Shopfront displays during the first UK national lockdown
In the UK, retail shop design as a key form of marketing can be traced back to the 18th century. At that time, establishing a distinct store identity was already very important due to the selling of unbranded goods by most retailers (Walsh, 1995). Logo and fascia design have traditionally been the primary form used for expressing store identity (Kent, 2003) with shopfront displays reinforcing certain aspects of the shop’s brand personality and values and to convey a desired public image (Martineau, 1958). In the UK, there are various examples of retail outlets using their shopfronts not only to advertise goods or services being offered inside but to also show support for a particular cause or event (e.g. poppies display for Remembrance Day) or to promote a political stance (e.g. displaying a Vote Leave poster during the Brexit campaign). In this article, I discuss the visual communication approaches used by retail outlets to show their support and association with the so-called rainbow campaign during first UK national lockdown which started on the 23rd of March 2020 after the Prime Minister’s televised announcement instructing people to stay at home and all shops selling non-essential items to close with immediate effect.
There’s a rainbow after every storm
The use of the rainbow sign during the pandemic seemed to have originated from Italy where mothers have been encouraging their children to draw pictures of rainbows and to get them displayed on their house windows to cheer up passers-by and to convey messages of hope. A similar phenomenon was observed in the UK where the rainbow sign was also closely linked with showing support to country’s National Health Service (NHS) – the publicly funded health care service that everyone living in the UK can use without being asked to pay the full cost of the service. During the rainbow campaign, not only were people displaying rainbow symbols on their houses, but many were also sending rainbow drawings to their local NHS hospitals. Some shop owners and/or employees were also displaying their children’s drawings on their shopfronts. Given my marketing communications background, I became particularly interested in analysing that phenomenon and wanted to know more about how shop owners (or their employees) were using shopfronts to communicate during that period of commercial inactivity. My observations took place in the coastal town of Bournemouth situated in South West England during the first two weeks of May 2020. I identified five main visual approaches which are discussed in more detail in the next sections: (1) Display of children’s drawings (2) Rainbow displays with no other explicit references (3) Rainbow displays combined with NHS references (4) Emphasis on NHS identifiers (5) Textual notices.
1. Display of children’s drawings
The first type of visual communication approach used by retail outlets consisted of simply displaying artworks made by children who would most likely be related to the owners or people working for the store. The hand-drawn visuals expressed various types of messages, including expressions of support, gratitude, and love for the NHS (e.g., Thank You to the NHS) as well as direct messages targeted to passers-by (e.g., Stay Safe). In Figures 1.1. to 1.3, the visuals seem to consist of original drawings that would possibly be drawn by the children of the owners or employees of the shop. Such an approach might be an attempt by the shop owners/employees to communicate in a more personal way to their target audiences or to participate in a more authentic way in the rainbow movement. Figure 1.4. depicts the display of a reproduction of one of the winning entries of a children’s drawing competition that was organised by the popular tabloid newspaper The Daily Mirror. The newsbrand encouraged its readers to “pick up today’s edition of the paper to find a A3 version of the poster and hang it up in your window”. I have included this example here to illustrate that there could also reproductions of children’s drawings taken from various sources being displayed by some shops.
2. Rainbow displays with no other explicit references
The second approach observed was an emphasis placed on the rainbow sign itself without any explicit reference to the NHS or any other textual references. In most cases, more prominence was given to the rainbow arcs on the storefront window glass panels, where different production approaches were used. Rainbow signs seemed to have been professionally designed (e.g., Figure 2.1) or handcrafted using either an elaborate artistic approach (Figure 2.2) or rudimentary means using affordable materials available on hand (e.g., Figure 2.3). It is worth observing here that before the lockdown, a solo rainbow display on a storefront in any form whatsoever in the UK would have been most probably associated with showing support and association with the LGBT+movement. However, such rainbow displays acquired different meanings during the lockdown, a clear manifestation of how a symbol can acquire new interpretations in a particular context during a specific period (Lorusso, 2015). LGBT+ activist and journalist Jamie Wareham wrote on Forbes about how some LGBT+ people in the UK were feeling uneasy about the appropriation of the rainbow symbol and were condemning those opportunistic online merchants which had rebranded the LGBT+ pride banners as “Thank You NHS” flags.
3. Rainbow displays combined with NHS references
The third approach identified was using the rainbow arches or colours with explicit reference to the NHS. As depicted in the examples above, the visual aesthetic approaches adopted by different stores seemed to have also been influenced by various factors such as time, cost, and practical considerations. For instance, Figure 3.1 depicts a visual display approach that consisted of using colourful glass markers to draw a rainbow along with messages of support to the NHS (Thank You NHS) as well as a personal message to passers-by (See You Soon). There were other types of practical approaches adopted such as hanging ready-made printed banners on shopfront windows (e.g. Figures 3.2 an 3.3.); using printed A4-sized papers to display on existing acrylic stands used usually to display property listings (e.g. Figure 3.4); or gluing ready-made stickers as exemplified in Figure 3.5. The use of stickers seemed to be a popular approach used by many retail outlets probably due to their accessibility and affordability. Various versions of such stickers could be easily purchased online – the ones used by the shop owner in Figure 3.5 were sold on a popular online marketplace by a supplier who claimed that all profits made from the sale of these stickers would be donated to the NHS.
