Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Perception? Reality?

Some brands seem to work better in my head than when I encounter them for real. This experience is often paired with a twinge of sadness. A strange empty nostalgia for something I can no longer grasp. One such brand is Woolworth's. It's poor performance is well documented but in my mind I still expect a brand experience that fulfils my internal brand image.

New look F. W. Woolworth in Gallowtree Gate, Leicester in 1965

I suspect outside the UK, may be in the States, or South Africa, New Zealand or Australia things are very different. In a description by The Exquisite Art Company in South Africa, "The Woolworths brand is a symbol of quality, consistency and trust, earned through its efforts to continually innovate and adapt to market demands." 

A far cry from our UK experience summed up neatly in this Brand Healthcheck in Marketing Week by Pragma from October 2006, "Shopping at Woolworths these days can hardly be described as a pleasure. A cacophony of visual noise bombards you (half price, price crash etc) setting the expectation of cheapness and bargains. Aisles are often cramped and stock piled high, the in-store radio is often loud, as are the gawdy colours of the merchandise." Pragma also kindly give some good advice, headed up with "Re-establish traditional core brand values with a modern interpretation." 

I'm thinking it's unlikely that any of Woolworth's management team were reading Marketing Week that day. Just in the way that I have a nostalgic brand vision built in the 60s and 70s, Pragma look back to thirty years ago for clues, "The brand stood for convenience, value and reliability." Convenience is an odd value these days, it seems too easy. Convenience is all sorts of things now: shopping from home, getting everything in one place, easy to park... What is convenient about Woolworth's is that it is always there. It is in the middle of every town. It is even in those odd seaside towns when you need to buy a CD player for the holidays. But in my head it is full of useful stuff. And often it has the useful thing I'm looking for. It does household (although this seems to be diminishing), it does toys of the bright plastic variety, it does games, it does children's sandals, it does dressing-up clothes. But it doesn't do much better, or more reliably than anyone else. And I think it has so much potential. It could be the Google of shops - you want something - you'll find it here.

Inspiration for the current Woolworth's team could well come from the rather eccentric Woolworths Virtual Museum. It's rich with history, innovation, architectural confidence and price quizzes. It's delightful. I found out that the first modern record department was in Leicester (the very shop in which my own Woolworths internal brand picture was created) in 1965. The Annual Report described it, "The gay record corner is well-equipped to meet the demands of the most with-it teenager."  The site also evokes the Fablon, floor tiles and cafeteria I remember so well.
The shape of things to come - the first modern Entertainment department in F. W. Woolworth of Leicester (No 49) in 1965
There are a few high street retailers that fall into this mis-match between the brand in my head and the one I walk in to. WHSmith is definitely one. Smiths used to be an Aladin's cave of, well, magazines, books and stationery. I still remember a rather cramped store in the Market Place in Leicester that was a treasure trove of 'going-back-to-school' goodies - and had wood panelling. Over the years the range has been denuded and 'rationalised', the book offer has been canabalised by the likes of Warterstone's, the environment has been modernised and sterilised, yet cluttered in an annoying way. I still want to go in to Smiths and enjoy a browse and buy a good pen, but the experience I get seldom delivers the brand I expect. 

Boots has faired little better. Again the march of modernisation has delivered a discomforting mixture of sterility and disorganisation. A blandness in the design and signing leads to an almost perpetual sense of an inability to find anything. Added to that discomfort is the blaring '3 for 2' signs that are always difficult to fully know which products they actually relate to.

I don't know whether these are just the ramblings of an old nostalgic, or whether there really is a lesson to be learned about getting back to core brand values. I certainly believe that a focused, differentiated offer is a good start. A clear purpose and aligned brand experience is a joy. Some experiences fulfil the brand in my head: Waitrose, Cath Kidstone, The Apple Store, Starbucks, Waterstone's, Carluccio's. The Marks and Spencer brand perception helped it survive a rocky time recently, people felt good about it long after the reality had slipped, resulting in a rallying 'Your M&S' campaign. Things are looking hard again, so can their brand pull them through?

I hope Woolworth's can re-invent. They're not in a good financial place and it's hard to invest when the competition and potential returns look challenging. But a clear purpose and genuinely differentiated offer would be a good starting place.