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There are plenty of legislative threats to worry UK businesses throughout 2017, says Richard Villag at Smith&+Village, but worrying and complaining is never the right response to legislative threat.

Whether it is the ominous-sounding EU General Data Protection Regulation or the UK Digital Rights Bill, or the million or so employers who will reach their pensions staging date in 2017, or the generational upheaval in UK law which Brexit will deliver, there are plenty of legislative threats to worry UK businesses throughout 2017.

Yet, worrying and complaining is never the right response to legislative threat. A decade ago many pub and restaurant owners were worrying and complaining about the impending smoking ban, but it was the ones who spent their time revamping menus and décor to become more focused on food and families who today are prospering.

In the same way, in autumn 2015 retailers were worrying and complaining about the impending introduction of a 5p charge for plastic bags. While there were few who disagreed with the environmental objectives, many retailers worried about how shoppers would react. Some warned of arguments and chaos at check-outs. Others feared for sales. A plastic bag ban in Los Angeles had prompted a 3% fall in sales, and retailers, already operating on tight margins, were fearful of experiencing a similar drop in revenue.

A different approach

booths preston (002)For Booths, a 170-year old family-owned chain of 28 quality food, drink and grocery stores in the North West, it was a major issue. It was not only a matter of how to introduce the change and the additional cost to its loyal, but often vocal, customer base. It also presented significant challenges of logistics, tax and compliance.

Yet while most retailers were gritting their teeth and thinking of ways to mitigate the costs, Booths got creative. Smith&+Village worked with Booths to conceive and design a range of high quality shopping bags that shoppers were not only willing to pay for, but were delighted to buy and keep – so much in many cases that they were buying them online and reselling them as collectors’ items.

Booths turned a legislative headache into a branding success story and in so doing created a category that to date has been worth more than £500,000. It prompted Chris Dee, CEO at Booths, to say: “Not only have the sales of bags far exceeded expectation but their success as a branding tool has been phenomenal. The potential they have to say something different and engaging about Booths is extraordinary and we want to make as much use of it as we can.”

Here are six learnings for any business that is facing legislative change and is keen to emulate the success of Booths by turning that threat into a branding success story and a sizeable revenue stream.

Learning 1: Know your customer

With a historic heartland of market towns across Lancashire, Cumbria, Cheshire and Yorkshire, Booths has a very distinct customer demographic. It knows those customers, often personally. It understands, and shares, both their irreverent sense of humour and their deep pride in their part of the world.

So, the team at Booths knew how much those customers would love messages on the bags like ‘Preston, not Heston’, ‘The Cake District’, ‘Wuthering Bites’ and ‘Cumbria not Umbria’. They also recognised that the bag had to be practical and fit for purpose, and that it needed to appeal to men as much as women.

This kind of insight and understanding is important for most marketing. When you are trying to turn a legislative challenge into a commercial opportunity, it is essential.

Learning 2: Find inspiration in unusual sources

To find inspiration to tackle this challenge we looked beyond the obvious competitive set. We looked at how fashion houses have always used a strong, iconic carrier bag as part of their communications: just think of Selfridges and Bloomingdales. We looked at how more recent examples by IKEA and Daunt Books have emulated this success. And it got us thinking.

It led to Booths leading their sector. No other food and drink retailer monetised the legislative issue of having to pay for bags in store. No other retailer gained so many benefits from the 5p charge.

Learning 3: Invest in design

Creativity provides the initial spark of an idea, but day in, day out, brilliant business ideas are executed badly and so fizzle out. Success like that achieved by Booths relies on outstanding design as much as it does on inspired creativity.

So, the Booths bags were high quality products. They used a contemporary, striking colour palette, and we worked hard to create those brief, witty phrases. It paid off: income so far from bag sales in the 12 months after launch meant that design fees were already covered nine times.

Learning 4: Get staff on board

For Booths customers to get excited by the bags it was first necessary for Booths employees to be excited by them. They were. As Marketing Director, Julie Mills, says: “The store teams have loved them. They really understand the opportunities the bags present, display them prominently at the front of stores and have great conversations on the intranet about the best ways of promoting them to customers.”

Booths was lucky that the product itself was enough to provoke this reaction among their staff. Even if it takes more work, it is important to engender this kind of enthusiasm and proactive support.

Learning 5: Measure outcomes accurately

How to measure the success of this type of project? The team at Booths could have looked at social media feedback where they received tweets like “@BoothsCountry proudly parade around North London with ‘Preston not Heston’. Only those who get it can be my friend” and “@BoothsCountry can we buy these online?” and “Love them! Am obsessed with getting my hands on the Booths bags. Cumbria not Umbria, Wuthering Bites etc”

They could also have looked at the bald numbers, and cited a 510% increase in the sale of fabric bags and additional revenue of £196,028. However, perhaps the most compelling argument came from comparing these figures to those for the 10p plastic bag for life that it launched at the same time. Sales of those rose but by a far lower 159%

Learning 6: Look beyond your core customers.

Finally, bear in mind that a time of upheaval may be a good moment to look beyond your core customer base and towards a new audience. Given its minimal advertising budget this was important to Booths. The social media comments show how the bags have become walking advertisements for the brand. They have taken Booths out of its regional base. They have become positive subjects for Tripadvisor reviews and are now being traded on Ebay as collectors’ items.

Equally, Booths’s sales have considerable spikes over Christmas and Easter, when non-habitual shoppers come to Booths for their special occasion food and drink. The rise in value for fabric bags over these two spikes was radical, suggesting their appeal to a very wide audience of non-loyal consumers.

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By Richard Village, Partner, Smith&+Village

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