Navigating Retail's White Out

The term “white space” has long been used in business to refer to underserved markets or opportunities that fall outside of companies’ core focus areas. Identifying and seizing white space opportunities was once a lot easier, back when retailers stayed in their lanes and relied heavily on brand marketers for direction and differentiation. Today, it requires hitting a moving target, as retailers market their own brands and opportunistically jump into new categories, services, and business models. At the same time, retailers are attacking white space on their own through acquisitions and partnerships, even with one another.

Given this environment, it can be tempting for brand marketers to fall back on their core capabilities and logical adjacencies, opting out of the white space hunt altogether. However, there comes a time when established brands and product lines fully mature, process innovations hit peak efficiencies, and adjacencies can no longer compensate for growth shortfalls.

In my experience, the real reason that suppliers and brand marketers miss out on white space opportunities is that they tend go to one of two extremes. Either they cede control and give retailers complete authority over how opportunities are defined or they myopically pursue initiatives based on outdated assumptions.

White space involves subjective valuation and licensing is inherently a multi-stakeholder business, not a solo pursuit. Therein lies the opportunity.

The sweet spot for brand marketers is in developing collaborative models that incorporate retailers’ evolving organizations and enlist their perspectives on white space opportunities. The following are a few tactics that will lay the groundwork for your cooperative explorations:

Dig Deeper

Visiting stores and following news releases on store openings and volume achievements should still play a role in your retail strategy, but doing so will only give you part of the story. Dig into financial calls and quarterly releases on retailer websites, and make a list of recent acquisitions, brand partnerships, new hires, top initiatives, and the buzz words and phrases that have been assigned to them. This sounds simple enough, but in my experience, very few companies take the time to explore developments that they can’t directly connect to their interests.

Connect the Dots

Map out the commonalities between developments and challenge your teams and brand partners to incorporate the themes that you discover into your retailer-facing discussions. If a retailer has just acquired a video-streaming service, launched an app, and hired a digital guru to take on a newly-created customer experience role, for example, you can bet that their white space will focus on engagement, and that entertainment will be part of the mix. In contrast, a retailer that has eliminated several middle management roles and created direct reporting relationships between the CEO and senior management is most likely trying to speed up decision-making and overall agility. Determine how the themes that emerge from your research will be leveraged by your licensors, licensees, and agencies in a way that showcases synergies with your brand values.

Branch Out

Keep an ongoing record of organizational changes, key new hires, and partnership plays. Put new faces on your list for your next trip out to retailer HQ, and commit to conducting at least three “listening sessions” with people outside of your usual contact base. These should involve no pitches, and instead focus on drawing them out about their roles, goals, and the ways that they envision brands and suppliers playing supporting roles. Incorporate the insights from your listening sessions into future meetings with your contacts, both legacy and new. Not only will your teams gain a well-rounded understanding of how your retail partners are defining white space, but you may be surprised by the influence that your new contacts have over decisions affecting your business.

The vast majority of brand marketers’ opportunities are no longer wide-open spaces or even clear-cut slivers. That’s great news, because it clarifies the true nature of opportunities and removes any excuses for waiting until they seem “ownable.”

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This article originally ran on the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association (LIMA) website.