The poor performance of some of South Africa’s top retailers in recent weeks could mark a watershed moment for South African marketers.

In order to stay relevant in the current challenging and volatile environments, marketing managers, particularly in the retail industry, need to break away from the traditional campaign-centric approach to marketing and create channels that allow them to interact on an on-going basis with their market.

Shares of South Africa’s major retailers slumped in mid-June, taking their lead from an increasingly gloomy outlook for consumers weighed down by debt, rising living costs and unemployment.

Linden Shearar, path finder at Amorphous, the solutions focussed digital marketing agency, who says South African marketers are lagging behind their European counterparts when it comes to embracing new marketing methodologies and the digital element which forms the basis of “always on” marketing.

He says this inability to adapt quickly and nimbly to changing market perceptions is contributing to poor bottom line results.

“The biggest problem in South African marketing is a lack of awareness of the potential of the digital element when it comes to developing a fully integrated and constantly changing plan. This is particularly true of South African retailers – an industry that is at risk of losing touch with its market entirely,” he says.

Grant Shippey, CEO of Amorphous, explains that typically in retail space in South Africa, marketers will focus on individual campaigns for certain products at one time.

This has been the approach for decades and has been very successful in the past. However, he believes that in increasingly competitive markets, this approach not only out-dated and ineffective, but unnecessarily expensive.

Shippey says that launching a digital campaign and carefully analysing the reception of it in the market allows an organisation to get realtime and cost effective insights into the psychology of their customers and potential customers.

“Digital marketing is always on and offers a very tight understanding of what is going on in the market. Normally retailers would rely on insights from small focus groups – but with a digital campaign you can actually launch digitally and watch the response from the market in real time.

“It’s also a commercialed response which means the product is selling while, at the same time, the retailer is able to adjust as they hone in on the most optimal imagery and messaging for consumers,” he says.

According to Shearar, based on the insights gathered from the digital launch, retailers can then select the best message for their above the line campaign.

“Although much more effective – this approach is not often adopted by marketers in South Africa, and will require a shift of paradigms that can only be driven by very strong marketing directors,” he says.

Another area where Shearar believes South African retailers are falling behind is in their ability and willingness to use big data.

“The ability to navigate through all the insights a company gathers is becoming crucial. The few South African companies that are overcoming this are scoring hugely – but it still remains a largely overlooked element of business and companies do not seem willing to invest in the infrastructure needed to effectively mine the data that they collect,” he says.

Shippey says Facebook, google, point of sale information and the data collected by call centres is a gold mine of valuable information for a marketing department.

“It’s clear that the process of marketing is changing. Marketers need to be open to big data and admit that your market is unknown. Industry needs to let the market tell them what you want and respond accordingly,” he concludes.