Last week I visited Retail Week Live, in order to find out what trends, challenges and opportunities the UK’s major retailers had on their minds.
The event was at a new venue this year, the o2 Intercontinental, and the organisers did a very good job both with the logistics and the quality of speakers.
The whole conference felt very relevant and topical, none more so than when Leendert Den Hollander, VP and GM of Coca-Cola, was on stage the morning after the Budget. To be fair to him, he didn’t duck out or avoid discussing ‘Sugar Tax’ with the conference host, journalist Declan Curry. Rather, he pledged ‘trust and transparency for consumers’, and declared that ‘sugar tax is the wrong solution, we don’t hide from the need to tackle obesity crisis’. For those wondering, he also said the brand has ‘no plans to stop selling red coke’ – a relief for coke addicts, I am sure.
One of the most interesting speakers came from outside the world of retail. Sir Clive Woodward gave a well-rehearsed speech which he had no doubt performed a thousand time in recent years, nonetheless you couldn’t help but listen to a man with a CV containing Rugby World Cup Winning Coach, and Team GB at the 2012 Olympics. Of his nuggets of advice, I thought the most memorable was ‘imagine writing the book about your brand, what would the chapters say?’
I thought the key theme running through the conference was bringing back customer experience and using technology to reconnect with people on a personal level. Starbucks and Virgin Atlantic both showed how technological advances (Spotify and Virtual Reality) were giving customers a more customised experience. This is undoubtedly sexy marketing, but the reality is that it is a more modern form of an old concept.
No one embodied this old concept more than Ray Kelvin, founder of Ted Baker. Ray was an old school retailer who had the room in the palm of his hand through his dry and witty keynote, his lack of notes and appearance (he was wearing overalls containing many strange and wonderful prompts) portrayed a sense of chaos, but the underlying message of his speech was that the Ted Baker brand has flourished as it doesn’t need to advertise when it keeps true to its customer-first ethos. He told a tale about giving customers in his first store in Glasgow a replica goldfish, to carry around and draw people’s attention to Ted Baker.
This individualism has never stopped being crucial in retail, or marketing, it is just that now technology has improved to the point where it is finally offering brands the ability to compete with the instincts of top class retailers like Ray Kelvin.
Yet the notion of actually connecting with real people isn’t just a marketing gimmick. Tesco veteran and now Business Minister, Baroness Neville-Rolfe, said that she hoped - and felt - that retail was being transformed by ‘localism and the digital revolution’. And this was echoed by digital newcomers, such as Simon Belsham of Not on The High Street.com. He preached that the importance of their brand was ‘software, services and community’, showing that localism and provenance is important even to pure play digital brands.
If that isn’t enough to convince even the most hardened cynics to the merits of localism and community in retail, then John Roberts of AO surely would have swayed them. He ended the conference by giving a platform to a youth project from Wigan, and the young people who took to the stage were the most inspiring from the two days.
So while The Budget has financial impacts on retailers, and technology opens up new avenues of profit, ultimately brands need to understand the human values that helped people like Ray Kelvin get to where they are today. And if they still don’t get it, then there’s a whole new generation ready to show them the way.