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CHICAGO-"Today's marketplace looks like Sarajevo."

That's the simile Laurel Cutler used earlier this month at the Retail Advertising Conference here to describe the chaos of price wars and brand battles in the retail industry.

Ms. Cutler, director of global marketing planning at Foote, Cone & Belding, New York, was just one of the industry experts who emphasized that if price continues to be the main point of differentiation for retailers, brand names could become a "commodity."

"Too much of retail advertising goes on and on about cost andmarkdown, and people just don't have time for that," said Ann C. Hunt, president of Hunt & Co., a retail and media marketing company that recently conducted a study of retail ad effectiveness for the Newspaper Association of America.

The study's findings are cause for concern. Only 39.6% of the 1,000 women fashion executives surveyed found 1994's fashion advertising compelling. And two-thirds didn't think current ads stimulate an interest in clothes.

One of the main problems: Most retailers don't talk to women about their everyday fashion concerns, like comfort and casualness.

Target Stores and R.H. Macy & Co. are two retailers that get it, Ms. Hunt said. Macy's in-house created "Ten to Count On" print ads, for example, "give women information they can use-tell them 10 new items or trends they can buy to update their wardrobe. It's become a fashion bible."

During the past three years, TV advertising has grown from 10% to 20% of Carson Pirie Scott & Co.'s marketing budget as the Midwestern retailer works to integrate its day-to-day retail message with overall brand identity.

"We felt TV enabled us to do both of those things, but more especially to brand the stores to our target customer," said Edward Carroll, exec VP-sales promotion and marketing.

Almost all of Carson's former TV spots, created by Laughlin/Constable, Milwaukee, promoted one-day sales. Now the chain is using more TV time for branding.

"I think most retailers up to four years ago didn't have a clue how to use TV," Mr. Carroll said.

And most retailers still don't make enough use of their databases, said Gary Langstaff, president of database marketing company Retail Resolve, Steamboat Springs, Colo.

"The classic adage that 80% of sales come from 20% of customers continues to be valid," Mr. Langstaff said. Zeroing in on that 20%-finding out when, where and how they shop-would allow retailers to build brand identity through stronger relationships.

He said retailers then could begin to individually "reward" customers' loyalty while dramatically reducing reliance on "open-ended discounting."

Most executives at the conference pointed to Sears Merchandise Group as the retailer most successful at integrating a true brand identity in all marketing efforts.

Troubled Kmart Corp., now seeking an ad agency to help it develop a clear brand identity, might take a lesson from the "Softer side of Sears" campaign from Young & Rubicam, New York, some suggested.

Ad agency representatives also gave their perspective on forming retailers' brand identity.

John Jay, creative director at Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., and a former exec VP at Bloomingdale's, encouraged retailers to take chances with creative.

"I don't think pure soft sell like Pepsi is affordable for retailers today," agreed Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito/Verdi, New York. Mr. Verdi has worked with retailers like Linens 'n Things and Britches developing hard sell, yet entertaining, creative. "Retailers can't afford to be boring."

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