Baby steps to giant steps

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Ruban Shanmugarajah, COO – Babyshop, speaks on the brand’s evolution and the way forward:

Can you give us some background about brand Babyshop? How did it evolve and what is the new brand positioning? Is it in any way different from what it was a few years back? 

Since its humble beginnings in 1973 in Bahrain until today, Babyshop as a brand has grown to become a household name across the GCC with more than 230 stores, spanning 16 countries of the GCC and MENA regions and beyond, as far afield as Thailand and Pakistan.

Throughout the brand’s evolution, one thing remained common: it kept pace with the changing consumption behaviours and tastes of consumers.

A year and a half ago, we went back to understand where the consumers are: where they are in their lives, where they are in terms of their expectations of the brand.

We did a detailed consumer research, where we sat with our consumers right across the UAE and KSA, to try and understand their perceptions and their expectations of the brand and, more importantly, where our consumers are today.

While they said Babyshop was a great brand – they love shopping in Babyshop, they love the product and the value-for-money proposition – we sensed somewhere that we weren’t always connecting and we weren’t always as relevant as we should be or as we needed to be, as we moved forward with the consumers of today.

So we wanted to work on creating a greater emotional connect with the mothers, as opposed to a transactional connect, which is based on the product, the price, the value for money, the assortment and the convenience.

The mothers of today are very different to how mothers were when we set off on our journey. They are far more fashion-conscious, they are far more travelled and their expectations of a brand have evolved and changed.

So, we were not looking to do a 180-degree shift of our brand position; we wanted to change with the changing millennial mothers.

Did this major change take place in any particular point of time?

In our effort to keep pace with the changing consumer expectations, a lot of our communication and a lot of our look and feel are around being fun, being authentic and having that greater connect with the millennial mothers of today.

We spent a good three to six months to go out and find partners who can support us in this repositioning. Once we had done that, we selected Memac Ogilvy as our preferred partner, who came up with the best solution to what we were looking for.

From this year, especially in February, we refreshed our brand platform to stay relevant to the consumers of today. Our marketing and communication focus has since shifted more towards understanding the consumers’ feedback. Our new positioning is a true reflection of the present day parenting; with no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways of doing it; it’s one’s own unique parenting style.

What are the major focus areas of Babyshop’s new communication strategy?

We didn’t want to be a brand that is imported. We are a home-grown brand and pertain to this part of the world. We understand the consumers, we understand the Middle East mothers of today. And while we are a genuine and an authentic brand, we also wanted to be considered as a fun brand.

That’s why our customers can now notice the changed tone of voice, the look and the feel of the brand. Unlike earlier, the photographs are now not very staid with ‘posed shots’; instead, they capture kids in their best moments, giving a genuine, authentic and natural feel. So, if you look at all our communications, it is all about letting kids be kids and capturing them in their best moment.

Another noticeable change has been the focus on digital first. Earlier, as part of our older communication strategy, we would always think how a billboard and a print ad would look like first. Everything else would be an adaptation of that. Today, we look at what a digital ad would look like first and then adapt everything else around it.

How did your personal shoppers programme or your omni-channel strategy come into the picture?

Babyshop has a wonderful legacy and we want to build on that. We have embraced repositioning, but, we haven’t let go off what we have always been proud of; our core proposition that comprises of innovating products remain what they are as well as the value-for-money proposition remains true to what it has been.

To further strengthen this proposition, we came up with a service called Personal Shopper Assist, which is a personalised shopping adviser. Today, a lot of mothers are working mothers, so they don’t have the time to look around for their product of choice.

The personalised shopping adviser addresses this issue by taking the customer around the store for the full end-to-end journey. Overall, the brand experience is moving forward. It is a journey that we had commenced in February of 2017 and it is a journey that we will continue to work hard on, year on year.

Since there is no marked difference between online and offline, do you believe a change in mindset is required among marketers?

Absolutely. And I do believe that is going to be the biggest test of success for many brands. Today, the consumer wants to experience the brand or consume a product the way he/she wants – and a brand cannot dictate that. Today, we don’t look at our business as online or offline.