4. Emphasis on NHS identifiers
The fourth approach used by certain retail outlets was to emphasize more on the NHS identifiers (e.g., acronym, logo, colours, etc.). The NHS logo is one of the most recognised signs in the UK. It is in the form of a lozenge with a specific blue tone (know as the NHS blue or Pantone 300), and according to perception studies conducted by the organisation, the logo “evokes positive, rational and emotional associations of trust, confidence, security and a sense of dependability”. The examples shown in this section shows the different ways certain retail outlets have been making use of the various NHS identifiers to express their messages of support and love visually. In some cases, the logo itself was used prominently (e.g., Figure 4.1.), and in other cases, textual references were used with shades of blue to evoke the NHS colours (e.g., Figure 4.5). In a previous article, I discussed the potential brand image benefits that some commercial brands might be derive from showing their support or association with the NHS brand prominently. Drawing upon Anderson’s information integration theory, I explained that a passer-by might develop more favourable attitudes towards a shop which is displaying a “We Love NHS” sticker if showing public support to the NHS is something that has a large weight and high positive value for that particular person.
5. Textual notices
I also observed that some shops, rather than displaying rainbow symbols or expressions of support for the NHS, preferred to only display textual notices to the attention of their main customers. In a situation of lockdown where shop owners (or their employees) could not have the usual personal face-to-face interaction with their customers, the shopfront window became another important medium to keep some sort of relational communication. There were diverse tones of voice used in the textual notices which seemed to result from each shop’s distinct brand personality. It is also worth noting that while some signs were professional designed and carefully displayed so as not to adversely affect shopfront aesthetics, other signs seemed to have been hastily glued on shop windows most probably due to time constraints.
A combination of any of the five approaches
Apart from these five main approaches identified there were also some instances where shops were using a combination of any of the five approaches mentioned above. For example, Figure 6.1. illustrates how a local barber shop crafted a visual display using that blended nicely with its own brand identifiers but then also added some original children’s drawings. The same approach seemed to have been used in the examples shown in Figures 6.2 and 6.3.
While there are various visual angles available to explore the numerous aspects of a particular urban environment (Pauwels, 2001), my way of seeing things (Berger, 2008) was influenced by my background and interest in marketing communications. Therefore, the visuals presented in this article were mostly discussed through a branding lens. The five main approaches identified were based on observations made on a limited sample in a specific geographical region in the UK. However, it is most likely that such approaches would have been adopted in other parts of the country as well. Based on these findings, I would be very interested to make comparisons with visual communication approaches used by retail shops in different cultural contexts. I also think that it would have been great to be able to gather the perspectives of the shop owners or employees themselves since this would have allowed for much richer insights and deeper analysis. Though the visuals presented in this article are discussed through a limited analytical lens, I hope that they would also encourage readers to develop their own interpretations and “search for wider contexts of meaning” (Grady, 1992: 30).
Berger J (2008) Ways of seeing. London: Penguin.
Grady J (1991) The visual essay and sociology. Visual Studies 6(2): 23-38.
Kent, T (2003) 2D23D: Management and design perspectives on retail branding. International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management 31(3): 131-142.
Lorusso AM (2015) Cultural Semiotics. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Martineau P (1958) The personality of the retail store. Harvard Business Review 36: 47-55.
Pauwels L (2012) Conceptualising the ‘visual essay’ as a way of generating and imparting sociological insight: Issues, formats, and realisations. Sociological Research Online 17(1): 76-86.
Walsh C (1995) Shop design and the display of goods in eighteenth-century London. Journal of Design History, 8(3): 57-17.
Thanks Emilia for your feedback. Much appreciated. Based on my observations, it seems that the first lockdown had a very special impact on the public psyche – it was a first experience and restrictions were much tighter than now. I noted than during the second series of restrictions, shops did not display any news signs in relation to the pandemic – some were even displaying signs for other events (e.g. Remembrance Day and Christmas. However, some shops did change their displays just after the first lockdown was over (e.g. the shop which displayed “We Will Be Back” changed its sign to “We Are Back”.
Thanks, Tauheed. I enjoyed reading your article on shopfront displays. I wonder how those from the first lockdown in the UK may compare with shopfront displays now, when restrictions have tightened again. Here in Oz, I don’t remember seeing children’s drawings at all during the lockdown in Sydney, but there may be just in the suburb I live in.