Insights

The Reputational Risk of Rebranding

2 minute read

Robert Chalk

Now, let’s be clear. I applaud any high street retailer who’s turning a profit, so well done W H Smiths. Business is booming and they’re announcing not closures but openings. A rare thing in these challenging times for the bricks and mortar end of retailing. Admittedly much of the profit has derived from their dominance in airports and train stations, but it’s still impressive.

Now, let’s be clear. I applaud any high street retailer who’s turning a profit, so well done W H Smiths. Business is booming and they’re announcing not closures but openings. A rare thing in these challenging times for the bricks and mortar end of retailing. Admittedly much of the profit has derived from their dominance in airports and train stations, but it’s still impressive.

But their recent rebranding ‘trial’ has left me and many others speechless, well almost! The backlash online has been significant, with much unfavorable discussion around the inappropriateness of the similarity to the NHS logo, as well as the fact they have dropped the one word they’re commonly known for: ‘Smiths’.

Credit – The Independent / (Lewis Middleton/ X)

Trialing across 10 stores is sensible to a degree. The cost of rolling out nationally, then potentially having to make an expensive u-turn like the 2002 debacle of Post Office/Consignia or more recently that of Gap, would make a huge dent in those profits but it does beg the question, why did they not research it first? 

This is astonishingly poor advice from the agency responsible who, not surprisingly, are clearly keeping a very low profile. Or perhaps, God forbid, Smiths made the cardinal sin of handling rebranding in-house, so being done by people who are too close to the brand or are being dictated to from above. Either way it’s been a huge mistake because the reputational damage will hit them the hard.

A spokesperson for the retailer said “With some customers telling us they aren’t always aware of the wide range of high-quality, great-value products we stock in our high street stores, we are testing new signage at a small number of locations, to localise our offer and highlight the key product categories customers can always find at WH Smith”.

How ‘WHS’ says that is laughable and clearly a crisis response. The reality is that the spotlight will undoubtedly fall on the outdated instore layout, the lack of innovation such as Waterstones’ reading areas and in-store coffee shops, and the confusion over the product offering mentioned in the spokesperson’s statement.

Clearly more investment and innovation in-store is more in order, followed by an understanding and awareness campaign to get the message across.

But alas, the brand will be forever mocked for this error and used as an example of how not to go about a rebranding exercise.

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