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14 October 2005

No one will save Myer now.


It comes as no surprise to hear that embattled Myer is pulling out all stops with a new Christmas advertising campaign [Sydney Morning Herald 12/10/2005] in the lead up to its fire sale by parent Coles Myer Limited [CML]. Even more telling is the heat around the corner from a falling share price.

There have been a number of tell tale warning signs, all of which both CML boss, John Fletcher, and Myer MD, Dawn Robertson, have either ignored, misread or more likely, simply not noticed. Part of the problem stems from a greater issue, to do with CML and its inability to understand brand, both at a corporate level and at an individual business level. Secondly, like many other corporates, CML continues to relegate brand strategy to advertising agencies, who roll out tvc and print campaigns that do little to build brand in a way that is committed to integrity and longevity. Thirdly, CML has lost its ‘reason for being’ beyond that of economic rationalism [which is taking a beating anyway!]; yes, they provide millions of products to millions of Australians, but aside from this functional attribute, CML, our largest Australian company, doesn’t stand for anything in our hearts and minds.

Which brings us to the specific problem of Myer. I grew up in Queensland and as such, am familiar with the Myer brand. Intrinsically Melbournian [as evidenced by their choice of spokesperson Barry Humphries, about as much of a Melbourne icon that you can get], in Brisbane, that didn’t really matter…Melbourne represented a culture we didn’t have; it was aspirational, European, stylish, black and white, classical. However, Sydney was a different story. The move in 2004 to replace the iconic shopping brand Grace Bros with Myer, was always going to be problematic. Not only because Myer wasn’t NSW or more importantly ‘Sydney’, but because Grace Bros provided differentiation to David Jones [who can tell the black and white sales ads in our newspapers apart?] and had a significant and meaningful brand heritage.

In 2004 I co-authored a joint research paper examining the loss of the 119 year old name, Grace Bros. The paper, 'Out of the Red into the Black' [Murphy, Ringma & Jetland] examined the narratives [or stories] of both Grace Bros and Myer. It found that ‘Grace Bros played an important role “as a rhetorical interface between organisational culture and organisational identity” (Faber, 1998), an identity that had resonance in the community beyond its role as a retailer’. The research found that CML over 16 years of ownership, had systematically removed the history of Grace Bros and its related stories, ‘representing a deep disconnect between the current organisation and its narrative, cultural and value history’. It was a history and stories which customers, both young and old, continued to relate to, regardless of their attraction to Robertson’s “newer, brighter better” mantra.

It is now too late for Myer and one only hopes that CML has learnt some lessons, so that it won’t all be in vain. It’s unfortunately apt that the latest Myer catalogue is headlined, “Big, black bag”, all too reminiscent of a body bag they use for the newly departed.

Photo: John Woudstra. Courtesy Sydney Morning Herald 12/10/05.

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