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The coronavirus crisis caught retailers unawares – and there’s no going back to business as usual. So what does the future hold for retail? Florian Haller asked s.Oliver Group CEO Claus-Dietrich Lahrs how people’s purchasing behaviour changed during the pandemic, which strategy will allow s.Oliver to bring its customers back to its stationary stores and why department stores haven’t fallen behind the times.

FLORIAN HALLER: The COVID-19 crisis hit s.Oliver hard and led to a decline in sales. What has your experience been like?

CLAUS-DIETRICH LAHRS: It was an unnecessary crisis for the entire industry. During the lockdowns we constantly tried to make it clear to the authorities that it was a bad idea to shut down something that is so important to people – places where they can continue to interact with people, treat themselves and browse great clothes, and where the risk of infection is extremely low anyway. For us as a company, the coronavirus was a development that took us by surprise. 70% of our business was suddenly gone (the remaining 30% are online). We tried to stay in contact with our customers and share creative ideas with them, assuring them we were there for them and that our collections were still available. For example, we presented the latest collections in various stores using WhatsApp and video calls. But of course this can only make up for a fraction of the business we lost.

Were you able to find any positives from this phase?

CDL: We said that, despite the crisis, we still wanted to carry on developing our big projects, improving our speed, innovation, shop concepts and shop experience, both in our e-commerce as well as in physical retail. And above all, for our collections to be more closely aligned with the market and reflect the trends that we are observing. We want to accompany this process with digital development technology so we can reduce the time taken for everything that was previously only possible by physical means and often very time-consuming. I think we used this time wisely. One drawback, of course, was that we didn’t know when we would be able to open again. That’s why we were cautious about making predictions for the second half of 2021. Overall, we gave the company an enormous innovation boost that made it clear that, once the restrictions officially end, we will have a faster, more agile organisation that is more open to change than before the COVID crisis.

Has the coronavirus crisis changed how you see customers? Are they more at the fore now?

CDL: During the crisis, we gave a lot more thought to the kind of messages we wanted to send out to our customers without them having to actually come to our stores. On the one hand, we spent a lot of time working out how to use the e-shop to communicate with them. And on the other, we had to figure out how to produce digital content for products that were previously only presented at the POS – which is still our most important channel – and ways to make it so effective that it brings our customers back to our stores.

To be honest, as a customer in a store, I don’t often have the feeling that the focus is on me. Customer centricity doesn’t seem to have really established itself in stationary stores yet. How do you see it?

CDL: We have observed that customers these days don’t just drop by anymore. They are much better informed and arrive at our stores with more specific things in mind so we need to be better prepared for that.

What does that mean specifically?

CDL: We need to give a different kind of welcome to our customers and serve them better while they are in the store. That doesn’t just mean serving them in the sense of: here’s the product, there’s the changing room, off you go. It means keeping the dialogue going and the customer engaged. That never used to be necessary in our business. Our attitude used to be: we have a certain flow of customers from which we need to generate enough sales and make sure we are prepared by having enough goods in stock. Today it’s all about giving the people who do come to our stores the feeling that it was worth their while. And that’s why the store, unlike the online shop, needs to be a place where customers experience something special. It’s no longer just about displaying the goods in the right colours and sizes – something has to actually happen from the moment the customer enters the store to when they leave it.

So the store is to some extent losing its logistics function and gaining more of a brand function.

CDL: Yes, definitely.

How will I be able to experience that as a customer in the s.Oliver stores?

CDL: To name just one example, we will be opening a fantastic new store in Munich with a large mezzanine area in December. We decided to fill this space with art that represents who we are and where we come from. The whole craftsmanship aspect – the feel of the textile and the fabrics – is still very important to us. And as we want to convey that in an artistic way, we have commissioned Berlin artist Peter Lindenberg – and also given him plenty of freedom. In the past, stores were just places for transactions, but that can’t remain the case in the future. That’s why art is going to play a more important role for us – by organising exhibitions with this artist at regular intervals, we can make the Munich store much more than a place where transactions happen.

There has been a marked shift from physical to online sales. How will these two sales channels develop at s.Oliver in the future?

