OPINION: Dixons chief is now set to reap rewards of admitting mistakes

It is a crucial time for most consumer goods companies. Most will expect more than half of their sales to occur in the four weeks that preceded Christmas and the four weeks that follow it. Corporate reputations can be made or broken in the fledgling weeks of 2004.

One company almost certain to succeed during this critical period is Dixons. The group comprises several electronics retailers, including The Link, Currys and PC World, as well as the Dixons high-street brand. My total faith in Dixons' performance is not based on insider information, my guru-like knowledge or an objective analysis of its strategic decisions.

Rather, it is based on its abject failure this time last year. Twelve months ago, Dixons got it wrong. In the run-up to Christmas it made severe mistakes in respect of its pricing, sales promotions and product ranges with which it went to market. This is not unusual. The vast majority of British companies get their marketing wrong.

The triumph of instinct over research, generality over target markets and advertising over positioning ensures that in Britain the concept of marketing strategy is an oxymoron.

Fortunately, the desperately poor quality of marketing in the UK is hard to discern. The business press portrays every campaign as a success and every product launch as a triumph.

Later, when chief executives are confronted with disappointing sales figures, they usually rely on the same tired, old "external factors": low consumer confidence; high interest rates; the prevalence of the SARS virus; war somewhere; the popularity of the Atkins diet. Any explanation is given apart from the actual one - that the marketing sucked.

And it is here that we must salute Dixons chief executive John Clare.

Reviewing disappointing pre-tax profits and the resultant slide in the share price, Clare took an unusual step: he admitted Dixons had made mistakes with its marketing in the run-up to Christmas and went on to accept that these mistakes were the reason for lower-than-expected sales.

Clare is an unusual chief executive. He has a marketing background and is able therefore to make honest assessments on the quality of his organisation's marketing strategy. He also exhibits a rare ability to be critical of his own marketing. In contrast to his fellow chief executives and most marketers, Clare is prepared to accept that marketing can and does go wrong. What is more, he is ready to admit this openly, because he realises that the concept of 'critical thinking' has both negative and positive connotations.

By being critical of past marketing performance, Clare is more likely to identify the causes of failure. This puts him in a much stronger position to learn from his admitted errors and to market successfully this year.

Last June, after admitting to marketing mistakes over the crucial festive period, he concluded a very difficult press conference on a very positive note. As he surveyed the room, he said: "I think you can assume that we will get it back this Christmas."


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