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Retail in Critical Care – The Impact of COVID-2019

Oil shocks, financial market crashes, localised wars and even medical emergencies like SARS pale when compared to the speed and the scale of the mayhem created by SARS-CoV-2. In recent decades the world has become far more interconnected through travel and trade, so the viral disease – medical and economic – now spreads faster than ever. Airlines carrying business and leisure-travellers have also quickly carried the virus. Businesses benefitting from lower costs and global scale are today infected deeply due to the concentration of manufacturing and trade.

A common defensive action worldwide is the lock-down of cities to slow community transmission (something that, ironically, the World Health Organization was denying as late as mid-January). The Indian government implemented a full-scale 3-week national lockdown from March 25. The suddenness of this decision took most businesses by surprise, but quick action to ensure physical distancing was critical.

Clearly consumer businesses are hit hard. If we stay home, many “needs” disappear; among them entertainment, eating out, and buying products related to socializing. Even grocery shopping drops; when you’re not strolling through the supermarket, the attention is focussed on “needs”, not “wants”. A travel ban means no sales at airport and railway kiosks, but also no commute to the airport and station which, in turn means that the businesses that support taxi drivers’ daily needs are hit.

Responses vary, but cash is king! US retailers have wrangled aid and tax breaks of potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, as part of a US$2 trillion stimulus. A British retailer is filing for administration to avoid threats of legal action, and has asked landlords for a 5-month retail holiday. Several western apparel retailers are cancelling orders, even with plaintive appeals from supplier countries such as Bangladesh and India. In India, large corporate retailers are negotiating rental waivers for the lockdown period or longer. Many retailers are bloated with excess inventory and, with lost weeks of sales, have started cancelling orders with their suppliers citing “force majeure”. Marketing spends have been hit. (As an aside, will “viral marketing” ever be the same?)

On the upside are interesting collaborations and shifts emerging. In the USA, Jo-Ann Stores is supplying fabric and materials to be made up into masks and hospital gowns at retailer Nieman Marcus’ alteration facilities. LVMH is converting its French cosmetics factories into hand sanitizer production units for hospitals, and American distilleries are giving away their alcohol-based solutions. In India, hospitality groups are providing quarantine facilities at their empty hotels. Zomato and Swiggy are partnering to deliver orders booked by both online and offline retailers, who are also partnering between themselves, in an unprecedented wave of coopetition. Ecommerce and home delivery models are getting a totally unexpected boost due to quarantine conditions.

Life-after-lockdown won’t go back to “normal”. People will remain concerned about physical exposure and are unlikely to want to spend long periods of time in crowds, so entertainment venues and restaurants will suffer for several weeks or months even after restrictions are lifted, as will malls and large-format stores where families can spend long periods of time.

The second major concern will be income-insecurity for a large portion of the consuming population. The frequency and value of discretionary purchases – offline and online – will remain subdued for months including entertainment, eating-out and ordering-in, fashion, home and lifestyle products, electronics and durables.

The saving grace is that for a large portion of India, the Dusshera-Deepavali season and weddings provide a huge boost, and that could still float some boats in the second half of this year. Health and wellness related products and services would also benefit, at least in the short term. So 2020 may not be a complete washout.

So, what now?

Retailers and suppliers both need to start seriously questioning whether they are valuable to their customer or a replaceable commodity, and crystallise the value proposition: what is it that the customer values, and why? Business expansion, rationalised in 2009-10, had also started going haywire recently. It is again time to focus on product line viability and store productivity, and be clear-minded about the units to be retained.

Someone once said, never let a good crisis be wasted.

This is a historical turning point. It should be a time of reflection, reinvention, rejuvenation. It would be a shame if we fail to use it to create new life-patterns, social constructs, business models and economic paradigms.

(This article was published in the Financial Express under the headline “As Consumer businesses take a hard hit, time for retailers to reflect and reinvent”

Fractal Branding – Voice or Noise?

