentials. What with all the environmental issues facing the planet, she said, “it is a scary time to be a mom,” and she is looking for patronize companies that are specific and accurate in their views and actions toward these issues.

Isabel Villegas, director of Jack Morton Latino, a “global brand experience agency” focusing on the Hispanic marketplace, made a similar observation from the cultural perspective: “You have to have a real understanding of the (Latino) audience and who you want to reach,” she said, adding, “What is valid in New York is not necessarily valid for Los Angeles.”

The comments represented what this conference has done best over the years - putting unfamiliar faces and attitudes in front of mainstream attendees. (It could be argued that none of these attitudes should be unfamiliar, if only people and companies were paying attention. But if people were really paying attention, they would have left the room and called for an immediate review of all their FSI-related expenditures. Which I’m guessing that not a lot of people did. But should have.)

The insights - especially as it relates to coupons - were especially interesting in that they came after a presentation by Rob price, senior vice president/chief marketing officer for CVS Caremark, in which he described the company’s ExtraCare loyalty program in glowing terms...noting that it has allowed the company to collect “tens of billions of pieces of information” that he believes will allow it to create a more “intimate relationship” with shoppers. And yet, many of the benefits, as he described them, still come in the form of paper coupons, either on the backs of register receipts or handed out via in-store kiosks.

Considered within the context of Muradali’s comments, that process just seemed so 20th century.

And then there was the presentation on improving the center store through stronger, customer-focused category management, given by John Kastenholz of ConAgra. At one point he put up a slide of an aisle planogram, and the guy next to me muttered, “That woman blogger is probably looking at that and wondering what the hell it is.” And he added, “I think I heard this same presentation 10 years ago.”

Sometimes it is in those moments - and these contrasts - that the real challenges facing retailers and manufacturers are highlighted. There is an old saw that “food retailing is evolution, not revolution.”

But that’s probably not true anymore. It’d be nice, and comforting, if it were, because people and companies could simply build slowly on what has come before. But the rest of the world, largely because of technology, is going through a revolution that seems to pick up in pace almost every day.

Food retailers and manufacturers have to pick up the pace as well, if they are going to have sort of competitive edge.
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