Brand Strategy Cost of Living Retail

‘The brand became pointless’: why marketing failures lie at the heart of Wilko’s downfall


By Hannah Bowler, Senior Reporter

August 11, 2023 | 8 min read

British high street stalwart Wilko has fallen into administration after a rescue deal failed to materialize. Experts say its demise is a warning to retailers of what could happen without proper investment in brand, marketing and customer experience.

Wilko goes into administration closing 400 stores

Wilko goes into administration closing 400 stores

The shuttering of Wilko’s 400 stores, with the loss of around 12,000 jobs, makes it one of the biggest retail casualties since Debenhams and McColl’s. Its chief executive Mark Jackson said it had “left no stone unturned” when it came to “preserving this incredible business.”

“We’ve no choice but to take the difficult decision to enter into administration,” he said.

Despite its financial losses, YouGov data points to a healthy brand. Compared with early 2022, Wilko’s brand perceptions have mostly held up, with impression scores going from 39.6 to 39.5 this year. This is far above the retail sector average of 13.0.

Meanwhile, its value for money scores went from 40.3 to 40.1 compared with an average is 5.7 in the industry and satisfaction from 43.8 to 43.8 other retailers' average of 11.1. Overall, its brand index score has stayed the same at 28.4, above the average of 9.4.

While the industry and the public have expressed genuine sadness over the fallen retailer when speaking to industry experts, there is a feeling that people will quickly forget and move on, signaling that Wilko ultimately failed to land its place in culture.

Rob Sellers, retail consultant formerly of VCCP, says: “The number one mistake modern retailers make is to act like 'traders', not brands. The pulse of retail business is rapid, a constant urgent rhythm of trying to match demand with supply. It’s hot? We’ve got fans. It’s Easter. Look at our eggs. Royal event? Check out our bunting.”

Sellers recalls strategic reviews where rivals would cite Wilko as a competitor, but crucially never “the competitor.” Wilko’s biggest failure, he says, has been to let the brand become a bit “pointless”.

“I suspect if you asked and gave 100 people 100 seconds to name something you’d go to Wilko for, you’d get nearly 100 different answers,” he says. “This means it is impossible to communicate at scale to a mass audience, meaning all marketing is inefficient and ultimately worthless.”

The cost of living crisis should have been Wilko’s time to shine with cash-strapped Brits seeking out discounters. But Sellers says: “Unlike Aldi, Lidl, Ikea, Asda, B&M, Primark etc., who are all thriving, Wilko’s lack of clear strategy has meant that getting short-term tactics wrong a few too many times now means it literally doesn’t have money to buy stock to put on shelves.”

In November 2022, Wilko said it was developing an omnichannel model to improve the customer experience and make it easier for customers to shop online. It drafted in consultants Teneo, added a free click-and-collect offering and started reinvesting in TV advertising.

Creatively though, Sellers explains Wilko’s marketing fell flat. “No totemic creative work to land the brand in culture and to drive salience and understanding of what they are for. Lots and lots of ‘performance' digital: tactical messaging to drive tactical retailing that ultimately disperses into the infinite world of ‘content' and effects exactly nothing,” Sellers says.

The retailer has a presence on five major social platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube. It runs its Wilko Life blog, which offers home and garden inspiration and DIY tips, and has worked with the PR agency Brazen to produce live broadcasts, collections, carousels and images.

Wilko Life

Tom Moore, UK head of commerce at VMLY&R, says despite all the “brand love in our hearts, the reality is that Wilko lacked a magical experience to draw people in-store.”

He says: “You win by making shopping experiences great value and friction-free, or you create an utterly irresistible engaging experience of discovery to inspire and excite - making it impossible for people not to visit.”

According to Moore, had Wilko invested in personalization, improved its merchandising and story-telling coupled with a tech-driven customer experience, it could have escaped its fate. “Above all, clear focus on becoming a destination again; hero ranges and hero experiences,” he adds.

The chief executive at the retail design agency Household, Julie Oxberry, suggests that Wilko’s downfall was a combination of “poor decision-making”, the competition with budget retailers and failure to adapt quickly. Her agency has worked with Argos on a pop-up store and DIY retailer Wickes on bridging the gap between its trades-person and home DIY customer base.

“The rise of other value-based chains left Wilko struggling to stand out from the crowd as it lost sight of its once-strong core identity as an affordable retailer for hardworking families,” Oxberry says. “It faced stiff competition from value-based chains like B&M, Home Bargains and Poundland. All of which have better dialogue with their customers and greater clarity on their place in the market, and it was unable to compete on design and lifestyle with Dunelm or Ikea.”

In order to survive in this current retail climate, Oxberry says Wilko would have needed to redefine its brand and better integrate its online and offline experiences, as well as “improving marketing efforts by investing in digital and social media campaigns”. She urges retailers like Wilko to “move with the times” and prioritize sustainability and ethical practices.

“We can’t be sentimental about this,” Oxberry says. “There is no place for that in retail. It’s a competitive and exciting arena where the daring survive, and the rest are relegated to obscurity.”

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