The grocery market is loud. From the times when food markets were in streets and town squares, hawkers have cried out their wares, and the freshness or newness of everything made evident to the customers passing by. So, I guess, it is no surprise that today’s FMCG and food market is also tuned to high-decibel promotion.

You don’t need to search too long for the reason – margins are generally thin on these frequent-use products and inventories need to move fast. And what you don’t make a noise about may not be visible to the customer and may remain unsold.

But if that was the whole story, most players should be focussing on one brand, or at most a few brands, and should be using their advertising budgets to maximum effect on these.

Instead we see exactly the reverse phenomenon in the market – more brands, more sub-brands, more varieties of everything. Why? Because newness sells – it creates excitement, anticipation, and in customers with a sense of experimentation it creates the urge to buy.

The old proven method of doing this was the “New Improved” starburst on the pack. The slicker, updated method is to launch a new variety that is apparently different in some way. For instance, if the old supplement helped to strengthen bones, the new line might contain separate “child” and “adult” versions (growth vs. osteoporosis). The old shampoo might have helped to keep hair clean and prevent dandruff – the new one might leave the customer wondering if she should pick the dandruff-fighter that also reduces hair loss, or the variety that makes her hair glossy, or even the one that provides a date for the next weekend! By the time she reaches the end of the shelf, she might have forgotten that her need essentially was to prevent dandruff.

Due to this, the grocery and FMCG product mix is fractal. Each grocery shelf or grocery store is susceptible to fragmentation. Each such fraction is supposed to act as the seed that can allow a new segment in the market or a new use occasion to grow, and provide the FMCG company or the retailer with an avenue for additional business. This phenomenon is particularly visible in a growing consumption environment – consumption feeds proliferation, while proliferation provides further occasions to consume.

However, an unfortunate outcome of this proliferation of brands and SKUs is the heightened noise, in which the brand often loses its unique voice. Also, over time, the brand may be too thinly spread or be undifferentiated from its competitors, and its sales only sustained through ever increasing bouts of expensive advertising – a vicious spiral.

Another issue is the real estate availability and the cost. Chris Anderson wrote about “the long tail” about 5 years ago – the myriad products for which the market is limited, but demand may be sustained over a long period of time through internet sales. However, while the long tail works for e-commerce businesses such as Amazon that carry limited inventory, the physical store runs out of space for micro-segment items very quickly.

All of these factors obviously start hurting visibly when the market turns down, and when marketing investments start being evaluated against the returns. This is when proliferation starts giving way to “rationalization”, reduction of the brand portfolio, narrowing the SKU focus.

We are already seeing signs of this in many of the developed modern retail markets currently, where retailers and their suppliers are closely analyzing which parts of their portfolio they need to sustain, and which they need to drop.

The story in the Indian market is slightly different for a variety of reasons.

First, the market is still growing, and for most FMCG suppliers there are vast expanses of the market are still blank canvases.

Secondly, India has been a branded supplier driven market for a long time, and remains so, by and large. However, the SKU and brand density is nowhere close to what is seen in the West. There is plenty of headroom still for new varieties to be added and new brands to be developed.

But possibly the most important factor is the new modern retailers, who are desperately seeking additional sources of margin. When there is a limit to the traffic that you can divert from traditional mom-and-pop stores, and when you hit the glass ceiling on transaction values per customer, proliferation becomes the game to play. Therefore, these retailers are either busy introducing own labels or encouraging new branded vendors who would offer them higher margins than the more established brands.

Own label is obviously the tricky one. The customer needs to feel comfortable with the switch – in the US, a study showed that consumers would more easily switch to own label merchandise in categories where the “risk” was perceived to be low (such as household goods, rather than children’s products). Also, the best own label gross margins typically come from products that are presented to the consumer as “brands” comparable to national branded products, because the pricing is more on par.

So, on the retailer’s part, this requires sophistication of product development and brand management that may be expensive and may need time to develop. A short-cut could be the acquisition of an existing brand, its entire assets including the organisation, as some retailers have been reportedly looking to do. How well they integrate the brands into their businesses remains to be seen.