CDL: We are observing that a lot of customers who never used to shop online suddenly developed a taste for it during lockdown – and are now really into doing things online. But we can also see that there is something missing in online retail: the physical experience and being able to hold the products in your hands. Only then can you get a feel for what kind of a fabric it is, how it feels when you’re wearing it, what it feels like to the touch. Our online shop now has a very important function for us, because it’s where we present our largest range of products and more and more information on everything including fits. That ensures that the customers who come to our stores will be a lot better informed. But it’s a very sad state of affairs when people are not only working from home all day long but also ordering everything online on top of that. We are noticing that the return to stores, especially on Saturdays, has become incredibly important. In the past, we also had quite evenly distributed footfall during the week because people were working in the city centres and would often pop into our stores during their lunch break or after work. But everyone working from home soon put paid to that. That means we need to be a lot better prepared on Saturdays – and hopefully on Sundays one day too.

One term that keeps cropping up is OMO – online merges with offline. Is s.Oliver planning to integrate digital technologies into its sales strategy in the future?

CDL: We already have, with our app. If we can get our customers on the app first, then that will be the biggest revenue driver. But the app shouldn’t just be all about transactions either. For example, we are thinking about presenting smaller virtual fashion shows on it at the beginning of each month, when we have a new collection in stock, to show people that it’s worth coming back to our stores and taking a look around. These days, everyone is trying to gain a better understanding of which platforms their customers are spending time on, where they can reach them and where they can credibly appeal to them. We are still in the early stages of figuring out where and how we can play a part with the required authenticity. But I think that the traditional separation of physical and digital – both from a channel and an experience perspective – won’t be around for much longer.

Department stores are regarded as outdated models and currently having something of a hard time in Germany. How do you see their future developing?

CDL: Good department stores will still be very important in the future. If we look at what’s happening at department stores like KaDeWe in Berlin or Breuninger, there is a legitimate expectation that these stores will stick around. But they need to offer a good mix of brands, an in-store café and special moments during the year that are turned into a visible theme in the store. And of course tourism is a very important point here: department stores tend to do better in cities with plenty of tourism. In the future it is likely that there won’t be department stores in all of Germany’s cities – and run-of-the mill department stores in medium-sized cities will certainly struggle.

s.Oliver has been pursuing an international expansion strategy since 1998. Which markets are important for you and what potential do you see here for the future?

CDL: I think we would be wise to concentrate on the markets where our brands are already known. That is a basic requirement for continued commercial success. We certainly won’t become a global brand and won’t be setting out to conquer America and China either. But we are already well established in the Benelux countries, Croatia, Austria, Russia, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic. Our main focus will be on developing these markets – with our own online shop and our own stores with an even more impressive range of products.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. 

This interview first appeared in TWELVE, the Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. You can read more exciting articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts in the eighth issue under the central theme “A Human-driven Future: How People Shape the Digital Tomorrow. Click here to access the e-paper.

How do you empower a premium brand for the post-COVID world? And what are the challenges that lie ahead with regard to changing consumer behaviour and preferences? De’Longhi Global CMO Fabrizio Campanella on the right combination of short-term activity and long-term aspects, the art of successful international campaign coordination and the power of emotions.

MATTHIAS BRÜLL: How did De’Longhi manage to navigate through 2020?

FABRIZIO CAMPANELLA: At the beginning it was very important to keep calm. Of course the COVID-19 pandemic required us to take action and change some of the ways we operate, but not to change everything. We always try to keep a long-term perspective, so we decided not to change certain things like our media or marketing investments. Yes, the short-term environment was very challenging, very unpredictable, but we thought both investments were important in the long term. That was our approach in 2020 and it still is in 2021 – to find the right combination of short-term activity and long-term outlook.

Has the fact that people were forced to stay at home had a positive impact on your business?

FC: For many of the categories we are in, the pandemic has had a positive impact because of people spending a lot more time at home. However, this merely accelerated trends that had already emerged prior to COVID. The coffee market was booming before; the coronavirus only accelerated that. We have benefited from the fact that many consumers are used to drinking certain types of coffee specialities that are probably more espresso-oriented when they are out of their homes – but that is not the coffee they drink in their own four walls. At home they might be okay with a simpler, more traditional way of preparing coffee. People not being able to enjoy the out-of-home coffee experience during lockdown is what accelerated the trend for the same kind of coffee at home.

