The year ahead for ... marketing

Richard Hodgson predicts staying in will become the new going out and those marketers who speak directly to consumers will reap the rewards.

There is no doubt that 2009 is going to test the mettle and creativity of marketers everywhere.

Our sector's biggest focus will be on driving food volumes as, despite a growing population, we've seen them decline during 2008. The biggest driver of this decline is a new reluctance among the public to waste food in what has been called a "return to frugality", although I think that label overstates the case.

In my opinion, this baulking at waste stems from consumers being much more aware of what they're spending in uncertain economic times. This will become even more pronounced now we've come out of Christmas celebrations to face higher numbers of business failures, rising unemployment and further sharp falls in house prices.

Operating in the food sector puts supermarkets in a relatively strong position, but there are still big challenges at the quality end of the spectrum; customers may choose to trade down and even those customers who don't have to trade down may feel peer pressure to do so in the face of more austere public opinion.

This is why one of our marketing "must dos" is to continue to drive home the message that shopping at premium stores isn't decadent, or excessive or frivolous. It is, in fact, very sensible because you are highly likely to enjoy every product you buy.

Earlier, I said that the phrase "a return to frugality" was overstating the case, and I do believe that. However, I am convinced that what we are seeing is the emergence of a more discerning nation, one where the idea that "you get what you pay for" has new currency.

As all marketers know, the biggest challenge for any brand is to not disappoint customers, and this is where trusted brands win in tougher times. In 2009, there will be a shift in perception as the public realises that just because something is dirt-cheap doesn't mean it's great value, it's just cheap.

Some retailers at the discount end of the market have been feeling confident as the economy slows, believing that recession will drive ever-increasing volumes of business in their direction. In fact, all they are in danger of doing is disappointing customers who have traded down. Many such customers will expect high levels of quality wherever they shop and if they don't get it, they won't repeat the experience. Let's face it, where's the value if you have to throw half of your shopping away because of poor quality?

This neatly brings me to the actions of the big four supermarkets.

Before the downturn began to bite, some of them had raised their game in terms of quality and animal welfare. However, the gloomy economic climate has made them look backwards and allow themselves to be dragged into old, familiar price wars forcing them to take their eyes off of the quality ball.

Furthermore, we know that despite the current economic gloom, people still want to feel good, but how can they do so with less money around? In harder times, how can they continue to enjoy the thrills they previously got from buying the latest fashions or gadgets or by dining out regularly? Great food at home is the answer. Buying the best food and entertaining at home is a wonderful way of keeping spirits high when money is tighter. This year, we'll see increasing numbers of people eschew going out to pubs and restaurants for staying in because, at home, you can enjoy absolutely amazing food and drink without breaking the bank.

Of course, as customers enjoy dining at home even more, we're going to see greater interest in "scratch cooking", something that really plays to the advantage of stores that set themselves up as food experts. To drive this interest, we're looking to develop a programme, in conjunction with a number of chefs and cooks, to provide the help and inspiration to get the UK cooking great quality food at home. As a food retailer, we believe we have a real responsibility to help our customers eat well and to get the most out of their shopping basket.

But what about the medium for our messages?

To my mind, television continues to be the most cost-effective way to hit a large market and, as people stay in more, audiences will grow - although they will be increasingly fragmented due to channel choice on digital platforms. However, the industry has to be very savvy when buying airtime as it needs to be as visible as possible to drive home your proposition and help generate word of mouth among potential customers.

Clearly there are many other choices of media besides television, but they come with their own downsides. The press has become so cluttered with value messages that it is difficult to stand out above the noise, while e-mail or direct marketing can be intrusive.

In fact, anything unsolicited can prove problematic for a brand. We only need to look back a few years to the furore surrounding junk mail. We now have high volumes of leaflets through the letterbox, as well as free newspapers and unsolicited e-mails. You cannot afford for your brand to become associated with nuisance - unsolicited communication is not an answer for clever marketers as the public is pretty fed up at the moment and will be quickly angered by poorly thought-out messages delivered in an inappropriate way.

Instead, a key tactic is to speak directly with customers. In that vein, we are currently creating an online food club where we will invite customers who know and care about food to share their experiences with us.

It's true that 2009 will be challenging for everyone in business, but by making sure you really understand your marketing mix and by continuing to invest in your brand, you can emerge from recession a stronger and much more vital business ready for the economic new world.

- Richard Hodgson is the commercial director at Waitrose.