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Lessons in How to Modernize Your Legacy Brand


Podcast April 23, 2021

Lessons in How to Modernize Your Legacy Brand

Here is a little trivia for you: what is the oldest and longest-surviving company in North America? Think the fur trade, striped, colourful blankets, and a coat of arms that features one fox, two elk and four beavers. Give up? It’s Hudson’s Bay, of course!

Founded in 1670 with their first department store opening in 1881, The Bay now operates close to 100 locations across Canada along with a huge online store that ships across the country. From fashion apparel to home goods, whatever you want – The Bay probably has. But how can such an iconic brand stay relevant as local shops and direct to consumer brands eat away at market share?

In this episode of Think Retail, we speak with Ryan Booth, Director of Design at Hudson’s Bay about the very exciting (and daunting) challenge he has taken on.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda. And you’re listening to Think Retail.

I’ve got a little trivia for you. What is the oldest and longest surviving company in North America? Think fur trade, striped colorful blankets, and a coat of arms that features one fox, two elk and four beavers. Give up? It’s the Hudson’s Bay Company, of course! Founded in 1670 with their first department store opening in 1881, The Bay now operates close to 100 locations across Canada with a huge online store that ships all across the country. From fashion apparel, to home goods, whatever you want, The Bay probably has it. But how can such an iconic brand stay relevant as local shops and direct to consumer brands eat away at market share?

Today we’re speaking with Ryan Booth, Director of Design at the Hudson’s Bay about this very exciting (and daunting) challenge he’s taken on. Ryan, thank you so much for joining us today.

Ryan: Thanks for having me.

Melinda: Would you start us off just by giving us a bit of a background on who you are, your career and your role at The Bay?

Ryan: For sure. Yeah. So I went to school for graphic design and have been a working designer my entire career. I’ve been pretty much agency and design studio side my whole career. So, you know, working in small design studios. My previous role to being at Hudson’s Bay was, at Zulu Alpha Kilo, where I was Creative Director of Design, got to work on some great brands like Bell Canada, Tim Hortons, Interac, Harley-Davidson, things like that. And then, I guess, last year made the decision to go client-side, which was kind of a…it wasn’t a hard decision, but it took a little bit of thought to do that, you know, I’ve been agency-side my entire career as I said, so it was something that I had to really think about, if I wanted to do it. I know about the Hudson’s Bay, I have a love for the company and love what they were doing, but it was something I had to answer for myself was, do I want to leave this sort of career of an agency designer and go client-side? And it was a challenge that I was super excited about taking on.

Melinda: So, what is it that your role is at The Bay right now?

Ryan: Yeah. So I am Director of Design. So I have a team of designers that I work with on all of the…I would say weekly, monthly, quarterly content, and we’re a part of a larger creative team. So, we’re part of a team of art directors, and writers, strategy people, we have email, photography studio, so it’s a big creative team. And then our team is part of a larger marketing team that includes brand and marketing. So, we’re sort of the design-focused part of it and we work on all of the weekly emails. So any email you would get from The Bay run through my team, any work that you see on social, anything that you might get from a direct mail or on-site, all of that work comes through the design team and through the creative team.

Melinda: Wow. That must be so much fun to have such a huge team working on one brand altogether.

Ryan: Yeah. It’s great. That’s the one thing I’ve really enjoyed is, you know, when you’re working agency-side, you’re working on Interac in the morning, and Bell in the afternoon and another client jumping in, and so it’s hard to focus on one thing. I think the great thing about The Bay is it’s such a big company that we still get the same breadth of projects, but it’s working for one brand. So, it’s trying to make it cohesive and consistent. That’s the challenge.

Melinda: So, as I mentioned in the intro, The Bay has such a rich history, but when you have a brand with that rich history, it can be kind of tough to try and, you know, you want to pay homage to the past, but you also want to look ahead. From a design perspective, how do you find that balance?

