#BrandFocus: Ackermans on owning the value-retail space, body positivity
by Sabrina Forbes. Not many companies in South Africa are able to say they’ve lasted over 100 years and marketing director Ephraim Mamabolo is especially proud that the locally born Ackermans has stood the test of time.
Ackermans has been in the value-retail space since its inception in 1916 and it’s this focus on delivering value to its customers that Mamabolo believes has been the cornerstone of the brand’s success and growth. “Being a value retailer in South Africa, especially in the early days, was not seen as anything great. In the olden days, fashion was [the] key driver but there was that niche that we found as a brand on the value side and we have really managed to cover ourselves as the best value retailer in the industry,” he says.
There are nearly 800 stores in six southern African countries and, for the past few years, Ackermans has come out tops in the Ask Afrika Kasi Star Brands Awards, as well as being voted no. 1 for children’s clothing in the 2018 Ask Afrika survey for the fourth year running.
Value goes beyond price
Mamabolo is quick to point out that value goes beyond the immediate thought of only being associated with price. The brand understands that value is relative, meaning different things to different customers —a combination of quality, relevance, price, variety, and accessibility. “There is a massive move to the rise of value-driven consumers. People who have never given value an eye before now are deciding there’s no need to always buy high-ticket items all the time. In SA, sitting on about 29% unemployment, the value-retail space will be where people will be going to,” he says.
As leaders in the children’s wear value category, Ackermans focuses on ensuring it delivers the quality every parent is expecting at a price that’s affordable, with an experience unique to the brand. “Our target market is every woman with a child in their lives,” says Mamabolo, explaining that this includes aunties, grannies, and friends.
While children’s wear is important to Ackermans, its primary aim is to be the brand that every woman thinks of when purchasing not only children’s but also women’s wear; it works hard on making every woman feel comfortable walking through its doors while knowing that she will get good service and high-quality affordable merchandise in her style and her size. As part of this, women’s-wear-only stores are busy being rolled out that include the same product range but with a layout and experience focusing on the quiet time every woman enjoys when shopping alone or with friends — but without kids.
Strict brand CI
Ackermans follows a strict brand CI to ensure that all its communications should be immediately recognisable. Mamabole believes that a brand needs to be “smashable” and that, if you break it up into many pieces, it should still be recognisable by everyone. The retailer works with creative agency, 99c; media agency, PHD SA; and content company, New Media.
In February this year, 99c created #IAmMe, the 2019 Valentine’s lingerie campaign using influential public figures Minki van der Westhuizen, Rami Chuene, Kim Jayde, Pearl Modiadie, and Busiswa Gqulu to push the brand’s focus on body positivity and its belief that all women are beautiful, flaws and all. According to Mamabolo, this was an important campaign for the brand, especially because it only focuses on women’s wear in the adult category and it understands the low levels of confidence a lot of women experience. None of the creative work was retouched at all.
For Mamabolo, it was a well-rounded and highly successful campaign when measured against KPIs, reach and sales. “The main aim was to continue with the body-positivity phenomen[on] that’s going out all over the world but we wanted to give the consumers a platform and a confidence to remind them they are ok the way they are. Who said we all have to be flawless? Nobody is flawless, anyway. Just love yourself, and walk tall,” he says.
When it comes to children’s wear, he shares that the most-important thing for the brand is inclusivity, irrespective of race, gender, and size, and that it doesn’t choose the children used in its advertising based on anything specific. “As long as they fit the product, that’s what we go with. We don’t go for beauty. Some people will say the child must be beautiful, but every child is beautiful. Our choice is led by the product sample we have to use, and that’s it. We try very hard not to categorise children based on gender; they are kids, they must just be kids. Let them play,” he says.
In May 2019, Mamabolo attended global leadership training in the US, bringing back insights into interesting retail trends some of the biggest brands in the world are following. There, big department stores are already looking into ways they too can play in the value space as pockets become tighter and tighter. Another move is to focus on the quick-response model in retail: attempting to shorten the lifespan of production of product. Currently, buying lead times can be 18–24 months but this is proving incompatible with the rate at which trends are changing and also, unsurprisingly, how weather patterns are changing [hello, climate crisis — ed-at-large]. Mamabolo says that something as small as winter starting late in SA may easily affect many things with a retail brand.
“As retailers, how do we plan for this crazy weather? How do you floor your product into stores to align with that? You can’t; it’s very difficult. You just have to follow your marketing patterns and your buying patterns but you must be aware that the sales you would have expected from a winter buy might not come in in the early part of winter — they might only come in later — which means your summer is also going to start late. So, if you had your summer plans for August and September, that’s gone out the window,” he says, adding that, without a quick-response model, it’s almost impossible to shift as quickly as expected. The only option is to learn from the past, and hope to plan better for the future.
Mamabolo admits that data is becoming an irreplaceable tool in the retail market and shares that Ackermans has been working tirelessly on getting to understand each of its consumers at an individual level. The brand currently uses direct marketing channels to speak to consumers at a personal level but he admits SA is still behind the curve. Globally, personalisation is becoming bigger, with many brands offering consumers the ability to personalise items such as jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers. “Consumers need to know that you know them. You need to talk to them directly and give them products and services that are relevant to them. They no longer want to be seen as a number… they want to be treated like an individual,” he says.
What with consumers questioning the environmental impact production and distribution are having on the planet, Mamabolo says that, for Ackermans, this is particularly coming from the increasingly environmentally conscious, younger generation wanting to understand this impact. From a brand standpoint, Ackermans has not yet communicated its activities to its consumers but is conscious of it and has some projects already underway. He believes it’s critical to all brands, especially those in retail, and that it’s up to brands like Ackermans to lead the conversation and action towards more green practices.
“Everybody wants to be woke. People want to know what are you doing for my environment — is your product not going to mess my environment? In SA, it hasn’t taken off that well but you can see in the food industry there’s a lot of movement. People are asking questions; they want to know what’s in it for the environment and if it’s going to be sustainable. They want to know what their future is going to look like. We have to be relevant to the environment. We have to adhere to what the consumer wants,” he says.
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Sabrina Forbes (IG) is an experienced writer covering the food, health, lifestyle, beverage, marketing and media industries. She runs her own full-stack web/app development and digital-first content creation company. For more, go to moonwrench.com. She is a contributing writer to MarkLives.com.