Legacy Brands – how can we help?

In the centre of the village-like haven of what I consider to be North London’s finest enclave, Muswell Hill, stands a rather dishevelled but much loved WHSmith. I make it my personal mission to never buy stationery, birthday cards or wrapping paper from anywhere else so I can make an extra trip up the road to visit the familiar, if slightly depressing, traditional stationers of my youth. And I assure you, it’s not the lure of the special offer on checkout of a £1 box of Lindor chocolates (however tempting!) it’s the memory of those heady days at the end of August when my Mum would drag us all up to North Finchley High Road, where between Woolworths and WH Smiths we would be given a limited budget to buy a selection of new pens, protractors, felt tips and rulers, and of course, address the all-important and highly-competitive matter of the new pencil case. 

The best ‘Smiths was of course in Brent Cross; home to an enormous duplex store with an entire floor dedicated to books, which was the hot spot for celebrity book signings and also, I will admit, a place where one of our mates used to work, so we could sneak the odd Smash Hits (now I am showing my age!) into the middle of a copy of The Sun so he could slip it through the till.

Seeing this beacon of our youth reduced to a small store, reliant on discounts and fighting for its survival is so incredibly heartbreaking.

Yet, as much as we all feel distraught at the demise of our beloved high street brands, of course, we must all share in the responsibility for its fate. Had we not become so addicted to the convenience and instant gratification of the likes of Amazon Prime, our retail world would look very different.

I have long since found this hypocrisy both crippling and shame-making until the other day, as I waited in the car whilst my 19 year old son queued (yes, queued) outside Greggs, (oh the vegan sausage rolls!) it occurred to me that here was a brand that a few years ago would also have been considered a legacy brand, yet had seemed to have escaped a similar fate.

I am sure I am not alone in admitting that Greggs was a place I wouldn’t have stepped foot in ten years ago. That was of course before CEO, ex Punch Taverns’, Roger Whiteside got hold of it.

This 80-year old brand, a family owned business originating in the North East, was completely transformed by Whiteside’s realisation that a traditional bakery offering would only be gradually diminished at the hands of the expanding supermarket offering. With Sainsbury’s and Tesco opening local stores on every corner, most with in-house bakeries, what reason would consumers have for buying just their baked goods elsewhere? 

So Whiteside made the genius move of changing their focus to take on the likes of Pret and Subway with a “food on the go” offering and the rest is history. 

Last week I talked about how change management has now become BAU and how brands have to embrace change or risk failure and that seems to be exactly what I am staring at when I look at these legacy brands who haven’t managed to evolve or pivot to meet the needs of a changing market.

M&S seems to have reinvented itself several times from its origins as selling middle-aged clothes to quality food, lingerie and homeware. It’s one of the legacy brands we hope will survive retail’s hellish 2020 thanks to its deal with Ocado (if only it had come sooner!) but one does wonder how many more times it can reinvent itself. 

As a brand geek, I am sure I am not alone in having a wishlist of brands I would love to have the chance to reignite and many of these legacy brands would be top of my list. 

In fact I have spent many a sleepless night imagining what I would have done given the chance to repurpose Woolies. Could we have turned it into a space of wonder and discovery for kids, with first-to-market toy trials and daily interactive activities? Or maybe into a chain of coffee shops with a pick and mix instead of cake alongside the sarnies and paninis? Who knows?? 

The leadership at WHSmith are clearly aware that change is needed. Their recent announcement of a partnership with M&S Simply Food in two of their stores illustrates a desire to reinvent and fills me with hope that they’ll find new ways to drive footfall and ensure it’s not just their buzzing airport/station offering that remains. 

Because if these companies are to survive the onslaught of the current competition, they need a major rethink of their proposition, an enormous injection of energy and a massive mindset shift, all focused on getting both their staff and their consumers to fall in love with the brand again.

We need only look at the absolute razor focus that Whiteside brough to Greggs to learn how it’s done. He was all about owning their market positioning, offering both VFM and quality as a credible alternative to the likes of Pret with a “no quinoa here” policy. He changed the entire in-store experience, focused on building an amazing internal culture with happy staff on a profit share and brilliantly clever and humorous PR and marketing (see Vegan sausage roll launch!). And to prove the point, last year they posted over a £1bn turnover with 9% EBIT and +50% in share price. 

So, if you’re reading this and working for a brand that you think might be sliding into this legacy abyss, please please know there is hope. All we need to do is listen to our customers, spot the opportunities and then remain absolutely completely and utterly laser-focused on evolving into something both fresh and on the money.

Because once again the conclusion is quite simply, that change is inevitable, so let’s get changing.