Ryan: It’s a good question. It’s hard. I think one of the discussions that I had when I was talking about coming to The Bay was, how and when do we do this? Is there an appetite to even do it? Do we want to lean into our heritage? And we talked a lot about that, leading up to starting at The Bay, and then there’s been a lot of conversations as we’ve been working on the work that we’ve been doing over the past year.

So, I said we’ve been working on email and weekly and campaign stuff, but in the background we’ve been working on a full brand refresh that we’re starting to roll out now. And so that’s where we really started asking those questions. We actually have our own archives that we can access through the office. We have people that we can reach out to and provide us with content. And so, you know, looking at some of that work was really amazing to just see where we came from. And I think, I don’t want to say it directly shaped the work that we were doing, but what we wanted to do was pull some of that work and some of that thinking into our new work.

So, you know, we have our coat of arms that you mentioned at the top, and that was something that we haven’t really leaned into as a brand for a long time. And as a designer, when you’re working on a rebrand or working on a brand, you’re always looking for those moments of bringing in history for a company. And sometimes it’s false history that you’re creating just to create a backstory. But what’s great about The Bay is that we have this 351 years of history that we can pull from, and that coat of arms has been there from day one. So it’s a natural thing to bring in. The tricky thing is finding those right moments, right? We don’t want to apply this beautiful coat of arms to a sale on shoes because it’ssort of minimizing what that crest and seal means, but the tricky part is finding those right moments of when we can lean on that heritage.

Melinda: Right. And so walking that line is one thing, but making sure you’re not alienating customer segments in the process is equally important because you may have a customer like me, I remember going and shopping at The Bay with my grandma at Christmas time every year, but you may have new audiences that don’t have that history and don’t have that memory. So how does your team ensure that you are connecting with the right audiences?

Ryan: That’s a tough one too. I have really strong memories myself of going to The Bay with my grandmother or coming down to Toronto to see the windows at the holidays. And so I feel like I have longer ties to the brand and I have a lot of love for the brand even before working for the company, and I think that’s a whole different customer to what you said, you know, somebody either new to the country or a younger audience whose parents maybe didn’t shop at The Bay.

What we’ve tried to do with the brand is, on a whole, as we were working through the system is really modernize and simplify the work that we’ve been doing. We’ve cleaned up how we treat typography to really simplify it. We’ve been building out systems for things like email and removing our printed flyer for digital flyers. And so, you know, creating these pieces that really are digital-first. And so that probably immediately skews to a little bit of a younger target audience, but I think we don’t want to alienate that core audience that we know that we have right now.

So I think there’s a lot of ways that we’ve been looking at research into, you know, click-throughs on things like email CTAs and doing all the research. So when we try something new we get feedback on if that’s working, or if we’re getting people clicking through. And so a lot of the work that we’re doing is based on research, which is really important especially at a retail level, it’s super important. When you know you have dollar amounts tied to each email that you’re sending out, you have a plan that we’re trying to work towards and product that we’re trying to sell.

Melinda: Yeah. I mean, having access to that information is so crucial. So you’ve got your hands in a lot of different facets of The Bay brand, as you mentioned, from emails, to the boxes that arrive on their doorsteps. How do you create a design strategy that allows every touch point along the journey to feel cohesive but also special?

Ryan: We’ve had a lot of discussions around how to do that. We’ve been spending the last year building out this brand system and we’ve been doing work outside of the brand system for the past year. And I think there was a lot of great work that we did in the last year and the executions are beautiful and there’s some really amazing things that we’ve done, but what we felt was lacking was really a thread of consistency across everything. And I think that’s where this new system is really going to help us is to be consistent in everything that we do.

And so, you know, our weekly emails all have different content and feel different and have different messaging, but there’s a thread of consistency in how we treat typography and how we treat color. You know, we’re just starting thinking about packaging and e-commerce packaging and things like that now. The thing with that too is we’ve never really leaned into messaging on things like our boxes or our packaging, and I think what we’re trying to do is really set a tone for the brand and give it a personality that maybe we haven’t had in the past. And it’s not to knock what was done in the past, but I think customers now are so used to having brands treat them in a way that’s very different from the past.

