14th July 2015

Re-inventing The High Street

How has the role of the high street changed within the UK and how can innovative ‘destination branding’ help high streets reclaim a place in the hearts and minds of consumers?

Understanding the challenges we face

Much has been written, strategised and pondered in recent times on the subject of the high street and the town centre. Unfortunately not all of this has been positive. And, this negativity is not without good cause.

Of course it is relatively easy to confuse the demise of our town centres with the retailer casualties that are, or were, once such a big part of them. But, the well published facts and those highlighted by the Portas Review are evidence enough to establish that all is not exactly well.

Just a few highlights of the challenge we face*

-There are only 1/5th of the greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers on the UK high street as 60 years ago.
-1 in 9 shops stand empty.
-Supermarkets account for 97% of grocery spend and allocate about a 1/3 of their floor space to other goods.
-Britain is becoming Europe’s leading e-retailing economy (10% of spend).

This suggests many things, not least that we are in a time where the demand for convenience is as high as the demand for choice.

We are in a time where the demand for convenience is as high as the demand for choice.

The difficult truth is that the consumer will go where they can find both of these in abundance, namely shopping centres, department stores, retail parks and of course e-retailers such as Amazon.

It is easy to liken the high street to a department store. However, these have the advantage of clear ownership and this creates a clearer line of sight to a vision, a brand and a singular experience for the consumer.

No one involved in destination branding and marketing should underestimate the challenges of navigating through the complexity of multiple ownership scenarios, such as the high street. Being prepared for this environment and adopting a proactive approach to stakeholder engagement will be critical to the success of such projects.

It feels like, and is, a multi-dimensional problem.

A poor consumer climate is compounded by lack of investment which is underpinned (in many cases) by uninspired leadership. And leadership is and always will be a challenge in multi-owner and complex stakeholder environments.

Competition and expectation

Competition is no longer just “out of town”. Government legislation may have worked to a degree and a new “mega mall” isn’t launched every month, but shopping centres, supermarkets and homogenised retail parks have simply continued to take and keep hold of consumer spend.

Along with this, consumers from locals to tourists are demanding better and better experiences. The pleasure at the moment of purchase needs to be rivalled or at least come close to the overall destination experience which surrounds it.

We must think beyond the purchase and cater for the experience.

No-one moves in next to a retail park because it adds value. People want great town centres, businesses likewise and not just retailers! From cafés and pubs to accountants and insurance brokers – businesses and consumers want thriving high streets and town centres.

But with low consumer spend, the destination cannot thrive, voids happen, there is a decline in quality and therefore consumer expectation isn’t met. The real challenge is how we can break the cycle.

The need for long-term intervention

Putting in some new benches or running a Christmas campaign will have only minimal impact. What is needed is a strong intervention that has long-term impact. A clear vision and a brand become the framework that meets the perennial need of a destination: to understand what makes you stand out and where you want to go and how we can get there. To make this intervention work well requires a consistent understanding and commitment to the role of the brand.

The brand and the vision which is an integral part of it has two complimentary roles:

In essence a brand must undertake to define the destination and engage the stakeholders’ involvement within it – we can define this as a management role.

And it must project itself to draw consumers towards it – this is its marketing role – but not just one that drives how many posters you put up for example. It also informs behaviours, space planning and new architecture.

Getting the balance right between these two is core to the challenge of making the brand intervention work meaningfully in the long term.

A great destination brand can be like the roof of a department store – it can unite a high street and its stakeholders. And when this happens, it becomes a destination, not just a collection of retail experiences.


Whilst many long for the days of the traditional high street and all the good things that this brings with it, we cannot simply turn back the clock. The 35% increase in superstores over the last decade won’t go away, nor can we change consumers’ attitudes towards price and convenience with a magic wand.

High streets and town centres, like any business, need to accept the inevitability of change.

High streets and town centres, like any business, need to accept the inevitability of change and prepare to become increasingly innovative to provide unique angles on shopping experiences.

Create the right brand character to encourage this innovation and at the core, one will find an ownable retail proposition that will define the high street as a destination in its own right.

* Source: British Retail Consortium

If you would like to know more please contact Erin Rigg e.rigg@smallbackroom.co.uk