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Patrick Rodmell, CEO of Watt International

Kevin Van Paassen

When Patrick Rodmell was a student at University of Western Ontario, he played in a rock band called Stuck in London. His career has been anything but stuck in one spot. He is president and CEO of Watt International, the strategy, branding and design consulting firm based in Toronto - with satellite operations in China and Dubai and international clients from Wal-Mart to Coca-Cola. All that gives Mr. Rodmell a perspective on how the recession is hitting different corners of the globe and what retailers in particular should learn from it.

The recession must be hardest on the luxury retail side, since we are supposedly in an age of thrift.

We have lots of room for the indulgences we can afford on a daily basis, but luxury goods are certainly off the shopping list.

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Will they come back?

Certainly, they will. The billion-dollar question is when.

Given the crash in luxury spending, do you regret expanding into Dubai five years ago?

No. Dubai, like anywhere, is facing challenges due to the recession .... But I like to equate Dubai to the Grand Canyon. You may have seen pictures of it, and you may have heard a lot about it, but until you see it in person you really can't appreciate the awe and inspiration in that market.

But surely these are very tough times for the region?

Sure, but like Rome, Dubai won't be built in a day. We have to understand that unlike some industries in our markets, they don't operate based on quarterly statements but more in terms of generations. So they would look at this period of market challenges as more an inconvenience for the future, not as something that compromises the success of the Emirates.

Which of your three markets - Toronto, Dubai and Shanghai - is faring best right now?

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Our business extends beyond the geographic regions of our offices. And if you look at opportunities, Brazil is where we see a strong growing middle class. There is China, obviously, if you follow the GDP growth, and India is at the top of the list in terms of development.

What broad strategies do retailers have to adopt now?

One of the core challenges, particularly in North America, is overcoming the development of strategies from silos. Market strategies are often done without consideration for the overall retail environment. Advertising can be done in the absence of looking at the actual store. How many times have you been to a store and then seen the TV ad and felt like they could be two different businesses? They have to bring that integrated message together or it gets lost in the noise.

The winners in retail after this recession will be those who operate from a truly brand-centric point of view.

What does that mean?

Having the core essence of an idea that translates into all the touch points of your customer.

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For example, a retailer with a strong brand message right now is Apple. If you look at Apple and you see all the touch points - from product development to the store to the TV ad - it all feels like it comes from the same family. That is the essence of a strong brand image.

You know the phrase, "Never waste a good crisis." How should retailers make sure they don't waste it?

We are really at the end of the abundance era - and this notion of having huge stores with every choice we could possibly imagine. Choice is, in fact, becoming a stress word. What we are looking for is the right choices, not every choice available.

So if I go into a store, I shouldn't be overcome by choice?

Every generation is defined by some phrase or movement. Our belief is the past seven years has been defined as the abundance era and today we are entering what we call the "M-powered era" [with M standing for mobile communication.]It means the customers are empowered, they have information, and they are the ones in charge.

Who is getting this message?

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Look at the coming generation of consumers, 15 to 22 years old, who will be in that M-powered era. What we see is a lack of brand loyalty. Whereas you and I might have been loyal to brands in an almost Pavlovian sense, today's consumer is more skeptical of marketing messages. They don't believe everything they read, because of access to all the information that is available. The social network defines the brand.

Does that mean the death of brands?

By no means, but they need to be constantly aware of consumer attitudes and be fine-tuning. It's like sailing - you can get from one port to another on a sail boat but it's the tacking and minor adjustments along the way that get you there most efficiently. That's the way brands need to operate today.

From this era of economically stressed consumers, what characteristics will continue?

The end of blatant consumerism will continue with people looking for more value in what they buy. During stronger economic times we tend to be less sensitive to the subtleties of the value of the product. When the economy goes down, we get more sensitive to value for the pennies we are spending. That sense of thrift will be a trend continuing much longer than the recession.


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Patrick Rodmell

Title: President and CEO

Watt International, Toronto

Born: May 23, 1966 in Toronto

Education: Bachelor's degrees in economics and philosophy, University of Western Ontario

Career highlights:

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1989: Junior analyst for a Toronto-based pension fund investment firm.

1990: Made career shift to Taylor/Sprules, a marketing and design firm, as new business and account manager.

1993: Joined Watt Design Group in account services role.

1999 to 2002: Vice-president of global marketing for Watt.

2002: Took over responsibility for retail division.

2003: Became president; company renamed Watt International.

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