Why is retail work hard to do? W. H. Smith must find out.
When Campaign broke the news of Bartle Bogle Hegarty losing its pounds
11 million W. H. Smith creative account (Campaign, last week), you may
have tried to recall classic W. H. Smith advertising.
When this failed, you might have turned to think of the last time you
paid a visit to a W. H. Smith store out of choice. Again, no joy. For
here is a company that has retained a solid familiarity, but lost the
ability to communicate its offering to the ten million customers who
visit its core 450-store stationery chain each week. Why?
First, the market has got tougher, leading to a profit fall for W. H.
Smith of 17 per cent to pounds 68 million in 1995. Competition has grown
as supermarkets allot more space to newspapers and magazines, while
specialist book-selling and music chains - including W. H. Smith’s own
Virgin Our Price, Waterstone’s and Paperchase - have expanded. Second,
product boundaries have dissolved, allowing consumers to buy W. H.
Smith-type products from a growing variety of sexier outlets.
But all this is an improbable excuse for the fact that the W. H. Smith
brand itself has so patently lost its way. ‘It seems to be suffering
from a lack of vision, or else a failure to communicate a strong
vision,’ says Chris Baker, the planning director at BST-BDDP, which
handles the Oddbins and Waterstone’s retail accounts.
‘W. H. Smith has a clear and proactive role in people’s lives, but it
has failed to capture this consistently, either in communications or at
store level. It should, if you like, be ‘essential for the non-
essentials’ - it’s the non-essentials that really make life worth
BBH has created two major campaigns since it won the W. H. Smith
business in November 1991. After 21 years at D’Arcy Masius Benton and
Bowles, the limp line, ‘there’s more to discover at W. H. Smith’, was
ditched for a campaign with higher impact. First, in 1992, BBH launched
the aggressive ‘we don’t sell...’ strategy. The campaign offered half of
every retail advertiser’s Holy Grail - namely a strong unifying line
that could drive short-term sales in key product categories such as
videos and books, where the advertising budget is largely supplier
Where the strategy flopped - and the reason why it was axed after a year
- was its failure to strengthen the customers’ relationship with the
overall brand. ‘We don’t sell...’ did not sit comfortably with W. H.
Smith’s lasting qualities of Victorian honesty and reliability, nor did
it encourage discretionary visits to the store.
BBH’s next offering, based on the gentler line, ‘there’s more to life
with W. H. Smith’, -- broke in 1993. While probably more appropriate
strategically, the campaign had little of the pizzazz of the agency
By 1994, the relationship between BBH and its only mass-market retail
client had clearly worsened. Simultaneously, the W. H. Smith marketing
chief, Dean Cowley, who had been with the group for more than ten years,
was forced out in July following a restructure when marketing was
divided into products and brands.
Cowley’s replacement, Esther Horwood, the general manager for brand
marketing, left at the start of 1995. In the meantime, W. H. Smith
parted company with BBH, only to reappoint the agency a few months
later. Then Don Sloan, the former Woolworths marketing director, was
recruited as head of brand marketing to replace Horwood at W. H. Smith.
It is Sloan’s job to implement ‘operation enliven’, the aptly named
project now underway that will see a marketing-led revamp of W. H. Smith
stores, with more guidance in areas such as multimedia and a claimed
boost in adspend up to pounds 14 million. (The real spend figure is
lower than this, with much of the money coming direct from suppliers.)
So to the present, and BBH’s final creative fallout with W. H. Smith
while Motive, its media affiliate, keeps the media spend. The tiff
centred on BBH’s belief that it had found the right advertising solution
for operation enliven, while the client disagreed. This time no-one
expects a reappointment.
But does retail advertising always have to be this difficult?
Observers cite the success of Woolworths, which has also faced attacks
on its key categories from food retailers, toy superstores and smaller
‘Woolworths realised that because people did not have to visit its
stores, it had to communicate its offering as environment plus value,’
Carol Butler, the Bates Dorland group account director in charge of the
agency’s pounds 20 million Woolworths business, says. ‘That strategy
peaked in the 70s with the ‘that’s the wonder of Woolworths’ line and
our ownership of the back-to-school theme.’
In recent ads, culminating in the celebratory ‘Winter Wonderland’
Christmas campaign, Woolworths has pulled together all aspects of its
offering. Alan McWalter, the retailer’s marketing director, says: ‘When
we re-introduced long time-frame ads and bought up whole breaks as a
policy last Christmas, we knew the advertising strategy had a confidence
and authenticity for our customers.’
W. H. Smith has repeatedly told a sceptical City that it will market its
way out of its wilderness. So, like Woolworths, it cares about
advertising. But the success of that strategy will depend on whether it
can find an agency to offer both the essentials - merchandising ads for
products and the ability to build a strong brand once again.