In the long term, like their counterparts in more developed markets, these retailers may also come to the point where they wonder whether these owned brands offer them enough return on the expense and the management effort spent on them, or whether they would be better off just buying brands that consumers are already familiar with through multiple channels.

In the short term, however, we can expect proliferation, fragmentation, fractalization in all its forms. We can expect the illusion of plenty of choice to continue driving sales, and more and more products to fulfil needs that even the customer doesn’t know he has.

Brand Immortality and Reincarnation

The entertainment business suggests that nostalgia is a very powerful driver of profit.

It is quite clear that retro is “in”. The movie business worldwide is full of sequels, prequels, re-releases and remakes. The music business is ringing up the cash registers with remixes and jukebox compilations.  Star Wars and Sholay still have a fan following. ABBA has leaped across three decades, Hindi film songs from 30-60 years ago have been given a skin-uplift by American hip-hop artists, while Pink Floyd is hot with Indian teens along with Akon and Rihanna.

As copyright restrictions are removed from the works of authors long-gone, the market gets flooded with several reprints of their most popular writings. Of course, we know that classic literature survives not just a few years but even thousands of years. Examples include the still widely-read 2,500-year-old Indian epic Ramayana by Valmiki, the Greek philosophers’ works that continue to be popular after two millennia and the Norse legends that have been told and re-told for over a thousand years.  Spiritual and religious leaders’ writings are also recycled into the guaranteed market of their followers and possible converts for a long time after their passing away.

On the other hand, the basic premise of today’s fashion and lifestyle businesses is that silhouettes, colours and design-cues will become (or be made) obsolete within a few weeks or a few months, and will be replaced with new ones.   This principle is true not just of clothing and footwear, but is applied to home furnishings, furniture, white goods, electronics, mobile phones and even cars.  In fact, the fashion business (as it exists) would find it impossible to survive if customers around the world chose only classics which could be used for as long as the product lasted in usable form.

What Fashionability Means for Brands

Other than individual styles or products falling out of favour, as fashions move and as the market changes, it is evident that some brands also become less acceptable, are seen as “outdated” and may also die out as they lose their customer base.

Of course, that some brands become classics is quite apparent, especially in the luxury segment where brands such as Bulgari have survived several generations of consumers, and continue to thrive.

However, the past is of relevance to the fashion sector because, other than planned or forced obsolescence, the fashion business has also long worked on another principle – that trends are cyclical.

Skirts go up and down, ties change their width, and the colour palette moves through evolution across the years.  A style formula that was popular in the summer of a year in the 1970s might be just right in another summer in the first decade of the 21st century.

So, the question that comes up is whether the same logic that is applicable to individual products, styles and trends, could also be applied to brands.

The answer to whether apparently weak, dead or dying brands could be brought back to life is provided by brands such as Burberry’s, Lee Cooper and Hush Puppies.  Sometimes innovative consumers create the opportunity – as with Hush Puppies in the 1980s – while in other cases (such as Burberry’s, Volkswagen’s Beetle, or Harley Davidson), vision, concerted effort and resources can make the brand attractive again.

The question then is not whether brands can be relaunched – they can. The more important question for brand owners is: should a brand be relaunched. And using the logic of the fashion business, rather than being left to linger and then dying a painful death, could brands be consciously phased-out and later brought back into the market as the trends change?

The Brand Portfolio – Diversifying Opportunities and Risks

These questions are particularly important for large companies, or in times when market growth rates are slow, or when the market is fragmented. Organic growth can be difficult in all these scenarios, and companies begin to look at developing “portfolios” by acquiring other businesses and brands, or by launching multiple brands of their own.

The car industry worldwide has lived with brand portfolio management for long. Even as companies have merged with and acquired each other, the various marques have been retained and sometimes even dead ones have been revived.  The companies generally focus the brands in their portfolio on distinct customer segments and needs (such as Ford’s ownership of “Ford”, “Volvo” and “Jaguar”, or General Motors with its multiple brands), and then further play with models and product variants within those.  When things go right portfolio strategies can be quite profitable, but the mistakes are especially expensive. Sensible and sensitive management of the portfolio is absolutely critical.