You even increased your marketing investments in 2021. What are the main aspects of this and why?

FC: It’s true that we are increasing our media investment, especially in the second half of the year, but this is a longterm commitment. There are still a lot of countries where we don’t yet have top-of-mind awareness. Not in Germany, of course, but our products are still niche in other countries, so we need to build categories and a loyal consumer base. And it takes time to do that.

You have been working with a global ambassador since the summer. Why is Brad Pitt the right fit for your brand?

FC: If you look at Brad’s awareness, he is the number one across regions from the US to Asia and also across consumer segments. And we were looking for an ambassador who was also strong in terms of their values. I think Brad is a perfect fit for our brand DNA because, like us, he sets great store by quality. He is also very focused on design, which will also become even more important for us in the future.

The campaign with Brad Pitt is your first real global campaign. Why did you wait until 2021?

FC: I think the conditions are right now. We have strong products and the right level of investments and have expanded all markets above a certain threshold, which really allows us to bring them all together on the same communication platform.

Are the markets happy with the campaign and will you stick to that consistency in your communication?

FC: It was relatively easy once the markets were on board. They saw the opportunity with the global ambassador and understood that it wasn’t possible to run this thing independently and that to maximise your opportunity you had to have a coordinated approach. I prefer to talk about coordination rather than centralisation because there’s always a balance. There are things that need to be done and executed locally and decided locally, but in a coordinated framework. We decided to go live on 2 September. That was coordinated. The format of the launch events was somehow consistent, but local markets had the freedom to organise a specific format according to their market reality and business reality. So it’s always a combination of the two. And that’s why I think it’s also the path to take in the future.

Are retail supply chains having an impact for you? Is that posing a problem?

FC: The retail environment has been disrupted in the last few months. So of course there are big swings between one chain or another, online and offline. This was one of the most challenging factors for us: managing the business and adapting to the changing environment. There are some distribution channels that were very relevant in the past but are less relevant today. We have an online explosion in countries like the UK, where 90% of our business is now online. This is a fundamental change to our supply chain because it’s a completely different way of working.

De’Longhi’s brand positioning has been driven by a strong focus on design and technological leadership, the objective of matching people’s needs at home. So people-centricity seems to be a crucial driver of your business. How is that reflected in your organisation and daily work?

FC: Design is important for us, as is technological innovation. We are a company that is very focused on technical improvement, technical innovation and technical excellence in our products. But it is also important – and this is something I am personally pushing – to consider the emotional aspect, which is about consumer-centricity. Yes, consumers need better products from a technology standpoint, but they also need to have a good emotional experience. This is something that now features prominently in our conversations on the marketing side, and the evolution of the product portfolio will also go in that direction.

Is the physical point of sale still the place where you provide your consumer with the full brand experience or have most of them already switched to the digital experience?

FC: Of course the digital experience is becoming fundamental. But I also think that the physical touchpoints will remain important. They will change and the reason for their importance will change too. So these days it is probably less about distribution and more about the experience. But at the end of the day, if you really want to buy a fully automatic coffee or espresso machine for the first time, you need to taste the espresso. That is something you cannot do digitally. Just imagine countries like China: as a market, China is further ahead in terms of digital channels. Everything is digital in China, but if you need to convince the Chinese consumer to buy an espresso machine for the first time, I assume they will need to taste the espresso in the stores first. The whole experience aspect is something that will remain fundamental.

What is your strategy for providing your target audience with the best brand experience?

FC: There are probably three things that are key for me. One is consistency. Be consistent and true to yourself throughout the brand experience. Being relevant is also important – talking to your customers based on what they really need and focusing on the emotional benefits of your brand and your product. So if you’re consistent, if you’re relevant and if you’re warm, you will have all the elements in place to offer the best brand experience.

This article first appeared in TWELVE, Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. You can read more exciting articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts in the eighth issue under the central theme “A Human-driven Future: How People Shape the Digital Tomorrow. Click here to access the e-paper.

