We’ve all been in workshops where we are asked to think of a brand we take inspiration from as marketers. Apple, Tesla and Red Bull are three of the ever presents in this list, and the choices don’t really change, wherever the workshop and whatever the sector. I have never heard anyone say ‘Next’ yet. When it comes to brand inspiration, most marketers see it as grey and unremarkable, the John Major of retail brands.
There was a time when Superdry could have been one of the brands called out in workshops, before it became a dad brand and the business started to decline. Before the pandemic it was struggling with the realities of being stuck between bricks and mortar and online, as were many retailers, along with board and strategy issues. Despite this, its aspirations and predictions for the future were bullish and its annual reports were slicker and more persuasive than most. Many predicted that Superdry would pull through. Meanwhile, beneath its greyer exterior, Next’s commentary on its challenges and opportunities was perceptive. This was particularly focused on the necessary move to online retail, the need to diversify, economic threats and wider consumer trends, which all seemed less inward facing than Superdry’s commentary and strategy as a result. Analysis of business performance ratios pre pandemic didn’t necessarily pull one apart from the other but Next seemed (to a minority) to be more likely to grasp the nettle than Superdry, despite the seeming allure of the Superdry brand over the Next brand.
Bricks and mortar are no longer belt and braces
Fast forward to 2021. Superdry has posted three years of losses on dwindling revenues while Next has bounced back. Next has still had its challenges but it’s fascinating to see how its quiet perceptiveness seems to be paying off compared to many of its legacy competitors, some no longer in business and others struggling to adapt to a new retail world. Next’s current business commentary should be considered by marketers, particularly its reflections on the pandemic, the outlook after the pandemic, digital investment, the realities of bricks and mortar now, and necessary collaboration and partnership with brands in fashion and beyond. Its reflections on the realities of the pandemic and crises generally are perceptive, particularly that nothing is ever as good or as bad as the first excited reports would have it. It admits that its gloomiest predictions at the height of the pandemic were wrong, thanks to online retail saving it from the worst effect of physical retail closures. On the flip side, Next believes that despite current demand it is almost certain that underlying conditions are not as good as they appear at the moment. Pent-up demand, a record consumer savings and fewer overseas holidays has boosted sales, but these effects will diminish. (Its other watchouts are an increased cost of living and the effect of seasonal labour shortages on delivery services.) The conclusion is that things may not be as good as they appear today but that the signs are positive for the long-term.
A grey but exciting future awaits
It’s striking that Next talks about online retail and digital communications differently now, particularly its relationship with bricks and mortar retail. Now it talks about ‘the financial drag of our retail business’ and that the diminishing physical restraints of its retail shops have sparked massive positive change and growth in the business. Online is more than a channel, it’s a mindset that has sparked new ways of thinking and working and a move into products and sectors not previous considered. With an online customer base of over 8.4m at the start of 2021 the scale of the opportunity is impressive. We all now know that there was more going on with John Major than we supposed during his political career. (I’m obviously talking about his passion for cricket, his Brixton upbringing and that he was the son of a trapeze artist, a music hall entertainer and seller of garden gnomes.) As with Mr Major, everything isn’t always it seems and if he was the grey man of British politics who had a lot more colour to him under the surface, then the same is true for Next. Why else would Next describe where we are standing now as ‘a daunting but exciting world?’ So try being the first person to put forward Next at your upcoming workshop, or even John Major over Elon Musk.