Retail success requires relationships

One of the greatest retail success stories in the world, that has prospered for over a century, is now facing down new retail giants. Very soon, online shopping portals Amazon, Alibaba and eBay will command 40% of global e-commerce.


Like every retail operation, the John Lewis Partnership is assessing how much emphasis to put behind traditional channels (stores) and online. Marketing Director Becky Brock believes that it is human interactions, not just a focus on digital, that will help her brand to stand out. She told last week’s UK Festival of Marketing that John Lewis faced “irrelevancy” if it failed to live up to customer expectations.

While John Lewis is upping its e-commerce game and offering customers more digital personalisation, this will “count for nothing” if the retailer doesn’t still offer great human experiences. That of course has always been the foundation of the John Lewis brand – one of the first businesses to turn all its employees into shareholders. Since then, their staff, or ‘Partners’, have always delivered careful service and impartial advice to customers.

Here in East Africa, any retail growth we have seen has been driven by attempts to scale-up physical presence. E-commerce is relatively new; but may have high potential among our young early-adopting consumers. But the hard truth, witnessed both by highly public retail failures and by behind-boardroom-doors disappointment, is that we have not yet mastered retail on a large scale. Continue reading

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Fit for work

The other day, a very senior PR practitioner in Uganda asked me a very good question. Why was it, he asked, that in a column about Marketing, I frequently strayed away from hardcore issues like branding. Why talk about HR and management and leadership?Old skier

The answer is relatively straightforward if you agree with me that Marketing is too important an issue to be side-lined and delegated to the Marketing Department alone. The way a CEO leads a business; the way managers organise business process; and the way the senior team relates to their staff are all factors that impact on the marketing of brands and businesses.

Last week I met with colleagues in London to further develop our initiatives on two important groups in the global workforce. You won’t be surprised to hear that one group was the much-quoted Millennials. The other was the Treacle Layer, about whom I wrote recently. This is the layer of older employees who hold a great deal of institutional knowledge, but are often resistant to organisational change. As you can imagine; these people can play both positive and negative roles in brand delivery.

Although the Treacle Layer is a bigger issue in ageing Western economies, they are definitely present in our region. Look around you in your own workplace and you’ll see plenty of people who have been in the organisation for many years. They know a lot, and have firm opinions about how everyone should behave. But suggest changing something, and you’ll soon experience tooth-sucking and head shaking. Continue reading

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Not different enough

There’s a lot of loose talk about differentiation these days. Most of it happens in Marketing Departments, and not enough at the Boardroom table. Frankly, we need to get better at it if we hope to build our regional economy.11073647703_40c7b41016_b

The ability to recognise differentiation and understand its implications was a very early part of human psychological evolution. As hunter gatherers, we had to recognised different fruits, plants and seeds and understand their impact on our digestive systems. There were no ‘warning, may contain nuts’ labels in the primal forest. Similarly, our ancestors had to know instinctively what to do when they met a browsing herbivore or a hungry carnivore. And nature quickly deleted those who were slow on the uptake.

So, recognition of differentiation and its implications is hard wired into modern consumers. It makes them quick to evaluate brand promises versus product performance. And now, thanks to the Internet, they can trumpet their opinions far and wide in an instant – sounding a digital alarm call. Calling their social network to try this new wonder, or warning them away from that hazard.

As a business leader, you already know that differentiation is the start of any sustainable enterprise. Your venture must stand out from the crowd. And do so in a way that is relevant to a consumer need. It’s not enough to launch yet another pharmacy chain and thereby hope for a share of that category. You know that you must identify gaps in product, service, accessibility and value proposition if your business is going to attract customers. Continue reading

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The human voice

There’s nothing quite like the human voice, is there? As our primary means of communication, nothing can engage us quite like it. It can enrapture or enrage; inspire or oppress. The composer Richard Strauss noted that the human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all, but also the most difficult to play.Find your voice

I have the privilege of hearing many leaders address their staff, in many different contexts. In time of success and failure. At the beginning of the many chapters of corporate life. And at the close. And the observation I must make is that one voice does not fit all.

