Boots are on another foot

Industry experts are heralding the arrival of Jon Turner at Boots, but does he have the right prescription to inject life back into the retailer? Richard Clayton reports

Jon Turner is mid-way through his second week in the design hot seat at Boots the Chemists. That’s hardly enough time to catch your breath, let alone get your feet under the table, but the retailer will be hoping he brings some stability to its creative helm.

Boots hasn’t exactly been rudderless since John McConnell quit as internal design consultant in the summer, but several months of speculation about his successor can’t have been good for the nerves of roster consultancies, especially when figures released last month showed the retailer failing to convert improved sales into increased profits.

Most groups are keeping their own counsel, perhaps until it becomes clearer how Turner will exercise his role. One thing is certain though. The fact that Turner is a full-time Boots employee – rather than a consultant like McConnell – will change the dynamic. His handling of Boots’ preferred supplier relationship with WPP Group might set the tempo.

McConnell maintains he was never subject to any pressure to use WPP-owned consultancies. ‘I insisted Boots should use the best talent and always suggested smaller businesses and owner-practitioners, because you get the best person in the consultancy working on your job,’ he says.

A Boots spokesman implies the WPP deal has greater bearing on advertising and media buying. But, he adds, it’s primarily about ensuring ‘everything that has the Boots name on it has a Boots signature – and that hasn’t changed’.

Interbrand international creative director Marksteen Adamson doesn’t envy Turner. ‘It’s not easy working as an in-house design director. Some companies have done it very well like Apple and Orange, but often the system gets to you in the end and you lose sight of why you did it in the first place. The problem is staying truthful to your design heritage and not compromising when the going gets tough,’ he says.

Adamson believes outside design groups must be kept in the loop for Boots to come up with the innovative ideas it needs. He endorses chief executive Steve Russell’s back-to-basics approach.

‘Boots’ strength is its simplicity. Don’t do what everyone else seems to be doing by trying too hard. Own-brand shouldn’t behave like main brands. They should try to always maintain an air of independence. Boots strips all the brand jargon that we usually have to endure from big brand leaders.’

But it’s open to question whether Russell’s strategy is much more than a default response. Boots’ attempts at diversification have seldom convinced either shoppers or shareholders. Its Wellbeing offer, currently believed to be the centre of management consultant McKinsey’s attention, lost £16m in the six months to September and McConnell thinks the launch of the Pure Beauty offshoot was bungled.

‘Endless reviews’ of Boots’ positioning over the past 20 years have been ‘a waste of time’, he argues. The brand’s core idea, he believes, is obvious: ‘the nation’s chemist’ in a mass retailing context.

‘They hated me saying that,’ McConnell confides. ‘But no alternative positioning held water for more than 20 minutes in my view. Every baby [in Britain] has had talcum powder from Boots on their bum – and [Boots’ management] assume that’s a negative.’

Boots should strive to be ‘the next best thing to the NHS’, McConnell maintains. ‘If it abandons that and becomes just another retailer, a Debenhams say, it would be throwing it all away.’

But supermarkets are eating into the health and beauty market. Liberalisation of pharmacy licensing, which is likely to be proposed by the Office of Fair Trading, would give brands like Superdrug an incentive to expand more aggressively into the ‘primary care’ services that McConnell feels are Boots’ preserve and the consumer landscape is changing too.

Jill Marshall, managing director, branding and packaging, at Design Bridge, says, ‘For me, Boots seems caught in a time warp – it just doesn’t feel like a modern retail environment. It’s quite crowded. The stores are often small, so this doesn’t help.

‘The visual identity has its roots firmly in the brand’s pharmaceutical heritage. It’s quite cold and clinical. Boots own-brand packaging under McConnell has been simple, well-designed and often quite graphic. But does it connect on an emotional level as well as it could with consumers, [or is it] reinforcing the perception that the brand is slightly at a distance from its consumers?’

For Marshall, the brand’s values – ‘quality, expertise, trust’ – need to be balanced with softer cues that ‘draw consumers into the brand in a more meaningful way’.

Brownjohn founder and former partner at The Partners James Beveridge describes Turner’s appointment as an ‘interesting change of course’ for the company. ‘With his background at The Body Shop and Enterprise IG, he’ll bring more consumer focus to it, I suspect,’ Beveridge says.

‘Boots is a great brand that stands for confidence, the family and reassurance. But when you stretch into non-core areas you open it up to competition and lose focus,’ he suggests. ‘Boots should look to guide people through their complicated and stressful lives.’

Could a revamped and holistic approach to Wellbeing prove a tonic to Boots? Turner might be asking McKinsey that right now.

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