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Coming to terms with a changing world

 

A Ford Escort from team Woolworth, with a Wonder of Woolworth livery competed in a number of rallies during the 1970s

By the 1970s some of Woolworth's traditions looked outdated. The chain had not kept pace with rapid changes in marketplace working practices. For example at a time when people had started switching jobs in mid career, the High Street giant stuck with its tried and tested policy of filling virtually every role from within.

The Executive Directors had started their careers in the stores, or occasionally as trainee accountants. Non-Executives were only elected to the Board when this became a legal requirement, and the candidates were drawn from the firm's trusted advisers like former external auditors.

The approach was good for morale, but it left the Company blinkered and lacking an external perspective.

 

Finally it dawned that the firm must change or die. The Board was forced to address escalating costs and outmoded working practices. At a time of very highly inflation, sales, margins and profits had not kept pace. The workforce was restless and highly unionised. Any turnaround plan would need to win over the hearts and minds of the staff who served up to ten million customers each week, and would need to convince investors that the long-founded chain could rediscover its roots as a modern, dynamic retailer.

 

The logo of the late and lamented ABM (Allen, Brady & Marsh) advertising agency - the brains behind great campaigns like Lotta Bottle (Milk) This is the age of the train (British Rail), Fit the Best (Everest) and The Wonder of Woolworth

The Board made some good choices, selecting Peter Marsh's up-and-coming advertising agency Allen, Brady and Marsh as a key partner. ABM's services included brand identity, advertising and public relations. Rod Allen coined the new slogan 'The Wonder of Woolworth' with a catchy jingle and persuaded sceptical executives to allow the colloquial chorus 'that's the wonder of good old Woolies'. Meanwhile Peter Marsh worked on wider corporate identity, advising on everything from uniforms to shopfittings, with a special focus on investor relations and engaging the public through sponsorship and good works.

Under the Agency's guidance the Woolworth name appeared on rally cars that won races, a tall ship that set a world record in a 1976 Transatlantic Race, London Buses celebrating the Silver Jubilee of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II, and even at the Royal Tournament. Marsh even persuaded the former Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Edward Heath PC MP, to conduct at the Woolworth European Young Musician of the Year contest.

 

The crew of Great Britain II - a youth team - all in Wonder of Woolworth t-shirts at the launch in 1976.According to the PR Wonder of Woolworth t-shirts were a hit with the crew of Great Britain II

 

Great Britain II, which set a world record in the 1976 Transatlantic Tall Ships race and was sponsored by F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd.
A sticky round label which was affixed to point of sale signs by Woolworth staff to mark the company's sponsorship of Great Britain II, which competed in the Transatlantic Small Ships Race

 

ABM evangelized the theory that sponsorship deals would convey the Woolworth name in a positive light to the public. They believed it would also improve the staff's pride in the brand. They were less candid about the risks associated with corporate sponsorship, but fortunately they backed a winner as Great Britain II won the race rather than sinking into oblivion.

 

The Royal Tournament - sponsored by WoolworthWinfield banner hoardings at the edge of soccer pitches regularly featured in televised matches during the 1970sThe Wonder of Woolworth rose was grafted by legendary grower Harry Wheatcroft, while Woolworth Bournemouth was modelled for a local miniature village.

 

An advertisement for Winfield Fishing Tackle from the 1970s. The advertising strapline "Winfield Fishing Tackle isn't cheap, it just costs less." helped to establish the range as the UK market leader

The Agency also targeted proposals for PR to piggy-back on the television presence. For example to promote its own-brand Winfield name, the Board was advised to choose a high potential product range and market it strongly.The halo effect helped to boost perception of the brand as a whole.

The Directors took the bait, choosing fishing tackle, in a campaign nicknamed 'hook, line and sinker'. It included press advertising, sponsorship of the Angling Village at the Earls Court Boat Show, and an exclusive book by Mike Pritchard. The popular fisherman got themto go a step further and sponsor 'The Winfield Lagoon' at the Pierrepoint National Water Sports Centre.

By 1980 this achieved a dominant 50% share of the angling market ... and the Winfield name was firmly associated with worms !

