Take a walk down the British high street and look at the signs above the doors. It won’t be long before you realise that it all looks a little dull. It’s more about pragmatic signage than inspiring identity; it’s a street where the idea and spirit of each brand seems to have been forgotten and all that matters is a bland representation of a name. Whatever happened to high streets filled with character and clear promises of what lay inside, of barber’s poles, ornate awnings, handcrafted imagery and typographic masterpieces of gilt-filled signs?
Perhaps it was always smaller local shops that drove the more personal, crafted look and, now the large corporates have driven them away, a more faceless appearance is inevitable. But does that really need to be the case? Moreover, are the large corporates actually missing a fundamental trick?
Let’s take Tesco, for example. Its brand might be said to be in turmoil right now with a pervading sense amongst media and consumers that it has lost its grip on the principles of retailing – which is patently not true. Tesco’s problem is not that it has stopped understanding consumers, failed to innovate, or lost the ability to manage merchandising and retail flow. Its problem is that it presents itself as if it has. Stuck in the trap of a messaging strategy conceived for a recession, with a brand identity and personality that lacks any promise or excitement, it doesn't matter how much they invest in the retail detail because the big-picture promise of the brand is turning customers away before they even get near to the entrance. They feel tired and cheap (in the wrong kind of way). What they have forgotten are not the principles of retailing, but the principles by which people will engage. They need to project some energy, some enthusiasm and some humanity – stop trying to empathise with consumers’ negative emotions and give them some optimism instead. I am convinced that Tesco would benefit from investment in a rebrand considerably more than from investment of similar funds in any other activity. Naturally it must be a comprehensive, strategic rebrand not simply an exercise in cosmetic redrawing but it ought to make itself manifest in the brand identity and in the way that gets delivered above the front door on the high street.
None of this is to say that focus on enhancing customer experience on the shop floor, online and across every touch-point is any less important – we all know now how holistic the delivery of any brand needs to be. But part of the problem I see on the high street is that focus has shifted so far towards the detail that the bigger picture has been left to fade away. In store, retailers are presenting too many ideas and concepts and too much visual noise to the consumer, and often leaving them confused or at least unclear on what the central brand message is. Meanwhile, as we walk up and down the high street, we see bland fascia labeled with bland identities that promise nothing and fail to excite in any way. Tesco is not the only retailer affected by this omission – in fact, it’s hard to think of any national retailer in the UK who is not guilty of this. The high street is dominated by blandness – not through necessity or efficacy but through neglect and a failure to be brave.
It’s time that retailers stood up and took control of their identities again. They – or someone, at least – needs to invest in distilling their proposition down into a distinctive, compelling and contemporary message and then the translation of that into a dynamic, inspiring brand identity that communicates the promise that lies within the store. They need to put some fun, excitement and style back into our high street again.
Originally published in The Grocer 21 May 2015.