Since summer 2021, Christian Waitzinger has been Chief Experience Officer (CXO) at Plan.Net Group, one of the leading digital service providers in the field of customer experience and commerce. As an experience and design expert, Waitzinger is responsible for defining a service and product portfolio for designing and implementation of data-driven customer experiences. In the following Experience Manifesto, he describes what experiences means in today’s world, what it needs to represent, and what the requirements are for a high-quality experience.

The way that customers perceive and interact with brands – whether at home or on the go, via digital channels, in stores or when contacting a service hotline – has changed. Brands today need to provide a seamless, contextualized, and data-driven customer experience in order to meet customer expectations. This is nothing new. Yet, it is also no secret that very few companies have managed to satisfy rising customer demands and create a truly differentiating brand experience.

This is precisely what we are striving for with our holistic customer experience management: Our goal is to understand customers across every interaction, touchpoint and organizational unit – from marketing to sales to customer service departments. Our task is to orchestrate and systematically improve all of these areas, because the key to lasting customer loyalty is a brand experience that is unique, personalized, appropriate anytime, anywhere, and constantly evolving.

Ideally, this process is managed centrally by collecting and evaluating customers’ experiences and data. We utilize this information to continuously improve the experience across sales, customer service and e-commerce. The result is a loop optimized incrementally by decision-makers via a process of distilling the insights gained from customer interactions and incorporating these into communications and further product development. The primary task is to build a personal relationship with the consumer: to create an ongoing dialog that calibrates the right time, place, and information with the customer’s personal interests.

Alongside a number of specialized disciplines – such as data, media, tech, user experience design and creation – what is needed above all is a cohesive experience strategy along with overarching organizational structures and processes within a company that are attuned to customer needs. To achieve this, companies must network their individual expertise and create synergies between creation, media, data, and tech – in other words, they must think about and orchestrate their customer experience holistically.

INTRODUCE OVERARCHING ORGANIZATIONAL PROCESSES

An experience strategy must be supported by all departments. It requires the right resources, skills and tools as well as the empowerment of individual employees and departments to be able to make decisions quickly and independently. However, this is often difficult within the traditional organizational structure of a company. A better approach is to establish customer journey teams that collaborate across departments, as some of our customers are already doing today.

Holistic customer journey mapping plays a key role in the organizational process, allowing us to centrally collate key insights in terms of customer expectations, data, and processes. With these as a basis, we are able to identify customers’ rational and emotional needs and a range of potential areas for improvement, as well as the necessary tools and systems, and the KPIs we need to measure.

Another crucial task is to ensure that the insights gained from a customer journey are implemented and result in genuine improvement. This requires an ROX (Return On Experience) model across the journey to plan and monitor the entire experience.

ESTABLISH A FUNCTIONING BRAND SYSTEM

The brand core itself serves as the basis for the holistic experience along the customer journey. Decision-makers should critically reflect on whether their brand’s fundamental visual identity is designed to allow the brand to withstand the continuous evolution of digital products and services, and thus remain successful in future. The necessary components of the brand identity are constructed in a manner that allows them to quickly and
consistently convey a uniform and harmonious image across all channels – and whether the way that the brand is perceived will still make sense in the future if parts of the brand experience are automated.

Today, many brand guidelines still consist of 90 percent print and offline instructions, thus criminally neglecting the brand’s digital component. Yet interface design will continue to evolve in the direction of “Zero UI”. People will increasingly talk to computers and expect an intelligent response. Data will serve as the basis for almost all services and products – today and in the future. A coherent, modular, and centrally orchestrated enterprise design and asset management system is therefore indispensable. Without this existence, it is virtually impossible to create a coherent and personalized customer experience. In addition, further development of the design system must be approached not as a one-off project but instead as a program that is managed centrally and across all departments.

FOCUS ON CREATIVE EXCELLENCE

As well as digitization and automation, constant performance tracking and the latest tech stack, experience requires passion, soul, creativity and innovation. The best digital ecosystem is worthless if it is not brought to life through good content, a differentiated user experience, and emotional storytelling.