As a leader, one must learn how to adjust voice timbre, not just volume. Many Chief Executives think volume alone is the key to personality projection. Perhaps they learn this from watching African politicians. But that’s a far from good example. Shouting loudly; and chopping their messages into clauses that bear no relation to human speech. Letting sentences tail off so that their audience is coerced into finishing them. That kind of stuff only works with the lowest common denominator audience – the kind that gathers because there’s a jamboree in town, not because they intend to consider what you have to say.

Recent research by Quantified Impressions, a communications analytics business in Austin Texas, used a panel of ten experts and one thousand listeners to evaluate the impact of various speaking styles. They found that voice quality delivered twice as much impact as spoken content. And that passion, knowledge and humility were powerful enhancers. Continue reading

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Last mile delivery

With the continued development of the Standard Gauge Railway, East Africa can look forward to big changes in the way goods are imported and exported, and indeed delivered to customers.Developing_Delivery_Drones_hero

My understanding is that two container trains per day will be able to carry 90% of what is currently transported by road. From Mombasa to Nairobi; and in due course on to Naivasha, Kisumu and over the border into Uganda.

The first implication of this change will be that Nairobi will become a port. The second is that logistics companies and transporters will need to find a new use for their trucks. This is already beginning; with far-sighted plans for modern distribution centres being brought to fruition around Greater Nairobi. A model that towns and cities further North and West should also be contemplating.

All kinds of businesses are considering new options for what is known as last mile delivery – the final steps to putting a product onto a retail shelf or into the consumer’s hand.

Irish investor Ion Equity has already launched an ambitious end-to-end solution to securely supplies genuine pharmaceuticals to patients. The NGO community estimates that currently the percentage of counterfeit medicine in East Africa is over 50%. These counterfeits are not generics, but fakes. Drugs with expensive active ingredients removed and some of the savings put back into making the packaging look world class. How dangerous is that? Continue reading

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Marketing leaders needed

moi-quan-he-ky-la-giua-2-con-nguoi-vi-dai-bill-gates-steve-obsWe live and work in a region where there are still relatively few Marketers at Executive Board level. In fact, there are fewer Marketing Directors than HR Directors. This may reflect the perception that HR – in its traditional role of controlling the workforce – is more deserving of a seat at the top table than those charged with promoting the business. If so, both parts of that perception are wrong. Companies need HR leaders attuned to the company’s promise to the market, and able to recruit and develop staff to deliver it. But they also need senior marketers; able to represent the consumer point of view at Board level.

When I talk to Managing Directors in Africa, their biggest criticism of the Marketing fraternity seems to be a lack of commercial acumen. Marketers have a reputation of being good act activity, but not so hot on productivity. Happy to spend money; but not too keen to be held to account for it.

The issue is not local. Commenting on the global profession, Professor Mark Ritson of Melbourne Business School is forthright: “I remain convinced that most marketers don’t really understand gross margin and variable costs. They live in a bull***t bubble.”

So how can Marketers rise to greatness? What skills and attributes do they need to develop on the journey?

I must admit that looking for answers in Marketing Week’s ‘Anatomy of a Leader’ research study was unrewarding. Perhaps because 600 UK marketers were sampled; but no opinions sought from senior colleagues in other disciplines. Continue reading

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Customer Experience for Tourists

7996864-african-traditional-jumps-masai-mara-warriors-dancing-kenyaIt’s all change on the regional tourism front with Kenya emerging largely undisrupted (we hope) from its Election process. Tanzanian tourism is delivering much less value for money thanks to ill-considered Presidential interference in taxes and levies. And in Uganda, an entrepreneurial sector continues to develop adventurous holiday options while battling with underdeveloped infrastructure.

All these macro-economic factors impact on the visitors’ perceptions of the tourism experience. It’s hard to address them, because tourism operators are limited to lobbying. And often they find themselves talking to stone deaf politicians and public servants.

But there are many aspects of the customer experience that operators can address. And I don’t just mean making sure the tea is hot or the sheets are clean. Customer experience in a marketing sense – the delivery of brand against promise – is now becoming a top priority.

