Designer drugs

Superdrug has reinvented itself, from downmarket discounter to bright, open, design-literate health and beauty retailer. Tim Rich assesses the changes.

SUPERDRUG has been converted from a high street discounter of toiletries to a health and beauty specialist. Or, some may say, from a shop where a completed retail version of The Knowledge was needed to find anything, to a bright, light, open space where shopping is easy.

Superdrug has been reinventing itself; quietly at first, now spectacularly. True, it has a way to go. Some products, like its own-label range of vitamins, present cool graphic imagery – but over inferior base packaging materials and on haphazardly fixed labels. But the thing about the Superdrug transformation – and looking at the changes over the past few years it really can be called a transformation – is that you can be confident the rough edges will go. Week by week, Superdrug is getting it right.

Managing director Jim Glover, appointed in in August 1997 having been deputy managing director at Woolworths, has accelerated the development. He is working closely with widely respected strategic marketing director Steven Round, an eight-year veteran at Superdrug.

This process is no small challenge. The management team has to wholly change an estate of 700 stores while delivering the right returns to shareholders at Superdrug’s parent, Kingfisher. An additional element is that stores serve different shopping “missions”, from rapid necessary purchase visits to a leisurely browsing. It is a tricky balance, and has already necessitated a fall in profits from 42.4m to 41m this year. Kingfisher appears sympathetic, at the moment.

Meeting Glover and Round at Superdrug’s unglamorous Croydon HQ, they are both wearing Superdrug polo shirts, a neat piece of image management that underlines the company’s people-led philosophy, of which more later.

Glover is disarmingly direct about the scale of his task. “The truth is, out there in the market place we are still dressed in our old brand clothes. We only have about 100 stores where we would say this is the new retail brand we’re talking about.”

Whatever its previous shortcomings, Superdrug had gained a reputation for value for money and, says Glover, “if you can already claim that for your brand you mess with it at your peril”. So it hasn’t. It has added to it, with softer values and by focusing on making the brand live through its employees.

“To create a retail brand is hugely difficult,” says Round. “We have 12 000 staff in our shops, 700 shops, several hundred lorries that can cut people up on the road. There are four and a half million shoppers a week – that’s four and half million opportunities to demonstrate a holistic brand to people or piss them off. Why we are stressing the people side is that if you really, really want to create a retail brand your people have to personify it.”

So, the people are the brand, the brand is the people. This two-way anthropomorphisation of brand values was initially driven by the directors but, through a competition with a 5000 prize, the staff were engaged in translating the company’s principles into a mission statement. “It got everyone to sit up and think about what we were trying to be,” says Round.

So, what is Superdrug trying to be? “Our mission is to be the customer’s favourite, up-to-the minute health and beauty shop, loved for its value, choice, friendliness and fun,” declares the adopted mission statement. Cheesy, yes, but also clear and committed.

“Really, our core value is accessibility,” says Glover. “Not just physical accessibility but psychological accessibility. Think of some of the daunting experiences women shopping on the high street for beauty products have, where they go into the upmarket department stores and have these white-clad dragons looking down on them. We want to debunk that.”

Glover characterises the shop-customer relationship in human terms, asserting that many of the most successful high street retailers have developed a parent-child relationship. Boots seems a good example, but he resists that temptation. “We, with our brand, would be the customer’s best friend,” he continues. “Adult to adult. That can be a very clear positioning and not one that is owned by a major competitor on the high street at the moment.”

Accessible, informal and friendly. This is unarguably contemporary. But do such values mean the shop is no longer interested in its historic customer base? “People say Superdrug has gone upmarket,” says Round. “Superdrug has not gone upmarket, it has simply given more middle class consumers permission to feel good about shopping at Superdrug.”

There is a whiff of spin to this statement but the point is sound. Superdrug isn’t abandoning its traditional base for wealthier punters, it is attempting to embrace both, and everything in between – or in Round’s words, “health and beauty enthusiasts, mostly women, between 25 and 35”. Women below 25 and over 35 aspire to that group, he says.

Perhaps the most tangible aspect of the new Superdrug is its Nucleus-designed starfish visual identifier. When it was unveiled three years ago, detractors said it was vague and irrelevant to the products. Others praised it, saying its natural, water-based, childlike associations were perfect for the new, expanding brand. When it was discovered the starfish is also a Chinese symbol for eternal youth, much of the criticism floated away like flotsam and jetsam.

Glover underlines the importance of the starfish. “Beacons like that are very important, particularly when you are evolving a retail brand,” he says. Round adds: “It’s interesting that our people start to wear the icon. It’s like they’re saying ‘I am in tune with the aspirations and values of this company’… The people at this office have to work bloody hard and they have to work opposite a sewage farm in Croydon. So they’re here because of what they can achieve. For them the badge has become a statement.”

The New Concept Superdrug stores are making statements out in the high street too. “Design of the stores is giving us big benefits,” says Glover. The new stores, designed by CDW, are adapting elements of the language of glossy magazines – the modern oracles of health and beauty – to a 3D environment. So shoppers in some stores are greeted by a front cover-style poster and then find zoned areas such as tanning, cosmetics and food, in the same way features are segmented in a magazine. Throughout the store, information-led point-of-sale material uses an editorial tone of voice. It’s like a walk-in magazine, a logical extension of the modern product-obsessed glossy, but with no physical distance between the acts of “reading” the information and buying the product. This editorialising supports other initiatives, like Superdrug’s annual awards for its best selling products.

It is probably Superdrug’s own-label packaging that has moved on the most. Two years ago, the in-house studio was turned into a design management function and, despite some resistance from own-label manufacturers, a roster system was developed for pack design. Watching the Boots experience had helped a bit, says Round: “I think the biggest lesson, and probably the only lesson, we have taken from that is the benefits of consistency over a long time, including how hard it had to work to achieve it.”

The roster now includes Nucleus, which advised on its function, The Creative Leap, Turner Duckworth, Wickens Tutt Southgate and new arrival Williams Murray Banks. There is a refreshing collectivism to its operation, with the consultancies agreeing a common fee structure and, according to Nucleus board director Lindsey Cunningham, cooperating through the sharing of thoughts, problems and ideas. The company values of fun and friendliness inform this working process, says Cunningham. Glover certainly approves of the results: “There’s no doubt about it, the change in our own-brand and own-label presentation is phenomenal.”

If other retailers are concerned by Superdrug’s output they may be in for some nasty surprises. Like a new sub-brand called ReTreat. Its mix of vague Orientalism and natural remedies speaks the language of the market brilliantly. Another is Secret Weapon body make-up. These are fun products and, in this era of EPOS-fuelled sales paranoia, any company that uses names like Pinky, Perky and Lady Marmalade for products deserves congratulations.

Meanwhile, the company is alert to fresh territories for its brand. London’s new Oxford Street store has a hair salon. What next? A cosmetics range? Maybe. In-store cafés? Perhaps. Overseas stores? “Not at the moment,” says Glover, “but I say ‘at the moment’…”

In retail, particularly with a hint of recession in the air, success is a constantly moving target. But Glover is confident a clear-sighted, self-aware Superdrug will thrive. “As you look round the world of retailing you can see the real successes are the ones which are at peace with their brand. They know what the brand is about and are not constantly striving to redefine it in different ways. Unless you have brand definition all other decisions are temporary. And unless you understand that you’ll never become a true retail brand or a long-term success.”

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