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In 2019, How Does A Legacy Business Like HMV Bite Back?

HMV needs to act quickly to avoid common traps in the UK's retail industry.

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HMV needs to act quickly to avoid common traps in the UK's retail industry.

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In 2019, How Does A Legacy Business Like HMV Bite Back?

HMV needs to act quickly to avoid common traps in the UK's retail industry.

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Clambering from its second bankruptcy in just five years, His Master’s Voice needs to prove an old dog can learn new tricks. But in a business landscape where albums, the product HMV built its name on, are widely available for free streaming, how can the retailer bite back?

This isn’t just about HMV. Of course, HMV’s troubles are endemic in an industry that shunned digital transformation until it was too late, but through understanding its troubles and scrambling for solutions, there are valuable business lessons to be learned beyond ‘maybe they should have priced their CDs a bit lower’.

...something about David Bowie.

While HMV’s apparent death wasn’t exactly planned, it’s been given another lease of life. Like David Bowie killing Ziggy Stardust and returning with Aladdin Sane, it’s now in a position to do some real numbers.

Because new boss Doug Putman is no support act. The ‘vinyl king’ of Canada might sound like a pseudonym Ferris Bueller would use to sneak into a French restaurant, but Putman has genuine credentials.

Following HMV’s demise in Canada back in 2017, he purchased the leases for 70 locations, saving over 1,000 jobs and reopening under the guise of his own record store retailer, Sunrise Records. Those stores are now turning a profit, by the way.

Having that extra context can really bolster a full brand relaunch, because someone like Putman has the track record. He’s pulled it off before, he’s seen what works and what doesn’t. But that in itself poses a risk - it’d be very easy to waltz in and just try recreate that success.

If that ends up being the case, HMV could turn out like Homebase - purchased by Australian retailer Wesfarmers, the home improvements giant racked up an eye-watering £57 million in debt, partly due to Wesfarmers not understanding or reacting to the UK market’s nuances. You can’t just pick up one country’s model and imprint it on another. For a successful relaunch, Putman’s got to adapt.

Just like Aladdin is a reaction to Ziggy.

Aladdin Sane was described as ‘Ziggy goes to America’. Whatever HMV becomes, it could do with that same awareness: knowledge of what made it great, with enough differentiation so it doesn’t bank solely on nostalgia.

Nostalgia is key, of course, but not the sole component.

Putman plans to focus on vinyl and back catalogues: the former will target older people reminiscing, and is a key focus in Sunrise’s current operations; while the latter could appeal to youngsters with an interest in vinyl - members of a sort of ‘Generation Physical’, discovering tactile experiences for the first time rather than defaulting to streams.

This tailored approach would put a new spin on an otherwise ‘remember the old days?’ approach.

A relaunch is so much more than just reminding people that you exist, that you were once top dog. It’s about all those things and then some - there’s little point relaunching if you can’t earn your keep in 2019’s business environment.

We’ve worked on some big relaunches, and they’ve succeeded because they still fit in a gap in the market - a game like Crash Bandicoot or Spyro, for example.

They were remasters of nineties classics, and that visual spruce-up was what they needed to translate to a younger, modern audience who missed them first time round, while still capturing the older audience who yearned to be reunited with their then-favourite game.

For HMV, the brand that accounts for 31% of the UK’s physical music sales, it’s all about that USP - it needs to seem young and fresh yet nostalgic all in one go.

Bowie was a big seller, but even in his twilight years, he was unique.

Listen to Blackstar and tell me that’s not a work of genius. While nobody’s expecting Putman to record a legitimate classic and release it two days before his death, he needs HMV to stay ahead of the pack.

And as high street footfall plummets, it’s unique experiences that set businesses apart - selling music is only the start of it. Music is sensory, and HMV should address that - more signings, Q&As, local bands, in-store one-offs that money can’t buy.

Beyond the product, a business like Rapha was a master when it first arrived - the high-end cycling brand set up cafés within its stores, then people ended up buying its branded clothes to feel part of that club. Miles ahead of the game, Rapha.

In a similar move to Currys PC World installing ‘try before you buy’ gaming booths (and, predating that, the old-time audio booths you used to have in music shops), HMV could bring people closer to what they love and others who love it, akin to services like Meetup.

Because no matter how much new technology you throw at them, people actively hunt for that community feel where everyone shares a similar interest.

Watching this relaunch unfold will be interesting. Although HMV expanded into films and wider pop culture, its identity and heart remained in music. Sticking with the latter could be the brand’s third-time-lucky if implemented correctly. If not, it could serve as its undoing.

Colin Clark is head of strategy and planning at launch marketing agency Five by Five.

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In 2019, How Does A Legacy Business Like HMV Bite Back?

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