Could a marketing rethink reduce the chance of another Debenhams?

Industry voices from Wunderman Thompson, Vayner Media and VCCP give their verdicts.

Debenhams: launched in-house Christmas campaign in November
Debenhams: launched in-house Christmas campaign in November

With Debenhams already dealing with a tough high street context before the coronavirus hit, along with its own unique troubles, it was probably always a tall order for the 242-year-old business to escape from administration. 

But perhaps there is a parallel universe in which, some years ago, Debenhams recognised the looming threat to its existence, and prepared itself by taking steps including a different approach to its marketing.

So, what could Debenhams have done differently to maximise its chances of survival, and what should other retailers learn from its sad demise? Here, three industry experts give their view.

Debenhams never let people in to make the brand their own

Neil Godber, joint head of planning, Wunderman Thompson London

Mostly, the success of a business is interlinked with the strength of the brand. So, while much has been commented on the debt, fixed store estate, acceleration to online shopping and new competitors Debenhams faced in to, it’s also worth considering the state of the brand and what it means to the mainstream shopper it’s served for so long.

Debenhams has been a high street favourite for over 200 years, building a long heritage of appealing to mainstream British audiences by democratising luxury and design. Whether that be in bringing prestige beauty and fragrance halls to towns across the nation, making high end British fashion designers more widely accessible with J by Jasper Conran, MW by Matthew Williamson and Star by Julien Macdonald, or just making shoppers feel good when sourcing that perfect gift.

But, the decline of the brand is also a decline of its role within British public culture.  

The archetypal retailer role as an authority source of inspiration, being the sole font of what’s new, advising on what’s next, sourcing the unobtainable increasingly feels out of touch, unless you’re one of very few elite stores or sites.

While many people felt close to Debenhams and I expect “brand for me” perceptions were high, the brand arguably never actually let people in to make it their own. The relationship could have been made more permeable, if it was to be more permanent.

Debenhams’ ubiquity and scale, footfall and trust could have been applied to create a brand more akin to a market or platform or community, that still made luxury, fashion and design available to all, but in a way much closer to the highly evolved often multi-role relationship that the emerging generation wants.

For example, think of the massive surge in resale and growth of Depop, releasing individuals’ creativity, enabling them to become and style their own stores, or the shift towards sustainability and more conscious consumerism, or the hyperlocalised stores in the US offering neighbourhood goods. None of these are enough, but all bring people closer into the brand in a way that makes fashion and design more accessible, not in a permissive way, but in a two-way.

This is not the norm for every shopper, but Debenhams could have used its convenience, mass reach, and even mass communications budgets to evolve its distinct point of view and modernise its role in a more radical way, giving more power to the people, who have ultimately taken the power away from Debenhams.

Companies fail when they no longer listen to, and learn from, their customers

Sarah Baumann, managing director, VaynerMedia UK

This year’s economic conditions have been challenging for many legacy brands, not just high street retailers. There are obvious mitigating factors for a company like Debenhams – with high real estate rents – but the biggest issue is one of customer understanding. In a crisis, it is vital to take time to listen, to hear what’s important to shoppers, and not just rush to act.

Companies fail when they no longer listen to – and learn from – their customers, and this is critical for brands operating in the retail environment as they grapple with the changing nature of the way they sell products and build customer relationships.

Whether advertising can make a difference to a company’s survival depends on how brands approach their marketing communications. As Debenhams has proved, high profile above-the-line brand building does not guarantee commercial success. But if a brand takes a bottom up approach, starting from the customer perspective – listening, learning, adapting and then optimising appropriately – the advertising outcomes will be more valuable, as the marketing communications can inform decision-making.

By reading the signals customers are giving them, rather than relying on the subjective opinions of boardroom members and partner agencies, marketers will avoid bias and focus on what shoppers want from the retailer.

Then instead of subjective, rash advertising and media choices, brands can take time to listen rather than act and ensure their creative is both appealing to their customers and reaching the right ones on the right platforms.

In this way, the advertising works in unison with changes the brand must make. Whether it’s the move to online, DTC commerce or increased social media presence – the best and most effective forms of communication chime with the plethora of platforms where customers now expect brands to be. 

Great brands are built from experience up – but advertising is part of the answer

Andrew Perkins, group head of planning, VCCP

On its own, advertising does not have the ability to prevent another business going the way of Debenhams. We might like to convince ourselves that advertising has a unique power to transform the fortunes of a struggling business. But it’s naïve to assume that, up against a perfect storm of reduced high street footfall, legacy costs and poor customer experience, a quick burst of sentimental Christmas 60 seconds is going to sort it all out. At worst, buffing up the brand for TV risks exposing the underwhelming feeling of actually walking the aisles.

That doesn’t mean advertising can’t be part of the answer. As part of a sustained investment in building a brand, which recognises that the heavy lifting will be done more by what happens in store than on-screen, advertising can add interest, momentum and internal belief. It can keep the tills ringing while you build a physical experience that gives you an edge over Amazon (other digital competitors are available).

Great brands today are built from experience up, with advertising the emotive exec summary of all the real work – investing in your people, product and places to create brilliant experiences for customers. What advertising can’t be is an alternative to that.

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