Distribution and Communications strategies will drive marketing successes in 2012

At the beginning of last year, I predicted a “perfect marketing storm” in terms of the rapid evolution of both distribution channels and consumer communications channels. This storm would require companies in Japan — whether foreign or domestic — to work even harder than before to capture and maintain customer favor. With the triple disaster of 3/11, what was going to be a challenging year became even more challenging. Many companies and individuals rose to the occasion to support those in the stricken area, and indeed to restore a modicum of normalcy in a very tough situation that continued throughout the year.

Companies in 2012 face the same challenges as last year, only this time there is an even stronger imperative to address the marketing storm that hovers on the horizon.

Distribution channels have continued to morph in ways that many could not have imagined. Consumers are embracing a much wider variety of outlets for purchasing products, as well as showing preference for newer- style distribution channels over more traditional distribution channels, such as struggling department stores. The rise of new retail channels such as mall/entertainment centers, 24-hour convenience stores and pharmacies, discount stores and online shopping channels is placing pressure on companies to constantly explore how best to maximize sales amidst this changing distribution setting. In retrospect, the disaster actually pushed many consumers into experimenting with new channels (especially online) out of necessity, hastening the entrenchment of this trend.

Perhaps even more dramatic has been consumers’ uptake of new “communications opportunities” which similar to distribution channels, are also broadening. Corporate ccommunications efforts must increasingly be
well-orchestrated in the “real” world (supermarket shelf, flagship store, special events, etc.) as well as in the “digital” world (i.e., educational and/or informational websites online shops, and social networking systems <SNS>) — and everywhere in between. One of the key takeaways from the disaster and its aftermath was the way in which social media were embraced and effectively utilized by both individuals and companies. Many consumers who had not previously been active became active users once they realized how useful SNS could be, whether under duress or not. And many companies saw the power of SNS to contribute to disseminating messages. Awareness was also heightened as regards best practices and integrity in the SNS world.

Of course, overall consumer attitudes are also an important aspect of the marketing landscape, and post-disaster consumers have changed somewhat in the way they view their lives and the way that they live them. For example, though consumer appetite hasn’t been as poor as we might have expected, many consumers are taking a “wait-and- see” stance in regards to larger discretionary purchases. And the desire for fulfilling “non-material” aspects of life (such as time with family and friends, and time spent on hobbies) has deepened, since the disaster showed not only how important it is to support each other in such situations, but also how important we are to each other in moving things forward.

However, it seems that leveraging distribution and communication channels may well be the big differentiators for companies in 2012. Digital marketing — once thought of as “nice to have” — has quickly become a “necessity” in every company’s marketing strategy since it directly impacts to both distribution and communications channels. Those companies who get it right can claim a distinct advantage over those who pay less attention . . . digital marketing has become a real “divider” between those companies who are/will be successful and those who will fall by the wayside.

Debbie Howard is Chairman of CarterJMRN and President Emeritus of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

Originally Published in Nikkei Weekly, 9th January 2012

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