In the fashion and lifestyle sector, the players who already follow a portfolio strategy are as diverse as the luxury group LVMH, mainstream fashion groups like Liz Claiborne (with brands in its portfolio including Liz Claiborne, Mexx, Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand Jeans) and LimitedBrands (Limited, Victoria’s Secret, La Senza etc.), retailers such as Marks & Spencer (with its original St. Michael’s brand having given way to “Your M&S”, and also Per Una) and Chico’s (Chico’s, White House | Black Market, and Soma Intimates) who wish to capture new customer segments or re-capture lost customers.  Some of these companies have launched new brands, some have relaunched their own brands, and some have even acquired competing brands.

The issue is also relevant to the Indian market, whether we consider Reliance’s revival of Vimal, the new brand ambassador for Mayur Suitings, or the PE-funded take over of Weekender.  As the market begins evolving into significantly large differentiated segments, branding opportunities grow, and so will activity related to existing or old brands being resurrected and refreshed. An additional twist is provided by Indian corporate groups such as Reliance, Future (Pantaloons) and Arvind that are looking to partner international and Indian brands, or grow private labels to gain additional sales and margin.

The issue also concerns those companies whose management is attached to one or more brands owned by them which may not have been performing well in the recent past, but due to historical or sentimental reasons the management may not like to close down or sell them.

It is equally critical for potential buyers who would like to take over and turn brands around into sustainable profits. This is a real possibility in this era of private-equity funds and leveraged buyouts, where a company or a financial investor might find it cheaper and more profitable to take over an existing brand and turn it around, rather than building a new brand.  This is already happening in the Indian market. More interestingly, Indian companies have also already acquired businesses in the USA and Europe, and the potential revival or relaunch of brands is certainly relevant for these companies as well.

When to Recycle and Reuse

Relaunch or acquisition of an existing active or dormant brand can be an attractive option when building a portfolio, or when a company is getting into a new market.

For the company, acquiring an existing brand is often a lower cost way to reach the customers, and also faster to roll-out the business. The company may assess that the brand already has an existing share of positive customer awareness that is active or dormant, and that the effort and resources (including money) needed to build a business from that awareness will be much less than that to create a new brand.

The risk of failure may also be lower for a relaunched brand than for a new brand.

This is because the softer aspects, the hidden psychological and emotional hooks, are already pre-designed. This provides a ready platform from which to re-launch and grow the brand.

From the customer’s point of view, there is the confidence from previous experience and usage, and possibly also nostalgia and comfort of the ‘known’.

‘Age’ or vintage is respectable and trustworthy. This is especially powerful during volatile times or in rapidly changing environments when there is uncertainty about what lies in the future, and makes an existing brand a powerful vehicle for sustaining and growing the business.

On the Downside

However, when handling brands it is also wise to keep in mind the cautionary note that mutual funds issue: “past performance is no indicator of the future”.

In re-launching active or dormant brands, there is also a downside risk.  While the brand may have been strong and relevant in its last avatar, it may be totally out of place in the current market scenario.  The competitive landscape would have shifted, consumers would have changed – new consumers entering the market, old consumers evolving or moving out – and the economic scenario itself may now be unfriendly to the brand.

Also, the “awareness” or “share of mind” may only be a perception in the mind of the person who is looking to re-launch the brand, and the consumer may actually not care about the brand at all.  There are instances where the management of the company has been so caught up in their own perception of the brand that they have not bothered to carry out first-hand research with the target segment to check whether there is actually an unaided recall, or at worst, aided-recall of the brand. They are imagining potential strengths, when the brand has none.

It is also possible that, during its last stint in the market, the brand may have gathered negative connotations – consumers may remember it for poor products or wrong pricing, the trade may remember it for late deliveries, vendors may remember it for delayed payments…the list goes on. In such a scenario, it may be a relaunch may be a disaster.

