HMV – How branding, retail and interactive design impacted on the 92 year old firm’s demise

Photo by Matheus Bardemaker on Unsplash

As mentioned before on this blog, most people agree that competition from online retailers and supermarkets – plus the current economic recession – were the key factors which contributed to the recent demise of HMV, the music retail chain and significant presence on the UK’s High Streets for almost a hundred years.

But last week an article in Design Week suggested that design could also have played a role in HMV’s decline. The design challenges faced by HMV can be categorised into three main strands – retail design, branding and interactive design. Two of these were very successful – but one was not.

Despite the fact that they have now come to the end of the line, the HMV retail brand is still very strong. Who can forget the pervasive image of their little dog, Nipper – with his head cocked towards the gramophone, listening intently? This strong, historic image has prompted a collective sadness from many commentators. The last team to work with HMV on the brand helped to create a bright and vibrant physical presence whilst also acknowledging the nostalgic importance of Nipper, teaming bold colours and clean lines with a more stylised version of the iconic dog. It is argued by many that the effectiveness and sympathetic evolution of their brand was one of the things that helped HMV to retain their position in the marketplace for so long, in the face of fierce online competition and declining economic certainly.

The same can be said for HMV’s approach to retail design too. Their aim was provide a welcoming store environment which would engage customers whilst gently encouraging them to buy more than they came in for. Until recently they managed to strike a reasonable balance between providing a welcoming store environment whilst producing acceptable profits. One topic for lament in discussions by music appreciators, such as Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie on BBC Six Music is the way that online shopping cannot replace the physical pleasure of flicking through racks of records or CDs or discussing both classic albums and new releases with highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic store employees. During the chain’s last major redesign, some digital elements including plasma screens were brought in to appeal to the younger market, but the importance of and accessibility to the physical products was always recognised and they were displayed prominently and effectively.

The real problem for HMV then, lay in their failure to translate this to their online presence. Some experts have suggested that the only thing which might have saved them would have been going online-only, ten or fifteen years ago – using their brand strength to outstrip what were then fledgling competitors, such as Amazon. But perhaps with a little bit more investment and positive online strategies they could have retained both markets? As discussed in our recent article on online/offline retailing, many stores are investing in and experimenting with digital/physical shopping experiences were customers can scan QR codes on images of products to order physical items.

Of course there is still the problem of competing with purely online brands such as Amazon who managed not to pay any corporation tax on their profits in the UK last year despite a turnover of 3.3 billion pounds.

Some suggest that the strength of HMV’s brand may see it continue in some form – but it’s a telling sign of the times on the high street – other traditional brands need to experiment with responsive and unique designs for both their physical stores and online sales in order to survive.