In terms of the user experience in particular, there is need for improvement because digital products and services often appear interchangeable. Currently, the majority of them are designed according to best practices in order to make the experience for users as simple as possible. This is not wrong itself – the aim is to ensure that applications are easy to use. But the result is that every app works in the same way, virtually all e-commerce checkout processes are interchangeable, and most websites share a similar structure with familiar navigation.

It is time to ask whether the development of the user experience has been shaped too much by the notions of utility and usability – and whether there is an over-reliance on branding and marketing activities to provide brand differentiation. User experience design must return to its own creative strengths and no longer act in isolation. A good user experience can also provide differentiation – especially when combined with appropriate marketing and branding, attractive storytelling and emotional content. This allows us to create special, memorable moments and a coherent, stand-out brand experience for consumers.

ALIGNING DIGITAL PRODUCTS WITH MARKETING AND BRANDING

Digital products and services today need to be fused with marketing and branding in order to create a perfect brand experience. Consumers should feel a positive sense of engagement at every touchpoint by being appealed to at the right time in the right context and always finding themselves in the ecosystem of the brand world.

That’s why it’s desirable to closely dovetail product and marketing activities: The insights gained in the product world regarding consumer behavior are extremely relevant to the creation of branding and marketing activities. Marketing data in turn informs product development. After all, you want to make the right decisions in all areas.

This requires merging the marketing and product loops, aligning content and experience, and orchestrating all the creative disciplines to create a unique brand experience for customers. Because a great user experience boosts a brand, and a strong brand has the power to positively influence a digital product.

GREATER LOYALITY AND INCREASING CUSTOMER LIFETIME VALUE

Everyone knows that it is many times more expensive to acquire new customers than to keep them within the brand ecosystem. And a positive experience is key here, too: After all, customers who are enthusiastic about the entire product experience have less reason to look elsewhere. So the better the experience, the greater their loyalty and customer lifetime value (CLV), one of the core customer experience KPIs. And the harder and more expensive it is for competitors to regain the customers they’ve lost.

At Plan.Net, we are convinced that a successful customer experiences will in future require an integrated strategy and organizational processes, a brand system equipped for the future, and, above all, creative excellence. As the most creative digital service provider in Germany today with a high level of expertise in data-driven tech, our aim is not only to not only generate the brand promises for our customers, but above all to actually deliver on them – with consistent, seamless, and creative appeal across every platform and touchpoint.


As any marketing manager will readily confirm, your brand needs to create – through its specific characteristics relating to history, market, target groups, distribution channels, competitors and objectives – an operational marketing ecosystem of its own that, from a strategic, creative and media perspective, is faster and smoother than before. The aim here is to facilitate a consistent, compelling and high-performing brand experience along the purchase decision processes.


In order to meet these challenges, visionary marketers from both client and agency sides are now coming together in a collaborative process to ask the C-question: how do we configure a marketing system partnership that does away with the tedious, coordination-heavy back and forth between special agencies, lead agencies and marketing departments? Which systemic configuration is more capable of addressing the direct challenges of the market and the specificities of the brand and company? Which functions from strategy, consulting, creation, digital, data and media should be integrated and to what degree? On which shared basis relating to content, processes and technology? And how can a new ecosystem start quickly, be kept flexible in its timing and evolve and scale new requirements?
One thing was clear to everyone involved in this forward-looking project from the outset: no run-of-the-mill creative pitch can give a valid response to such a strategic question. After all, how can a creative blind date, held quickly with usually a minimum of interaction, provide any lasting answers? Instead, the job requires scrutiny of the objectives together, mapping out the ways and means of achieving them and, of course, complete transparency and mutual trust. Which is exactly the approach taken by the players in four phases within a period of around three months. Here, it’s all about coming together, moving forwards and getting to the heart of the matter.

The process starts off with an initial workshop where a vision is outlined together. Projective techniques help to synchronise ideas and visions and define success criteria in precise terms. And the day is rounded off with a step back into today’s reality and its deficits, a first draft of the central core function of the new ecosystem and a few initial thoughts about the business model.


