Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Independents' Day

Today's the day our lives are supposed to be blighted by anxieties about the plight of independent retailers. Appropriately, my award-nominated blogger-friend Joel has posted one of his characteristically non-committal commentaries on the West-Ken Chainstore Massacre.

I'm a little surprised though that he hasn't made the point that the French supermarket giants appear to coexist better with their boulangerie buddies. France has its Carrefour and ("bigger than Tesco", Joel once jingo'd to me) while Spain has its El Cortes Ingles amongst others, but neither suffers to anything like the same extent as this particular nation of shopkeepers from the cloned high street phenomenon.

Most of the corner shops closing currently withering under the relentless assault of the ubermarkets were established by opportunistic immigrants in the 60s and 70s when the indigenous stand-alone store was already close to extinction. Yet wander down the main drag of any provincial French town and you will continue to see traditional, locally run, non-chain retailers.

I recently found a few clues to what has happened on this island in the pages of Marketing Judo, a black-belt guide to zigging to the competitions' zag, by the people that took Harry Ramsden's fish and chips global and now run the La Tasca chain of Spanish tapas bars.

"Look for all the points of leverage" they advise, generally meaning the pyschological assets of your own venture and that of potential partners. Domino's Pizza for instance, successfully leveraged The Simpsons to increase like for like sales by 27% and Caffe Nero has successfully "partnered Italy".

In short, this book contends that success will come to those that work on the balance between spin and business basics. Now, there is indeed a great deal of interesting strategic marketing advice in this well-constructed little book, but it also fed some of my longer-term misgivings about the conduct of branding in the UK.

With Harry Ramsden Barnes and Richardson re-spun a "lost property" brand, developing a substantial business by milking (leveraging, re-spinning etc.) the emotional and intellectual assets implicated in the name. They heep praise on other notable black belts : Cobra, a beer dreamed up in England as the perfect curryhouse compliment, and Pret a Manger who like to tell you how passionate they feel about their carrot cake.

One thing I have learned on my many visits to Spain is that while Spaniards are passionate about life and many of its sub-disciplines, carrot cake is not likely to be one of the things that stokes their fires.

La Tasca embodies for me the paradoxes that this form of marketing generates. I've enjoyed eating at the West India Quay restaurant on a number of occasions and it does yank a few of my Hispanofile chains. But in spite of all the care that has gone into the Iberian knick-knacks dotted around the walls and the pretty peninsular personnel, there is something intrinsically inauthentic about a tapas chain.

Anyway, my take is that Spanish eating habits really ought not to be so violently separated from Spanish living habits. In that sense the Caffe Nero "partnership with Italy" is a little less phoney.

One of the dangers of Marketing Judo is a commercial climate where spin, however well-grounded, is primary and the goal of all independent retail practice is rapid growth and exit. Meanwhile the product we consume disappears under multiple layers of abstract pyschological content.

What works for nimble newcomers keen to throw unsuspecting opponents also works for the in-house marketing teams of the brand behemoths; and so the network of leveraged relationships proliferates. (What percentage of ice-cream products today refer to extra-sector branding?)

You end up with an circular phenomenon not unlike what my friend Chris thinks is happening to the Blogosphere - rapidly accelerating self-reference.

So, give some thought to whether the accumulation of retail power is being driven by economic logic or whether it is at least a partly psychological phenomenon, one that we Brits seem to be at the vanguard of. After all. we were the first to industrialise and de-industrialisation has come as quite a profound shock to us. Perhaps our way of dealing with it has been to learn the tricks of the marketable arts with all their sneaky value-added brand abstractions in order to avoid being regularly roughed up by the Asian Tigers.

And being an authentically mongrel nation we were never really that committed to authenticity anyway.

(Self-referential complexity leading to the illusion of progress does seem to be a bit of a theme of mine lately!)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So nice. I was a colleague and now I became a friend. I am moved :-) And BTW, my comments are not always "non-commital"!