You know, you get a package from a company that’s on your doorstep, and it feels like it’s personalized to you. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people have gotten that same box, but I think messaging plays a huge role in some of these things. So I think what we’ve really tried to do is lean into the personality of the brand and the feeling of the brand and being inspirational and aspirational in a way that we maybe haven’t done so much in the past. That’s what customers are looking for these days and I think that’s helped us when we look through that lens at all the different pieces, whether it’s gift cards, or emails, or quarterly campaigns, or monthly campaigns, or packaging, all of those things, when we look through the lens of how is this inspirational and aspirational that helps us bring that story together.

Melinda: So you came into your role at a really interesting time – in the middle of a pandemic. How has COVID-19 influenced some of the projects that you’re working on?

Ryan: It’s interesting. I started probably a month after everyone went into lockdown and I think I underestimated what that meant. I think we all did.

Melinda: We did.

Ryan: I think we all underestimated what that actually meant. Thinking back now, I didn’t even know what that would’ve meant for work, but I think where we’ve gone with work now is, stores are still super important to the business and very important from a brand standpoint because they’re really tied to the community, but I think, you know, our work in the last year has really shifted digitally. I’m sureas any other retailer could attest to. We have a huge emphasis on email now, and that was the biggest part of our design system was figuring out what do our storytelling emails look like? What do our promotional emails look like? What do our category emails look like for all of our products, and how do we create those in a way that feel new and fresh, but also how do we create those in a way that are templatized enough that it’s easier for our team because we’ve now increased the amount of emails we go out with because that’s our way to react to our customers or interact with our customers.

We’re also introducing sort of what we’re calling a propensity model to some of our emails. We’re testing that right now, where what I shop for and what you shop for are very different things. And so, if we have some categories in one email, you might see what’s relatable to you higher up in your email versus what will be relatable to me. And so that’s some really cool things that we’re working through right now, and designing for those is very tricky too, because the design has to be so modular that it can jump around within the email.

Again, a huge push for social. We just launched a marketplace as well which again adds more SKUs, product SKUs to our offering, but is also a whole new way for us to market work and design for that as well. So I wasn’t expecting to be working on this much digital, is a fair assessment and I would say I would, you know, 90 percent of our work is digital now.

Melinda: I can imagine. And that modularity is so important because it’s one thing to design something that’s amazing, but if it’s difficult for the marketing team or whoever has to execute it to use, that’s where it ends up becoming diluted.

Ryan: For sure. And I think we see that, you know, we have an amazing design team that builds out these emails each week, but I think the priorities and what we’re selling and the product changes each week and to have our emails be… And when I say templatized, I mean the building blocks are there that we can pick and pull as we need. I think that really helps us. We’re not designing emails from scratch each week and we’re not designing social work from scratch. We have systems that we’ve built out.

So when we’re speaking to our heritage we pull this certain style. When we’re speaking to a sale moment, we’re pulling this style, and we’re not starting from net new every time, which is really helpful on the team. And when we get it, we’re sort of ramping up now, so we’re working through all the kinks, but when we get it to the point where we hope it is supposed to be working smoothly it will be a really great thing for the team and I think it will take some of the pressure off too, which is helpful.

Melinda: Right. So, I mean, obviously we know that there’s been this huge shift to e-commerce and online shopping, but The Bay is really known for your physical stores. So how are you adapting to this? And is there any way that the e-commerce or online experience can support the physical stores?

Ryan: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think as of right now, you know, stores in Ontario, at least, and I’m not sure where else, are closed for in-store shopping. And so, a lot of our messaging is pointing to, we’ve been doing a lot of work on how to point to stores if it’s curbside pickup or if it’s…when hours are shifted and changed, we’re doing a lot of work on that and we’re thinking a lot about when stores are open, how we can safely push people to stores because you know, there’s also the…you don’t want to seem like you’re being insincere and saying, “Go shop at our store” if you’re being told to stay home. It’s a weird balancing act right now where stores are super important to our business, but we’re sort of having to lean into digital first in everything that we’re doing while still saying, “Hey, don’t forget we have our stores where they are open.” It’s a real balancing act. It’s really difficult to sort of find that balance there.