The next step after this first draft is to design the processes between the now weighted and precisely defined roles and responsibilities. Accordingly, a barrier-free, flexible, synchronous and highly efficient end-to-end configuration is the result of the second workshop.
The HR and IT requirements are still being determined at this point, so that the technological collaboration infrastructure can be implemented and the recruitment of the team started in the third phase. The business model, including any corporate law parameters, is discussed and finalised with the utmost transparency, together with the change management plan.
The fourth phase – the ramp-up – begins with an inception workshop for the entire team and focuses on an initial representative project. This endurance test offers a wealth of experience and improvement opportunities that can be addressed together in a way that is open, professional and entirely devoid of ego.

This is how strategic partnerships are formed – strategic partnerships that result in living and breathing customised marketing ecosystems that work quickly, efficiently and powerfully. It is said that this is the best configuration for developing, retaining and managing a winning, holistic brand experience.

We spoke to three C-level brand managers who decided to transfer at least part of their marketing activities to such an integrated configuration. Here are their experiences and recommendations.


NEW CONNECTION TO THE FUTURE
10 questions for Michael Falkensteiner, Head of Brand O2/Telefónica Deutschland, about the individually designed marketing ecosystem “Bubble”


1. You made the decision to bundle parts of your marketing activities in an integrated agency set-up. Which functions did you ask to be integrated in the model?
Michael Falkensteiner: If you have big and long-term goals, you need a set-up that can respond to any market contingencies quickly and with pinpoint accuracy. That’s why our new ecosystem consists of a core team combining three fundamental skills: strategy, consulting and creation. This core is the nerve centre and acts like a bubble. In other words, it is always moving and draws on additional specialists from other skill areas whenever needed, whether for a short time or an extended period. Either internally from its own ecosystem or externally by working with others on a partnership basis.

2. What were and still are your reasons for doing this?
Michael Falkensteiner: Past experience has shown that models that restrict themselves to a conventional lead agency tend to fall short of the mark – the “closed shop” principle. After all, agility and cross-functionality are more significant than ever these days. It was particularly important for us to have a customised model in which not only the lead level was guaranteed to work perfectly, but the interfaces between the individual specialist areas as well.

3. What is the geographical scope of your branding activities?
Michael Falkensteiner: We are focusing on German-speaking markets to begin with.

4. Please tell us how it all began – when did the collaboration start?
Michael Falkensteiner: We interacted with the agency early on – in great depth and taking in all angles of the collaboration. What does a modern agency-client system need to provide? How do we guarantee agility? How can we make sure that partner agencies and special agencies work towards the same targets as resolutely as the lead agency? This, roughly, was the beginning of the “Serviceplan Bubble” agency that Serviceplan went on to set up. And it was the beginning of an enduringly productive dialogue – the basis for a successful collaboration.

5. How have you achieved your preferred agency set-up?
Michael Falkensteiner: A set-up like the Bubble is the result of a thorough, open and, above all, honest analysis. As a basis for a successful and transparent set-up, we have analysed a number of fundamental areas: avoiding errors from the past, challenging the status quo and comparing short- and long-term brand objectives. To achieve this with maximum efficiency, we developed – in the course of several workshops together with the agency – a whole new system that was tailored towards our needs: the Bubble.

6. What was essential to your success?
Michael Falkensteiner: The most crucial aspect was how we went about it. This is because open communication and close cooperation allowed us to overcome the barriers between the client, agency and other partners. We believe that we will only achieve our goals by investing a lot of personal effort, by being radically honest and by resolutely questioning the status quo.

7. Were there any specific hurdles?
Michael Falkensteiner: Anyone who is striving for change will first have to contend with naysayers and doubters. So the question is not whether there are obstacles but rather how we can clear them out of the way. In our experience, it is best to get everyone on board for this journey insofar as possible. Until we achieve our goal: a change for the better.

8. How has the set-up changed since the beginning?
Michael Falkensteiner: Even though we are only at the beginning, one key factor is already proving its worth – the fact that we have a living, breathing, organic system. This means that we are in a constant state of controlled change. If something isn’t quite right, we analyse the problem together with the agency and implement possible solutions directly.