Rather, our omni-channel business model ensures we have presence in the stores as well as online. It’s up to the consumer to decide the way they would like to shop.

Furthermore, some of our services online like ‘click and collect’ is a perfect blend of both worlds, ‘same day delivery’ which takes away the hassle from the consumers on the go who shop online due to paucity of time and much more that we offer to our customers in addition to our core proposition.

As a brand, we have continuously evolved and make sure we are providing the best for our customers.

What are the key marketing strategies you have adopted to set yourself apart from your competitors in the region?

Babyshop enjoys an iconic status amongst consumers. With a lion’s share of the children’s retail market in the GCC for the past 44 years, it has paved the path for organised retail and has witnessed the genesis and entry of home-grown as well as international retail brands in the region.

Today, as the market is undergoing challenging times, a lot of players have moved down the road of discounting and driving footfall through price reduction.

We are not going to follow suit that way. Rather, we are emphasising on product innovation and we have got to differentiate through customer experience. This omni-channel experience is the key strategy that we are working on.

We are one of the few retail-brands in the region today which offer click-and-collect. The customer can order an item online and can choose to pick it up at the nearest store.

In the same way, she can buy online and return the product offline. We want to be a brand that the customer associates with him/herself by giving that holistic service proposition. So even if there is not a discount or a sale, they still want to buy from brand Babyshop.

To make itself more relevant to its new generation of millennial consumers, the brand now reinvents itself with a bold, fresh new look and focuses on three broad parameters of being authentic, open and playful encouraging increased relevance and admiration towards modern parenting styles and children of today amongst the wider consumer segment.

Do you also analyse your online customer profiles while making your digital strategy?

Absolutely – and this is not only for the digital strategy, but for the entire business operations as well. We have one of the largest loyalty programmes in the region – Shukran – and a significant proportion of our business comes via customers who are part of that.

This also enables us to analyse their data on an almost weekly basis and gives insights, such as what our consumers are buying and what their preferences are. Based on these insights, we make sure the communication that goes back to them is relevant and targeted.

For example, say we know that a customer has children who love Disney. When the latest Disney merchandise arrives in our stores, we target that specific customer through a variety of e-mediums about the latest Disney collection.

As a result, the response rate from customers is likely to be far greater, because this is a relevant piece of information for him/her; this enhances the customer-brand connection.

Have your customer retention strategies increased ROI and brought down the cost of doing business?

We’re working on a multi-pronged strategy on how to reduce customer attrition and increase customer retention. In terms of ROI, this has definitely paid off for us. This is mainly because we have changed the marketing mix from what it was to what it is now.

To be honest, we have not gone completely digital, as we don’t believe it is fair to put all your eggs into the digital basket. Having said that, we are migrating, slowly but surely, to be a digital-first brand – but not a digital-only brand. This move toward digital has enabled us to measure the ROI in a more certain terms than that of traditional media.

As a result, we’re clearly seeing better utilization of our funds and we see that continuing, going forward. While we have not increased our marketing spend, we are kind of getting a better return on them and channeling them in the right way.

What are the major challenges you face in implementing your strategies?

The biggest challenge is obviously the difficult environments we are trading in, as the market is going through challenging times. As a result, there are a lot of cost pressures in the business and one of them obviously is going to be on the marketing spend.

When a brand is going through a repositioning strategy, the ability to get the reach that it wants has to be tapered down. And this is exactly what we are doing.

The second biggest challenge we are facing is customer retention and that challenge is getting harder by the day. So, therefore, any marketer today has to constantly be on his feet, thinking of new ways to bring in the consumer.

What is the next level of growth for Babyshop? Which new markets will you be exploring?

Today, we have a fairly strong presence right across the GCC and in the MENA region. For us, the foreseeable future is to continue to consolidate our business and focus on our customers.

We will continue to look at opportunities in our core markets of KSA and the UAE. Thailand is performing well for us and we are looking at opportunities to expand there. The focus will be on the core markets that we have and how we can make sure that we continue to be relevant to the consumers.


An expanded version of this interview appeared in the October 2017 issue of Gulf Marketing Review.