Today’s consumers want a deeper brand experience that includes information and entertainment, says Julia Hutchison

There is no doubt that the recent VAT increase has already had a considerable impact on retail.

With prices soaring and consumers fearful of what the changes might mean for their wallets, retailers have been thrown into the position of having to prove value and relevance in every customer communication.

This, teamed with the continual emergence of new technologies, means competition is rife and comparison will be a big part of 2011 retail strategies.

For the past few months, there has been no avoiding the aggressive price war between supermarkets. This competitive stance has been driven further by the emergence of barcode-scanning mobile phone apps, which allow consumers to ensure they're getting the most for their money consumers who were already being bombarded by press coverage on who offers the 'cheapest baskets' and best value for money.

The time has come to implement communication plans that extend beyond price promotions. Brands need to build value through other aspects besides their transactional offering. They need to offer customers more than just cheap products.

Organisations should be developing content that engages and entertains while remaining relevant to the brand. By providing more than a trading relationship, retailers are better placed to build loyalty and increase purchases.

Branded content, if executed correctly, has the potential to engage consumers outside of the purchasing environment and boost brand advocacy. A branded magazine, for example, is read on average for 25 minutes at a time, the same as a newspaper ­supplement and 50 times the length of a television advertisement. And then there's the engagement that can be achieved via apps and websites consumed on the go through smartphones and tablets.

However, like the retail market itself, the print and digital realms are highly competitive and only those that truly understand consumer wants and needs will succeed. There is no denying that targeting the right audience is becoming a complex procedure.

Brands have a tougher job than ever to get their offerings right and any misunderstandings can cost them dear. This means businesses should avoid investing in branded content just because a competitor is, and they must ensure the platforms they use to communicate with consumers are relevant.

As technology develops, retailers need to make full use of the opportunities available.

By offering videos, TV and online magazines, as well as rich web content and entertainment, a brand has gone that step further in securing a relationship with a consumer. Understanding your customer base and giving them something back can in some cases mean more to them than slashing prices.

Barcode scanning apps may have the ability to compare price, but they cannot express brand ethos. This is down to the brand and, if executed really well, in some cases organisations could deter the use of such apps altogether.

The time has come for more brands to invest in exciting content and to test the waters with content in new territories. This means working with experts to supply the right content for the right audience through the right channels.

Julia Hutchison is COO at the Association of Publishing Agencies.