Woolworths build Winfield fishing tackle into Britain's biggest angling brand in the 1970s by a mixture of in-store promotion, press advertising and public relations

 

Everybody needs Woolworth - fashion advertisements from the 1970sThe front cover of an Observer Colour Supplement in the 1970s promotes a feature about Woolworth's high value new fashion range. (Courtesy of Guardian Media Group Ltd)

 

Similar techniques were used to promote Woolworth's growing range of budget clothing. As well as fashion shows and traditional print advertising, public relations experts placed stories in national newspapers. These featured whole outfits, including accessories like ear-rings and watches, with editorial that highlighted the exceptional value for money of the red-front store range. ABM were particularly proud to secure the front cover of the prestigious Observer Colour Supplement.

 

Right Hon. Edward Heath, PC, MP conducts the Woolworth Youth Orchestra. Music was the former Prime Minister's enduring passion

 

 

To promote Woolworth's growing range of budget classical music, the firm sponsored the European Community Youth Orchestra, which included no less than forty young British Musicians. Former Prime Minister, the Right Hon. Edward Heath, PC MP, was enrolled as guest conductor to complement Claudio Abbado.

 

Filmharmonic 76 - a celebration of music from the movies, sponsored by Woolworth

 

Woolworth also sponsored Filmharmonic '76 which celebrated music from the movies, backed by albums for sale in the stores. In-store there were also exclusive LPs from a number of popular artists including Andy Williams and Johnny Matthis.

 

The salvo of advertising and public relations, alongside the award-winning Wonder of Woolworth TV campaign, brought substantial increases in traffic to the stores and generated much-needed incremental sales. But it was expensive and, according to some investors, extravagant. While it brought big gains in the short term, it wasn't long before competitors were launching campaigns of their own like "Oo oo oo get some oo from Boots", which began to eat into the initial gains.

 

Geoffrey Rodgers (Joint MD), Pat Downs (Personnel Director) and Keith Willoughby (Store Operations Director) at a Board Sub-Committee meeting in 1979External help from ABM brought some respite from investor demands for change. But the fact remained that the Board remained largely home-grown with little or no external experience.

To redress the balance the Board co-opted Mrs. Pat Downs (right) as their first woman Director, after a training period of two years as the "first female executive." Internally they apologised for "piping in" a new manager to head their Bureau of Staff Relations, assuring Managers that she was "competent".

In 1976 a change in the law brought the first Non-Executive Director. A former external auditor was co-opted. Managers were assured that the new man had a comprehensive knowledge of the firm, even though he had not worked in-store. It seemed they planned to jump the chasm in a series of small steps!

 

Public relations advertising, targeting investors through the financial press highlighted Woolworths mass market appeal and the ways in which the Company built strong market shares. This example promotes Cover Plus paint which was built up to be Britain's best seller.

In 1980 a new Joint Managing Director, Geoffrey Rodgers, (pictured above, centre) sought to reassure investors who had been shaken by news of the tragedy at the firm's Manchester store. He fronted a new series of television commercials personally, promoting 'Operation Crackdown', a programme of deep price cuts.

The supremo also decided to explain the firm's strategy and strengths in a series of press advertisements in the broadsheet newspapers that were most popular with company investors and city analysts. Each advert, which ran in The Times and The Financial Times, focused on a single area of the operation like DIY, Fashion or Records and Tapes, and argued that Woolworth was reinventing the variety store.

The campaign had an unplanned side-effect. Some believe that it highlighted the break-up value of the organisation and attracted the surprise takeover bid which led to a change of ownership in 1982.

After ignoring the world outside for seventy three years, all but one of the Board was swept aside, as the High Street chain prepared for a rude awakening!

 

A 1981 corporate advertisement targeted at investors highlighting the strengths of Woolworth music offerCorporate advertising targeted at investors rather than customers, highlighting the big market share that Woolworth had established for Seeds, particularly the Cuthbert own-brand

The PR showcased the brand's strengths, but the Board seemed inept.

Investors saw much higher returns after the business was taken over in 1982 and overhauled more radically.

The staff soon had to face new commercial realities. The sprawling City Centre stores started to vanish from the High Street, as the management learnt the realities of 'market rent' and return on capital employed.

 

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