It was never considered leading edge.
When I joined Tesco (then a struggling UK supermarket chain) as a young marketer, retailing was at best a marketing outpost. The great marketing companies were the Procter & Gambles of this world, steeped in the classic marketing models defined by the likes of Kotler. I remember my family and friends thinking I was crazy to join them.
However, ironically, the retail marketing challenges I encountered are today faced by every marketer. What was once an outlier has now become mainstream.
The primacy of customer experience.
For a start, I soon learnt that a retail brand was not created through advertising. Rather, it was defined by the customer experience of shopping the store. And that experience was driven not by marketing messages, but by the behaviors customers observed: from the cleanliness of the parking lot to the demeanor of the employees, they read the store body language, and sensed what the brand was really like.
Today, this is becoming the reality for every marketer. Thanks to technology, customers are interacting with brands in a variety of ways. The customer experience of these interactions, and the sharing of them through social media, are increasingly defining every brand.
A focus on existing customers.
I also quickly learnt that when your brand is defined by customer experience, you'd better make sure your customers feel appreciated. Even before social media, word of mouth was the single biggest driver of visits to the store. This led to an intense focus on existing customers at Tesco. We tried to create value for them in their lives each and every day, an approach summed up as "every little helps", so that we could earn their lifetime loyalty.
In today's environment, where customers can so easily share their experiences or access the experience of others online, every marketer needs their customers to feel appreciated.
With so many conversations happening in-store, it also became abundantly clear store employees needed to live and breathe the brand for customers to feel appreciated. Consequently, we tried to ensure that everyone at Tesco understood the role they could play in delivering "every little helps". More recently, Apple have demonstrated just how powerful strong employee engagement can be in delivering a branded experience in-store.
Today, social media has made employee engagement a necessity for every brand. And in a world of ever greater transparency, this needs to extend beyond customer-facing employees to every corner of the company.
Using data to improve the experience.
This intense focus on existing customers also led me to appreciate the power of data. In 1995 Tesco launched Clubcard, a loyalty program that was designed as a simple, unconditional thank you to customers. On the one hand, this was a way of making customers feel appreciated, to encourage them to come back. But the data it produced also enabled us to improve the customer experience. For example, Clubcard's quarterly mailing to ten million households effectively became individualized, due to the differences in customer behavior the data revealed.
Today of course, we live in the era of big data. While this can be used to target customers and increase advertising effectiveness, it's using data to improve the customer experience that needs to be second nature for every marketer.
A company-wide endeavor.
These challenges resulted in a very different approach to marketing.
To deliver a customer experience that made customers feel appreciated required a company-wide effort - it wasn't something marketing could do alone. And with customers reading the body language, the brand needed to be embedded in the very culture of the company. Rather than creating and refining an image through advertising, much of the marketing effort was focused internally on improving the customer experience and shaping the culture of the company.
In today's connected world, this is the reality that every marketer faces.
Retail marketing has indeed come of age...