You’ll Miss Them When They’re Gone

Best course Unilever ever sent me on was one on advertising (that’s what we called it back then). It was a 2 week residential course held at a very swanky hotel in the home counties which was great for a hard-up twenty something but that wasn’t what I meant. There were three things that stood out for me. Firstly, the course was 50/50 Unilever brand managers and agency account execs. They weren’t literally our opposite numbers but they were our peers and they all worked in what we referred to as the ‘club agencies’ i.e. the select big agencies Unilever used. Secondly, they managed to get a stellar selection of the brightest and most experienced people in advertising to come and talk to us. Finally and most memorably they made us do a role reversal project where we were given a creative brief and had to give our response to a judging panel of the senior agency stars. My syndicate’s brief was how to promote the Great British Pub, the client being some fictitious industry body and the background being that the pub trade was down and many, especially the village pubs, were closing.

I can still vividly remember our ads. We set up a series of situations such as a couple getting engaged, someone scoring 180 at darts, a guy getting a big promotion, high emotion occasions when the only place you wanted to be to celebrate was your local pub. But as the people in these situations looked around them their pub faded and they were left celebrating on their own because the pub had gone. The pay-off line was “The great British Pub – get there before it closes” (back then all pubs closed at 10.30 pm, hence a double meaning). Cut to same people now happily in their local pub sharing their moments. Classic advertising technique, depict a world devoid of whatever it is you are advertising to dramatize the unique benefits. We won the top prize, as it happens.

I felt a bit like that in Terminal 5, Heathrow, last week. A visit to HMV was part of my pre-flight ritual and now I was looking at a boarded-up space where HMV used to be. Should I be surprised? On more than one occasion last year I returned home with CD’s and DVD’s I’d bought at HMV only for the family to inform me they’d already downloaded them. How stupid did I feel? And yet I would still have spent time in HMV last week because I enjoy browsing a record store. Trouble is browsing doesn’t pay the bills for HMV (or Jessops).

WHSmith have announced they are to go back into CD’s and DVD’s – smart move, but is that the future for WHS? The last place you can go to buy occasionally what you most often buy on-line. I remember asking an American friend who was returning to the States after a few years in the UK what he would miss most. WHSmith he replied, he and his family loved the high street store but like me he couldn’t put his finger on why. It doesn’t exist in the States and has a unique bunch of ‘stuff’ was the best he could do and like me he is a career marketer.

Pubs contracted in numbers for years, just like high street retailers, but have recently enjoyed something of a revival. The reason for their decline was easy to see. Cheap booze in the supermarket, drink driving laws and a fundamentally male-oriented offer in an increasingly female/family oriented world. What saved them was not some cute bunch of ads that reminded you about what you used to like without ever really putting a finger on why. What saved them was keeping some elements of their unique magic but then fundamentally re-engineering the offer – more/better food, more choice and diversity, more unisex.

I think HMV could have done the same, in fact I think they were trying to do precisely that but clearly it was too little too late. Pubs found an offer that for most people on some occasions could not be equaled at home. HMV needed to find some things – product, service, experience – that beat on-line shopping for most people on at least some occasions. In their case they also needed to find a way to migrate to some kind of synergistic off-line and on-line offer. John Lewis seem to have managed that well as their results show. I’ve used them a lot recently (furnishing a new flat) and they hit a great sweet spot for range/quality/price, with well-motivated, helpful staff (we all know why – they own the business). I sometimes look on line and go to the local store to buy. I sometimes browse the store and then buy on-line. I sometimes buy on-line and go to the store to pick it up. Simple, brilliant.

What is the future for WHSmith? Could it be as simple as putting food and drink into the mix – coffee shops in bookstores seems to have worked and food worked for pubs? Maybe that plus some other unique in-store experience and a symbiosis between on and off-line. Who knows?

But I do know I miss HMV and I’d miss WHSmith if they were gone.

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