9. What were the challenges or opportunities where the integrated cooperation paid off?
Michael Falkensteiner: As I said, our collaboration is still at the beginning. But we are confident that integrated cooperation doesn’t depend on either crises or opportunities. With the Bubble, we worked with the agency to develop a system that enables us to respond efficiently and effectively to all possible market situations.

10. What are you planning for the future?
Michael Falkensteiner: In the past, the O2 brand has always been good for surprises in the communications market. That will continue to be the case in the future as well. But more than anything, however, we want to make ourselves strong – for our customers. They should get to benefit more than ever before from our brand. Thanks to the Bubble, the way we are now positioned means that you’ll definitely be hearing a lot from us in the future …


METRO x SERVICEPLAN INTEGRATED
10 questions for Gisele Musa, VP Global Branding at Metro AG, about the evolution of its tailor-made marketing ecosystem “Metro own Agency”


1. You made the decision to bundle parts of your marketing activities in an integrated agency set-up. Which functions did you ask to be integrated in the model?
Gisela Musa: In 2018, Serviceplan crafted a tailor-made and dedicated agency perfectly fitting to our vision, structure and needs. With this dedicated agency, Metro own Agency, we are working at eye level in all relevant skills, such as strategy, creative, digital, social media and brand PR.

2. What were and still are your reasons for doing this?
Gisela Musa: I believe in the value of lasting relationships. And I’m convinced that the deeper an agency knows a client – and all the things that happen behind the scenes – the higher the likelihood that the partnership will grow stronger and, along with it, the quality of the work you do together. And this takes time and dedication. Previous years have proven that, due to an increasing complexity for marketeers, a constant, customised and close cooperative branding ecosystem is the right agency model for us to face the challenges ahead. With the objective of further strengthening the brand and driving forward the development of a holistic brand experience for Metro.

3. What is the geographical scope of your branding activities?
Gisela Musa: As the Global Branding department at Metro, we are responsible for the branding agenda for 26 countries and all Metro wholesale sister companies within the group.

4. Please tell us how it all began – when did the collaboration start?
Gisela Musa: In mid-2014, after a multi-step chemistry process with cautiously selected agencies, Metro started working with Serviceplan on a project basis. The type and dimension of projects were very different back then.

5. How have you achieved your preferred agency set-up?
Gisela Musa: Right from the outset we have been constantly monitoring, analysing and optimising our partnership, which is built on transparency, honesty, important conversations and a lot of dedication from both sides. And a fair share of long nights as well. Today’s agency is therefore not only the result or the consequences of the past but also the starting point for the future.

6. What was essential to your success?
Gisela Musa: A milestone in our collaboration was in 2018 when Serviceplan developed the Metro own Agency – the first-ever tailor-made and dedicated agency by Serviceplan.

7. Were there any specific hurdles?
Gisela Musa: One of the major challenges was the launch phase of this newly crafted agency. We jointly focused additional management attention on the phase of bringing the defined vision into performing mode, e.g. finding the right skilled team, defining, and more importantly, establishing the right structure, the relevant tools and easy and efficient ways of working.

8. How has the set-up changed since the beginning?
Gisela Musa: Not everything comes up roses, right? It has been a long journey for us. Over the past six years our relationship has advanced significantly, and we feel encouraged to work with this fully integrated and dedicated agency, with the potential to flexibly embed additional skills and talents when needed.

9. What were the challenges or opportunities where the integrated cooperation paid off?
Gisela Musa: It was during the biggest challenge that our collaboration experienced its strongest success. In early 2020, when COVID-19 reached pandemic level, from one day to the next we had to step up and find totally new ways to support our customers – the independent businesses – to survive the economic, social and health consequences. Almost on a weekly basis we developed and provided ready-to-use communication packages to our national Metro marketeers in order to support their local customers with the most recent information and with additional relevant products and services enabling them to transform and to keep on running their businesses. If we didn’t have such a close collaboration with the accounts and creative teams, that wouldn’t have been possible.

