The curious case of the WHSmith branding ‘trial’

WHSmith has showcased a new version of its logo on a small number of UK shopfronts, with its name shortened to WHS. The new design has caused confusion and dismay, but offers some lessons for brands in how to handle an identity rollout

Image courtesy Lewis Middleton

Just before Christmas, when everyone in the design community thought it was safe to relax, a branding drama broke out across social media, which has caused chatter throughout the festive period.

In case you’ve sworn off social for the last two weeks, here’s a recap: retailer WHSmith, first established in the UK in 1792, suddenly showcased a new, shortened version of its logo across ten of its stores, including outlets in Preston and York, which were photographed and shared on social media. Along with the changed logo, the new signage features a list of products sold in-store and the name of each location. The result was bafflement and dismay, as people slammed the new design, in particular for its similarity to the NHS branding.

After a wide pummelling, the social media conversation followed its natural cycle, with voices starting to emerge in support of the brand. It should be noted that these were not in defence of the new logo’s design, but instead included the proposition that the whole thing was a great ‘PR stunt’ in the all-PR-is-good-PR mould, as well as the questionable argument that as we didn’t know ‘the brief’, it was unfair to criticise the results. Marketing Week’s Mark Ritson also entered the fray with a ‘calm down, dear’ style post on LinkedIn that suggested that the critics should stand down due to not knowing the full story.

“This is a TEST,” he wrote on December 31. “Repeat this is a TEST. The company is running this rebrand across 10 stores or <1% of its network. If it had done this across the other 99.9% then the comments and criticism might have been warranted. But they haven’t. Because this is a TEST.”

As for WHSmith itself, they have issued the following statement, confirming the trial: “With some customers telling us they aren’t always aware of the wide range of high quality, great value products we stock in our high street stores, we are testing new signage at a small number of locations, to localise our offer and highlight the key product categories customers can always find at WHSmith. This is a trial and only in ten locations. There is no plan to roll this out to the rest of the estate.”

While WHSmith confirms it has no more detail to add at this stage, the statement from the brand opens out a number of questions, not least who is behind the design changes – did they work with an agency, or is the work from an in-house team? Will the signage on the ten stores be reversed if it is deemed unsuccessful?

Nothing is certain, though even at this stage, the WHS logo story is shaping up to be a case study to learn from. Here are some of the lessons we can take from it so far:

WHSmith store in a Colchester hospital. Image courtesy WHSmith
Inside WHSmith high street store. Image courtesy WHSmith


This is the first and most crucial point to take away from the WHSmith logo story, and in fact from any branding launch that finds itself trending on social media: brands should expect this to happen and actually be quite chuffed that it does, though ideally it should not all be expressions of horror.

For heritage brands such as WHSmith, this attention will be particularly intense. Audiences have grown up with this brand and are accustomed to seeing its logo as a fixture on the high street. The brand may have gone through a pretty stark expansion in recent years, with a particular focus on travel outlets, which has proved very profitable, as well as appearances in less expected places such as hospitals, but it will still be linked for many with childhood trips to get school supplies and the like.

This depth of feeling does not make identities sacred but they should be handled with care and consideration. And brands should be braced to explain what they are doing and why. Historical examples of when this can go wrong of course include Gap, but more recently Johnson & Johnson, which caused uproar when it dropped its distinctive scripted identity.

As Paula Scher pointed out in an interview last year in Creative Review, when it comes to branding, designers should be creating work “for the future”. “The goal of an identity is something that’s going to last for 25 years,” she said. In this light, the roll out of a ‘trial’ – which does not appear anywhere else on WHSmith’s brand touchpoints, such as its website or social media – feels incoherent and confusing.

WHSmith’s at Heathrow Airport. Image courtesy WHSmith
International WHSmith travel store. Image courtesy WHSmith; Photography by J David Buerk


In line with the first point, when releasing a new logo, brands should have their story ready for launch. All too often a new logo is released as a single image on social media, as if that is the sole outcome of a rebranding exercise, resulting in an outcry over the ‘rip off’ costs of design, and often fuelling any negative reaction to the new look.

Having the whole story ready is respectful to the designers, of course, but also to the audience, who may have strong associations with the past logo. Examples of this recently include the launch of the We ♥ NYC campaign, which people initially thought was replacing Milton Glaser’s classic I ♥ NY logo, and the temporary revamp of the British Rail double arrow logo in 2021 as part of a campaign to articulate the environmental benefits of train travel.

The logo in the latter example was just one element of a wider campaign but was the only part that was initially released, causing an uproar which led to the original designer of the 1965 logo, Gerry Barney, describing the new look in an interview with the Guardian as “a load of old bollocks”, and leaving the designers of the new campaign, Studio Blackburn, rather hung out to dry.

“I think people focused on the logotype straightaway, and that’s the opposite to how we designed this. We started off with a creative solution that was to make the messaging as green as possible,” said Paul Blackburn at the time. “And almost the final point of that creative journey was to make the logotype green. That was where we ended, so it’s almost like judging the whole thing backwards.”

Sharing the strategy is not necessarily going to make audiences like the new design, of course, but at least it will help explain it and put pay to the ‘we need to see the brief’ defence in cases such as WHSmith’s design rollout.

WHSmith heritage cube branding, reused in 2017 to celebrate the brand’s 225th birthday. Image courtesy WHSmith
The Bookshop by WHSmith. Image courtesy WHSmith


In our cluttered media landscape, brands rely on their logos and identities more than ever to resonate with customers. As Wolff Olins’ Wayne Deakin pointed out in a recent column for CR, it’s often the “micro moments” that matter most in capturing an audience’s attention, and in order to do this, people need to know at a glance who is speaking to them, whether that be in a digital or real life space. If your branding is confusing, that point of connection is easily lost.

“Digital has accelerated the importance of all these little moments as more of our lives are hybrid – lived at once both physically and online, or in both places at once. Which makes thinking about the brand experience in the round and through the lens of micro-moments – where the customer (or employee) is often won or lost – now business-critical,” said Deakin.

One result of the new WHS trial branding – which features a different font as well as a shortened name – is that it highlights how varied WHSmith’s identity has become. There is the core logo that we are all familiar with, of course, but this appears in different iterations depending on the setting, occasionally with different colourways or – as is the case with the brand’s bookshops, which are already easily confused with Waterstones – as a secondary name.

While the brand might be more commonly known as ‘Smith’s’ than WHS, the decision to switch to WHS in its logo is not a new one – this is already used in some formats by the brand, and also harks back to its historical cube branding, which was revisited in 2017 by the brand for its 225th birthday. Yet there is nothing in the design of the new branding to link to any of these earlier versions, hence the confusion it has caused, especially when the more widely known logo is still in use everywhere else.

With WHSmith set to expand further in 2024, particularly in North America, a revisit of its identity is timely. Judging the results of this test though, the brand might be wise to go back to the drawing board.