So how does one know whether to resurrect a brand, or to reincarnate it in another form, and when to just let it die?  The answers to that lie in answering the question: what is a brand? And then, what is this brand?

A Critical Question: What is a Brand?

Even in these enlightened marketing times, many people believe that the brand is the name. They believe that once you advertise a name widely and loudly enough, a brand can be created. Nothing could be further from the truth.  High-decibel advertising only informs customers of the name, it cannot create a brand.

If we put ourselves in the customer’s shoes, a brand is an image, comprising of a bundle of promises on the company’s part and expectations on the customer’s part, which have been met.  When promises are delivered, when expectations are met, the brand develops an attribute that it is defined by.

The promise may be of edgy design (think Apple), and the customer expects that – when the brand delivers on the promise and meets the expectation the brand image gets re-affirmed and strengthened. However, these attributes are not always necessarily all “positive” in the traditional sense. For instance, a company’s promise may be to be low-cost and low-service (think Ikea, or “low-cost airlines”), and the customer may expect that and be happy with that when the company delivers on that promise.  The promise may be products with a conscience (think The Body Shop), which may strike a chord with the consumer.

What that brand actually stands for can only be created experientially. Creating this image, creation of the brand, is a complex and step-by-step process that takes place over time and over many transactions. Repetition of the same kind of experience strengthens the brand.

The brand touches everything that defines the customer’s experience – the product design and packaging, the retail store it is sold in, the service it is sold with, the after-sales interaction – all have a role to play in the creation of the brand.

For instance, to some it may sound silly that market research or how supply chain practices can help define a brand, but that is exactly how the state of affairs is for Zara.  Changeovers and new fashions being quickly available are what that brand is about, and it would be impossible for Zara to deliver on that promise without leading edge supply chains, or a wide variety of trend research.

Similarly, it may sound clichéd that your salesperson defines the brand to the consumer, but even with the best products, extensive advertising, and swanky stores, for service-oriented retailers everything would fall apart if the salesperson is not up to the mark. This is indeed a sad reality faced by so many of the so-called premium and luxury brands.

Of course, brand images can be changed or updated, but the new image also needs to be reinforced through repeated action, a process just like the first time the brand was created.

Reviving a Brand: the New-Old Seesaw

Given that a brand is created over multiple interactions and repetitive delivery of certain attributes, it is only natural that the older the brand, the more potential advantage it would have over a new brand.  Just the sheer time it would have spent in the market would give an old brand an edge.

An old brand can appear to be proven, experienced and secure, while a new brand could be seen as untested, raw and risky.  An old brand may have had a positive relationship with the consumer, but may have been dormant due to strategic or operational reasons.  In this case, reviving the brand is clearly a good idea.  There is already an existing awareness of an older brand, which can act as a ready platform for launching the same or a new set of products or services.  Often, there may be a connection with the consumer’s past positive experience of the brand.

On the other hand, a new brand may appear to be fresh, more up-to-date and relevant, and vigorous, compared to an old one that may be seen as outdated and tired.  Certainly, if nostalgia had been all that brands needed to thrive, then old brands would never die and it would be difficult to create new brands.

Clearly, there is no single answer to whether it is a good idea to re-launch an existing or old brand.   If you are considering whether it would be a good idea to revive an old brand, or to acquire and turn an existing brand around, ask yourself this:

  • Is there evidence of enough customer awareness and support for the brand?
  • Are there positive connotations for the brand that can be built upon in the current market context?
  • Is there an opportunity to refresh the brand, so that it does not appear outdated, while retaining its core promise and authenticity?
  • Does the company have the resources and inclination to be a “caretaker” or “steward” of the relationship that has been created in the past between the brand and its customers?

If the answer is “No” to any of these questions, then one needs to think again.  However, if the answers are all “Yes”, then a resuscitation is just what the doctor might have ordered.

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