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  • Writer's pictureMark Runacus

Can adland save the high street?

Updated: Jul 14, 2020

Can adland save the high street? Short answer, probably not single-handedly. But I do believe we can play a very significant role in helping to re-imagine and re-launch it. Now that does sound like a job for us doesn’t it?

I've been focussed on the pressing issues facing our retailers because so much expectation is being placed on them in terms of helping to re-start our economy as we emerge from lockdown. I looked at some immediate post lockdown issues in this post a few weeks ago.

But now looking more broadly, it's worth remembering that adland benefitted hugely from the retail boom of the last century and so I believe we have a responsibility to guide our remaining retail clients through these challenging times: over 140,000 retail jobs were lost in 2019 and more than 16,000 shops closed. Needless to say the equivalent figures for 2020 are already looking grim. The latest footfall figures from Springboard show that since shops began to re-open in June, high street visits were down 65% compared to the same period last year.

So, what can adland do to save – or more importantly change – the high street?

Retail gurus – Grimsey, Portas, and Timpson to name but three - are pretty consistent on the core issues: there’s too much retail real estate now, so we must re-purpose it to a mix of new urban residential, workspaces for knowledge-based jobs, and improved leisure and entertainment. Local authorities must be empowered and financed to rejuvenate our town centres, allowing compulsory purchase of ugly empty units, and access to better data on landlords to force them to take action. High street retail taxation needs re-visiting to be fairer and shared more equally. The high street regeneration movement needs to be joined-up, both inside government and in the private sector.

Retail experts demand up to date accessible technology for the high street too, like free lightning-speed wireless to facilitate new technologically-driven retail experiences.

They agree we need variety on the high street, which predominantly means more niche independents. And that’s probably the first place that adland can help: I’ve been inspired by American Express’ award-winning work championing independent merchants. So I would hope a body like the Advertising Association can provide a common platform for the payment brands, the outdoor media owners, and the technology providers to collaborate and provide support, resources and advertising tools so that these businesses can compete on a level playing field with their big chain competitors. One powerful tool the independents need particular help with is collecting and harnessing customer data to optimise and personalise our local shopping, and to make retail marketing more cost-effective.

The big girls and boys need our advertising help too, to create and promote better, more human, more engaging experiences, and to sweep away their bland, cookie-cutter salesmanship. Talking in advertising language, the high street needs to address some important features and benefits – and I’ll explain how we sell them in a moment – and those features include more, better-placed, free parking; better street lighting; better payment solutions; and a better multi-channel multi-platform experience (click, check, try, exchange, recommend, collect, delay pay, scan, deliver and more), embracing every way to shop to build high street 2.0.

At the time of writing we are about three weeks into the opening up of the high street since lockdown, and unsurprisingly footfall is down year on year as many consumers are still reluctant to go out.

Beyond the specific issues presented by COVID-19 one way to drive footfall is for every town centre to have an events strategy, probably implemented by the local authority, but joined up and treated like a big media platform, therefore offering national sponsorship and media opportunities for the known brands, and affordable engagement opportunities for the local ones. Here adland delivers the strategy, targeting, creativity, and marketing.

Undoubtedly the high street needs to re-invent itself and be about more than shopping, not least because we’re close to reaching peak stuff. And those of us in adland know how to help brands re-discover themselves: we should devise the new high street’s brand purpose, and then sell that purpose in all the ways we know best. I passionately believe we need our high streets to deliver a higher order benefit. And that benefit is community. The new high street will be the place where community happens. Our country has been deeply and painfully divided, and I was taught that one way to bridge ideological divisions is to get together and talk. We should be communicating with each other in and around the high street in our communal spaces for living, shopping, entertainment and more. And looking to our future, we need community to support so many aspects of today’s and tomorrow’s society, things that the state may no longer be able to finance fully going forward.

We continue to beat ourselves up over the fact that UK advertising has the lowest public approval rating. If we can play any role in re-defining and re-building our community, I will definitely be proud to be an ad man.

Here's our podcast all about retail post COVID:

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