There are few brands more ubiquitous on the Great British high street than WHSmith. Whether Brits view it as a national treasure or a point of contention, a shop more Marmite than Marmite, there is one thing every consumer knows: you are never far from your nearest WHSmith.
The company’s recovery in recent years has been spectacular. Like many high street retailers, WHSmith suffered immensely from the impact of successive Covid lockdowns, losing two-thirds of its stock market value in 2020. But through a focus on new product areas, the store almost doubled its profits last year.
Seemingly a good time for the brand to experiment, WHSmith decided to roll out a trial logo rebrand across 10 of its stores shortly before Christmas. At less than 1% of the chain’s retail portfolio, this apparent rebranding attempt was unlikely to disrupt the brand’s recent success.
However, the reaction, at least from marketing circles, was far from soft. Many drew unfavourable comparisons between the ‘WHS’ logo and that used by the NHS since the 1990s. For days, social media was awash with posts from users claiming, in contrast to the company’s growth, that the new logo was evidence that the brand had lost its way.
The response from WHSmith was swift, noting that the trial was merely an attempt to localise their offering and signpost the products sold in-store, with no plans to roll out the rebrand further. Was it perhaps a thinly veiled PR stunt? This seems unlikely. While annual Google search volume for the brand peaked in the week of December 17th, it was seasonally affected and, indeed, was lower than at the same point in 2022.
Similarly, social trends showed few signs of public discourse around the rebranding outside of marketing circles. According to data from Brandwatch, content related to WHSmith was over three times less common than during its peak two months prior.
While the WHSmith logo rebranding sparked debate among strategy experts, it was an example of a test-and-learn framework in action. The brand experimented with something new at a select few stores, measured the public response, and promptly announced the end of the experiment. MarketingWeek’s Mark Ritson was strongly critical of the onslaught, arguing that ‘most people on LinkedIn are completely bonkers’ and reiterating the importance of a test-and-learn approach in many brands’ growth stories.
However, while a trial-and-error approach to rebranding could prove fruitful for some, brands should tread carefully when playing with longstanding logos, especially those with longstanding recognition among British consumers. In recent years, logo changes have often sparked a temporary outcry from certain corners of the internet – such as the simplification of many fashion house typefaces or the suggestion that Mozilla was dropping the eponymous fox from its Firefox emblem, which even prompted the brand to tell fans to ‘remain calm’.
Testing and learning is a necessary, and often rewarding, process for most brands. But, as noted in Creative Review, if brands do decide to trial new identities, they should be prepared to explain clearly and concisely the purpose of the rebranding. After all, as Ritson alludes, social media reactions are often ‘completely bonkers’.