10. What are you planning for the future?
Gisela Musa: I would say that we still have plenty to do. There will always be areas that we need to improve as partners but, more importantly, we need to ensure we keep developing our people while bringing new blood to the teams. Also, the brand has evolved significantly, expanding its scope from talking mainly with our independent professional customers to reaching a broader audience. With the Metro social impact “Nurturing the success of independent business owners fosters a wider variety of choices – for everyone”, we have now entered into a dialogue with the customers of our customers. Crafting such a rich communication programme will require innovative thinking, testing and learning, as well as a strong heart to keep it – and us – all together.


SHAPING OPPORTUNITIES TOGETHER
10 questions for Felix Withöft from stairlift company Lifta about the opportunities and possibilities of the integrated Lifta agency team cooperation

1. You made the decision to bundle parts of your marketing activities in an integrated agency set-up. Which functions did you ask to be integrated in the model?
Felix Withöft: Traditionally, German consumers know us from our ads in ADAC Motorwelt and Prisma. These days, however, the internet is our most important source of leads. The central component for our Lifta agency team is therefore the combination of creation and digital, flanked by strategy and media, both online and offline.

2. What were and still are your reasons for doing this?
Felix Withöft: We used to have a “conventional” agency with a strong focus on print and TV as well as an astonishing number of small agencies specialising in online and digital. It was only a matter of time before the complexity got out of hand. Now everything is bundled in a single team. Which means shorter communication channels, faster decision-making processes and better integration of measures – across all channels.

3. What is the geographical scope of your branding activities?
Felix Withöft: With Lifta and our other brands, we are mainly active in Germany and Austria. In other words, the primary focus of our collaboration is on German-speaking markets. As a Cologne-based family company, it was really important for us to have our supporting team here in the city. The Cologne House of Communication is only a five-minute walk from our marketing unit. Even in these times of the coronavirus pandemic and collaboration tools, personal interaction is still very close to our hearts.

4. Please tell us how it all began – when did the collaboration start?
Felix Withöft: Right at the beginning we had our media strategy and planning audited by the PlanNet team. This team included experts with whom I had already worked very successfully in the past tackling other marketing challenges. This soon led to further interesting points of contact at the House of Communication. And shortly after that, we asked the team to make a pitch for our creative budget as well. And they nailed it!

5. How have you achieved your preferred agency set-up?
Felix Withöft: We started off with a small core team to develop the central components of our new brand campaign: strategy, creation, media and digital. Then we noticed very quickly that we would need a “dedicated team” in future – a team that would work with us on an ongoing basis on our areas of focus and continually develop them, and that would also be able to look after our other brands. But that, at the same time, was always adaptable depending on the situation.

6. What was essential to your success?
Felix Withöft: Well-defined responsibilities for both parties and clearly established interfaces. Right from the very beginning we established an SPOC on both sides with a view to maximising transparency across all workstreams and ensuring fast decision-making channels.

7. Were there any specific hurdles?
Felix Withöft: It isn’t easy to set clear priorities and reduce complexity at the start. To begin with, our new agency team was rather swamped by the sheer number of subject areas, products and priorities. It would be better to plan a suitable familiarisation phase from the outset rather than wanting too much from day one. Otherwise you’ll soon have to face a reality check.   

8. How has the set-up changed since the beginning?
Felix Withöft: Having started with a small core team, we are now gradually expanding additional disciplines such as PR, social media, performance, SEO/SEA, etc. It is also important for us to constantly have new momentum and fresh expertise to draw on but also to ensure continuity within the team at the same time. To have people in our team who know our company, our target groups and our products. People who we can discuss these matters with as equals.

9. What were the challenges or opportunities where the integrated cooperation paid off?
Felix Withöft: We are currently working on a whole new brand campaign. This is the first time that our company has taken an integrated 360° cross-channel approach. Without this networked and close collaboration throughout the various disciplines and skills, I can’t imagine how else we would have launched it in such a short space of time.

10. What are you planning for the future?
Felix Withöft: We have set ourselves a common goal: to take the stigma out of stairlifts so that they are no longer seen by consumers as a last resort. And to convince senior citizens earlier on that stairlifts are “the key to self-determination”. This is something that will be extremely important to the baby boomer generation in particular when they “come of age” in the next few years. People from this generation want to remain in the prime of life.

This article first appeared in TWELVE, the Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the seventh issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “Rethink!”. The e-paper is available here.