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Brand Strategy Design Rebrand

WHSmith has ‘no plans’ to roll out controversial rebrand across all its stores

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By Hannah Bowler, Senior reporter

January 3, 2024 | 5 min read

The trial rebrand by the UK stationery retailer received online backlash for ditching the distinctive name and resembling the NHS logo.

Image of WHSmith trial logo next to the NHS logo

Social media users likened WHSmith trial logo to the NHS / Lewis Middleton

WHSmith has told The Drum it has no plans to roll out its trial rebrand to the rest of its 1,100 UK stores after the design was heavily criticized online.

During the festive break, a new logo popped up on 10 WHSmith stores, prompting astonishment and admonishment from the marketing community online.

In a statement sent to The Drum, WHSmith said: “We are testing new signage at a small number of locations, to localize our offer and highlight the key product categories customers can always find at WHSmith. This is a trial and only in 10 locations. There is no plan to roll this out to the rest of the estate.”

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The conversation focused on a couple of key aspects. The first was that the logo resembled the NHS, the second was the decision to take ‘Smith’ out of the logo, and the third was that it wasn’t very aesthetically pleasing.

Founder of The Sharp Agency, Richard Sharp, called out the decision to drop Smith and said: “Some consumer insight would have helped develop a clear strategy. Certainly, this rebrand appears to be devoid of any brand strategy.”

He also questioned the design when he wrote: “It has absolutely no finesse or character whatsoever. It looks totally bargain basement (maybe that’s the positioning idea?) and lacks any personality or sympathy to the heritage of the brand.”

Eppie Anderson, who is the director of The Marketing Team questioned why WH Smith would choose now, during the “most challenging retail environment” to get rid of a “distinctive” font and the name it is best known for.

“As a brand marketeer, I am a bit baffled, but wish you heartfelt luck - you’re a brand I grew up with, spent my pocket money with (mostly chart singles and stationery) and which I hope continues to survive outside airports and service stations,” Anderson said.

However, there was a lot of defense for WHSmith with some LinkedIn users calling out those who were quick to judge the retailer.

Mark Ritson, the high-profile marketing commentator and consultant, took to LinkedIn to remind critics that WHSmith is merely testing the logo not rolling it out wide. Calling WHSmith chief exec Carl Cowling a “marketing savvy retailer,” Ritson said: “The fact that he is testing the rebrand suggests WHSmith is way more advanced than the cavalcade of idiot companies that jump into a rebrand with both feet and no brain.” For him, testing is a “hallmark” of great retailers.

Meanwhile, Andrew Tindall, the global director at System 1, said: “Let’s be clear these posts aren’t offering lessons of wisdom or feedback to move things forward. They are to make the writers feel better about themselves. Bad energy that needs to be left in 2023, or on the site formerly known as Twitter.”

Just a few years ago, WHSmith was struggling to survive on the high street but its focus on travel locations as the world came out of lockdown helped it bounce back and in April 2023 the chain had doubled its yearly profits. The retailer has plans to channel its revenue boost into opening 120 new stores.

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