Branding the high street

The economy may be showing green shoots, but the need to boost the high street has never been greater—statistics from the British Retail Consortium show that footfall on UK high streets dropped 5% in August 2013 compared to the same month last year, while online sales rose 13% between August and September (the highest rise in 13 years) according to IMRG Capgemini’s e-Retail Sales Index.  

The Portas Pilot scheme was a step in the right direction.  This was a Government initiative to revive high streets in the UK, fronted by the indomitable Mary with an obligatory TV series.  Unfortunately, while its heart was in the right place, the scheme hasn’t been a resounding success.  Recent headlines show that many of the first towns to receive investment from the scheme have seen less rather than more, occupied retail units.

The cynic in me would say that the scheme has done more to raise Ms Portas’s profile than help the towns in question.  However, even if it was launched with the best intent, I don’t believe that the approach was right.

Branding is an involving process

I am behind the move to brand high streets which was at the core of the schemes.  However, the initiative seemed to be more about slogans and gimmicks (e.g. ‘Lipsmacking Liskeard’ which looked great but was rather superficial, especially as it only helped food shops in the town!) than true branding strategy. If we are serious about invigorating local shopping streets, then we need to leave the logos and strap lines to the end of the process.  As for any branding project you need to understand first what you do and who you are before creating the brand.

The starting point should be to understand who all the stakeholders are, involve them all in discussions and get them engaged in the process.  From this you can build an understanding of what the town has to offer, identify stand out issues and factors and find common ground with which to create a shared future vision.  This is so important but, if the Portas TV series was a fair representation of what happened, not one local consumer was spoken to in any of the towns!  And yet, when high streets start failing, local residents are the first people that you need to spend time with to find out what they want and need if you want to stop them moving out of the area for good.

Community and experience are key

With a clear vision in place you can then start to develop your high street brand strategy.  There are no templates for doing this as every high street is unique, with its own problems and characteristics.  However, there are two elements that are at the centre of any effective high street branding strategy.  The first is ‘community’.  In other words, the strategy mustn’t just be about the retailers.  It’s about working towards the greater good—identifying how to create a better place to live, work, have fun and shop which fulfils the needs of all (or most) in and around the high street.

The other key factor is to focus on creating great experiences, rather than financial incentives, to encourage visitors.  High streets simply can’t compete and thrive on price—but if they provide something different, an antidote to samey shopping centres and online shopping, then people will want to come back again and again.

And this brings me to a question.  When you have created the branding strategy how do you implement it when a high street comprises such a disparate and unaligned group of people?  How do you get strategy buy-in and ensure that experience is consistent across the whole high street?

Making it work

Well, it’s tough, but there are two essentials.  First, you need a project manager, as for any branding project.  They need to represent the branding committee, have sufficient ‘welly’ to make decisions on its behalf and hold a clear view of the end goal and key steps that need to be achieved along the way of getting them there.  They also need not be shrinking violets as there will inevitably be the need for a firm grip to make things happen properly and on time—essentially like Mary Portas, but without the desire for publicity, or indeed the freebies that Ms P secured, like 500 free rail tickets for one of the towns in question.  Getting this kind of support is so much harder when there are no cameras watching!

Secondly, you need to empower the stakeholders.  There is no point in rocking up to the high street with a readymade package.  A proportion of funds from any such project should be invested in giving people the skills they need to build the town brand on an ongoing basis; it’s easy to run workshops on marketing, social media, merchandising, promotional tools, event management etc.  As the saying goes ‘Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish and you feed him for a lifetime’.  It’s exactly the same concept here.

When you have all that in place, then you can start thinking about the creative element for your high street brand.  It’s only with all the foundations firmly in place that you can create something that brings the vision to life in a meaningful way. Let’s face it, as it is something tangible, this is the bit that will create excitement and galvanise the community behind the brand, but it will only work if it is based on something authentic and sustainable—not just window dressing.

About the Author

Simon Wright studied Graphic Design at London College of Printing. Having set up a design studio in Saudi Arabia and agency roles in London, he became Managing Director of Greenwich Design in 1994.

His expertise spans a wide range of disciplines across various design and marketing channels.