No wonder, as many companies in the travel industry, particularly airlines, consistently rank in the lower levels of customer satisfaction league tables.

Many tourism brands are generic, following category norms. (Have you ever seen a Safari website without the obligatory leaping Maasai?) If your promise is generic, then it’s difficult to deliver without disappointment.

Poor customer experience on arrival and during the stay does significant damage to tourism brands. Social media has shifted power to the customer enabling them to hold any business to a new standard of performance. Tourist expectations are not static but change due to the broader influence of online properties like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Uber, Airbnb. Continue reading

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The Three E’s

All businesses rely on a combination of three drivers of value creation, the ‘3Es’ of efficiency, effectiveness, and experience.

Production line (2)

Efficiency has been and remains a dominant driver of profitability since the industrial revolution, Taylorism, invention of the assembly line, and iconic For Model-T. Just utter 6-sigma, kaizen, reengineering or the increasingly popular zero-based budgeting in the boardroom and smiles will appear on the faces of even the most hardened executives. The very executives that pour over financial data rich with watershed cost models, and where 70% of CEOs count cost-cutting as their top priority for yet another year running. Even if you don’t compete on price, you need to offer competitive prices in a world where price fighters are growing ever-more prevalent.  Yet precisely for that reason, price generally does not actually differentiate you from your nearest competitor. It is a qualifier for being considered but not a decider when it comes to choice.

The second ‘E’ is effectiveness. Building a better mousetrap is the origin of many business ventures. But as industries mature, effectiveness gains quickly hit diminishing returns. And in a global world, competitors will quickly follow suit when a quality advance has market appeal. Dorco recently announced the world’s first 6-bladed shaver, challenging Gillette Fusion’s 5-bladed supremacy. Surely Gillette already has a 7-bladed response in the making..

So, what does the customer love enough to buy and to buy again? It is not what companies put into their products and services, it is what the customer takes out. And the word customer is a problem here, as it focuses the business on the transaction. Continue reading

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Shame about the name

Right now, I’m going through the naming process for a new business. An enterprise in which I have two partners. We’ve worked out our reason for being; we have written our brand promise. We have agreed our target audience; we know how we want to deliver the service. In fact, we have done everything by the book so far. As three practitioners, we are trying very hard to practice what we preach to our clients.My WU (1)

Now we’re reviewing naming options and creative designs to bring them to life. It’s an enjoyable process but the pressure is on. Even between three friends it takes an effort to achieve genuine consensus. We must ensure our personal preferences are properly expressed but also be prepared to surrender to what makes the most sense. To the target audience, not to us.

One thing we agree. The brand name must be simple and distinctive. Ideally one word, possibly two. We all feel that the longer the name, the harder it is for people to grasp it. Especially if it is composed of a multiplicity of nouns like ‘Computer System Innovations’. (My own company name The Brand Inside seems to work because it is almost a clause that fits easily into a normal sentence. Nobody has ever tried to turn it into the acronym TBI, not to my face anyway.)

When your brand name becomes an acronym, your marketing has to work harder. Not to create awareness, because it is obviously easier to remember ABC than Aggregated Building and Construction. But to convey meaning. Your sales people need to unpack the company’s purpose when they make their introductions to prospects. Your advertising strapline needs to be more explanatory: ‘ABC. Building stronger infrastructure.’ A little later, your people begin to forget the original purpose of the business and the values that created it. Your business culture may become less distinctive. And all because you got bored with having to use the company name in full.

Last week I was surprised to see a very well-known brand take a leap into the acronym abyss.

Western Union is a long- established business. Founded in Rochester, New York in 1851 it was an industrialised monopoly that dominated the telegraph industry in the late 19th century. It built the first communications empire and set a pattern for American-style communications businesses as they are known today.

Western Union now has several divisions, with products such as person-to-person money transfer, business payments and commercial services. cIts company name is known the world over. It is understood to be American and it feels robust.

But someone has now taken the decision to abbreviate Western Union to WU. Continue reading

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