Bricks and clicks, the ecosystem of brands — three lessons to learn

Drew, Junior Strategist,

The British high street was in a sad state in the first half of 2018, like it has been for a number of years. January saw high street sales remain stagnant; in February, The Guardian reported that UK economic growth had slowed to the weakest rate in five years; March welcomed in a six-year low when it came to household spending. And it doesn’t seem to be improving, with the World Cup and a warmer summer keeping people away from the shops. More beloved, well-known brands have struggled or ultimately ceased to exist — Toys ‘R’ Us and Maplin have closed, and Poundworld, Carpetright and New Look have resorted to CVA processes - an insolvency process where companies are able to reach an agreement with business creditors to repay all, or part, of its corporate debts over an agreed period of time. Restaurants haven’t performed much better, with Prezzo shutting down 94 of its 300 restaurants (The Independent) and 35 of the UK’s top 100 restaurant chains are ‘in the red’ (UHY Hacker Young). This is a result of rising inflation, lower wages, growing popularity of online shopping (The Guardian) and lower interest in spending on materialistic possessions — choosing experiences instead (Eventbrite). 

It isn’t, however, because physical locations are losing their relevancy – or at least not entirely.  Rather, successful ecosystem brands see them as a valuable channel and an asset in their customer experience offer. Ecosystem brands are dominating a massive number of markets and sectors, offering seamless, omni-channel experiences and a ‘one-stop shop’ type of offer. And while when initially consider these brands to be places like Google and Amazon, more and more brands seem to be adopting a seamless, omnichannel approach. With this approach, the physical store is not the only option, instead it’s an offered alternative to the online experience- a valuable channel to bring their brand experience to customers. This brings to light the real issue that brands using physical locations are facing – the lack of a clear purpose. So here are some things brands should consider: 

Be interactive and use tech to your advantage

 Selfridges is an example of a great brand experience led by technology. By the end of 2017, despite the rest of the high street struggling to stay afloat, Selfridges announced record profits. They have a dedicated Internet of Things (IoT) department, use augmented reality and offer a truly optimised omni-channel experience through their app. They allow users to personalise their homepage, choose their favourite brands, receive alerts on new products, sync information like wish lists across all their devices and offer shopping capability from the in-app Instagram feed (which at the time of creation, was a first for a UK retailer). The important thing, however, is that they link this impressive online experience to the offline one. While the app/website is completely shoppable, as is their Instagram, the channels also allow access to store and event information, you can order products to collect in store, and book the likes of personal shopping sessions, beauty treatments and more.

By offering a sensory, interactive experience both in and out of store, seamlessly linking the two, Selfridges are a prime example of how brands can set themselves apart and convince more customers to visit physical locations and deepen their relationship with the brand. 

Amplify your brand personality

 One of the main things physical stores have over online is the ability to show the brands personality, and this is what successful brands do well. Take Skinnydip London – a fashion and accessories brand targeted at a young female audience. This demographic is clear across everything they do, but most impressive is that nothing gets lost in the physical stores. They have in-store DJs, photobooths, braid and nail bars, food and drink, parties and ball pits. Topshop do the same – the stores becoming home to hairdressers, piercing and tattoo shops, and again DJs, nail bars and parties. Knowing and amplifying the brand’s personality can turn the mundanity of actual shopping, which is increasingly shunned for the far cosier online shopping, into a full-blown experience. This confidence in your brand will undoubtedly resonate with your target audience, who will, in turn, feel like you know them, and give them an increased desire to spend time on the high street, in stores that appeal to their personality. 

Understand your audience and why they want to visit shops

If you want customers to visit your shops, it’s important to make sure all the decisions are made with the customer in mind. Understanding why they want to shop is important – when it’s so easy to shop online, what is it that’s dragging them to a busy high road on a Saturday afternoon? For some, it’s customer service, i.e. returning something or wanting to speak to someone face-to-face. For others, it’s wanting to see a product in real life, to try it on or check the quality, or perhaps get something they couldn’t online. Off the back of this, it’s important for staff to have the tools to answer these different demands. This again calls upon using tech to your advantage – Zara employees, for example, use iPads to assist customers in finding the product in their size if it’s not on the shop floor. For some, it’s simply that they just prefer to shop in actual stores, so it’s down to the stores to acknowledge this, and make their experience as cohesive and rewarding (if not more so) as it would be online. 

While brands are definitely struggling, physical stores aren’t going anywhere. Amazon, known for their e-commerce, are actually spending more time and money investing in physical stores, acquiring Whole Foods Market Inc. and opening Amazon Go stores. But their place in the world is certainly shifting. Brands need to consider physical shops as part of a wider omni-channel strategy, and work out the role they play in this, even if it requires taking a backseat compared to online. That said, however, they also need to acknowledge the increasing lack of definition between the two. Zara’s iPads allow them not only to find products/sizes in-store, but to order them on behalf of customers, click and collect is something most stores offer now, Amazon lockers are popping up all over high streets, so even if you’ve shopped online it can feed into a physical shopping experience. The lines are blurred, so what brands need to do is utilise the best bits of the various platforms that feed into our current shopping experiences, learning how they can work together, hopefully boosting the high street in a much-needed way. 

Drew Castle


From RAW intern to junior strategist, Drew is putting his curious and detailed mind to work with the likes of Lloyds Register, Royal Mail and London Business School.