Do a bit of branding: Debenhams and the case for upstream creativity
There is no denying it’s tough out there on the high street. With Toys R Us, Maplin and House of Fraser all filing for administration this year, it seemed inevitable another casualty would fall prey to the four horsemen of the retail apocalypse – wage slumps, inflation, e-commerce, and shifting consumer preferences towards experiences. What a surprise though to discover it was Debenhams who, mere days before appointing advisers, enacted another, more colourful survival strategy: a freshly launched rebrand.
Richard Cristofoli, the retail giant’s managing director of beauty and marketing, asserted the new identity was indicative of internal changes, but the rapid succession of announcements tells a different story. One could be mistaken for assuming their approach to brand was firmly downstream – attempting to sway consumer perception with a bright new look and feel – rather than using it to initiate the cultural and operational evolution so desperately needed.
Driven by the insight that customers felt ‘real joy when exploring and trying new things in store’, but believed ‘shopping had lost its place in our culture’, the aim of the new identity was to ‘inject some of the joy back into the shopping experience’. The vibrant ads invited customers to ‘Do a bit of Debenhams’, inseparably linking the retailer and the shopping experience. But in the digital era, it’s worth asking if people want a mid-market department store shopping experience in the first place.
Debenhams problem wasn’t so much the positioning around the ‘joy of shopping’ as the misunderstanding of what underpins the joy of shopping. Sure, it’s a great way to spend time with friends or family, but so is meeting for coffee, going to the movies, or taking a budget holiday. At its core, the act of shopping has always been about fantasy, an imaginative hedonism where shoppers indulge who they’ll be – and how they’ll be perceived – when they slap down their debit card to purchase that A-line Ted Baker dress. But we now have Pinterest for that. And Instagram. And ASOS with their generous return policy and lack of dressing rooms with overhead lighting.
It’s a classic case of knowing the business you’re really in, exemplified by the now overused example of Kodak who, despite inventing the first digital camera, believed they were in the paper and chemical trade rather than the business of memories. Had Debenhams better understood their core purpose, they could have moved the role of brand upstream, using creativity as a tool to drive innovation, reimagining their industry, their business model, their products and how all three translate into resonant value propositions.
One brand that successfully managed the transition is Argos, who used a 'super-retailer' strategy to create an optimal blend of online and high street presence, and an experience designed specifically for the digital age. And its personality was equally brave, combining bold visuals with a confident, active tone of voice.
Mother’s ad campaign is gorgeous to look at – clever, irreverent, and indeed joyful. But like the many cautionary tales that have come before, there’s a clear lesson to be learned here: brand love alone isn’t enough. To survive disruption, a rebrand needs to go deeper than changing the logo or refurbishing shop floors. It needs to act as a tool for change, creatively dealing with a range of issues at the heart of the business, including digital transformation.
Andi Davids is strategy director of WPP brand agency Superunion
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