I think when I started last year when COVID hit, we were still working through the flow of stores because stores were closed. And then I know that the team…this isn’t on our team, but the team at The Bay was working really hard to figure out the flow of stores and the flow of how to even shop in the store, and where and how signage works, and it was a huge process just to get that, a quick process but a huge process to get that all set up for safety for customers.

Melinda: Yeah. Absolutely. Especially when the rules keep changing. And so you come up with one strategy and then you got to go with the new one.

Ryan: Totally. The goalposts, I mean, understandably, but the goalposts keep changing and each week we get new course corrects on, okay, stores in Manitoba are changing to this and stores in Quebec are changing to this, but not all stores. And then Ontario, we’re hearing that this might happen and, you know, where are we going out with this messaging? And what do we have to update? And yeah, it’s a constant flow of work for us outside of everything else.

Melinda: Yeah. Absolutely. So without giving anything away, are there any exciting projects or initiatives that people can expect in the upcoming months?

Ryan: So I think as we’ve been talking about, we’ve sort of started to roll out our new master brand look and feel through email and that’s maybe not the whole look at what it looks like, but soon to becoming, we’ll start rolling out our e-commerce packaging which is really exciting. And I think we’ve been working a lot on internal projects as well with our Hudson’s Bay Foundation and some other own brands. So there’s some really interesting and great work coming out there as well.

Melinda: Great. So, for any brand that has history but is looking to appeal to new audiences, what advice would you give them from a design perspective?

Ryan: That’s a good question. Honestly, you have to lean into your heritage and your history. I think the Hudson’s Bay is one of those ones where we have such a broad history and there’s a lot within that. We had to really find the moments that felt like they aligned to the brand. And I think part of that was bringing back things like our heritage crest and I think that to us was a no brainer when it came to branding. We’re still working through what the right moments are for that. And I would say, I don’t know if we’ve solved that fully yet.

I think we did also really want to lean into being a Canadian brand. And so, some of the typography we’ve chosen are fonts designed by Canadian typographers. That was really important to us as well, was being a Canadian brand, a sort of iconic Canadian brand. We didn’t just want to pick a font because we liked it, we wanted it to have some history there as well.

I think finding those moments is really important where you can use your history, but where you can tie yourself to your community as well, or tie yourself to your country in our case, right? Color was a really important one for us too. Our stripes are iconic. And so what we’ve done as part of this new brand is lean into those colors in new ways that maybe we haven’t done before as well. And I think Canadians, I hope, Canadians are going to enjoy it and really appreciate the work that we’ve done. I think for anybody out there trying to work through this right now it’s really just…a lot of it is trial and error. You know, we did some really crazy things with our heritage pieces, and it was like, that just doesn’t feel right, it feels too much, or it feels too little, or it feels like we’re looking to too much to the past.

For me, it’s always been most successful in other brands that I’ve worked on, not even just Hudson’s Bay, where you don’t want to lean only on the past. You want to be a forward-thinking brand. You don’t want to have to redesign everything again in two years because it feels like it’s dated already. I think that’s the other trick with using your heritage is that you don’t want that to be the brand. The brand is not your heritage. You’re a modern brand, a forward-thinking brand. Find those small moments where it makes sense.

Melinda: Great. Well, thank you so much for chatting with us today.

Ryan: No, thank you. I’m glad I could be here.

Melinda: Leveraging history for brands, especially with a powerful visual legacy like The Bay’s colored stripes or their shields can help bigger brands build credibility with consumers through memory and a sense of belonging. While local brands can tell a story about niche products and supporting their surrounding neighborhood, national brands can talk about pride and history that comes with its own sense of authenticity. Choosing which elements to bring forward and where, and how to use them is critical in ensuring the story feels true to the brand.


Ryan Booth is the Director of Design at Hudson’s Bay Company. In his previous roles, he has helped to create internationally-recognized, award-winning work for companies like Harley-Davidson, Bell, Cineplex, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Participaction, Interac and Tim Hortons.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email