Thorntons boss Jonathan Hart’s biggest task is restoring the prestige of the brand

When a member of the founding family of a retailer takes to twitter to criticise today’s management, you sometimes worry it’s a case of sour grapes. But I completely understand where @Pnthornton is coming from.

Yesterday Thorntons new chief executive Jonathan Hart outlined has plans for the business. Rightly, he’s identified that there are too many company-owned stores and is proposing to close as many as 180, although has attempted to soften the blow by saying that he hopes franchisees will keep the brand going in the towns where it closes.

But why would any franchisee want to take on a Thorntons store when the product has been so commoditised? Thorntons is a textbook example in how to destroy a brand’s equity. Any claim it had for its products to be seen as special has been lost by Thorntons’ willingness for them to be sold anywhere, whether in the supermarkets or in Wilkinsons.

The commercial business has been a big moneyspinner for Thorntons and supplying retailers like M&S with private label product makes sense. But when you undermine your own brand by selling literally anywhere, it’s no wonder that the brand loses some of its cachet.

That’s enabled more aspirational retailers like Hotel Chocolat to move in and take Thorntons’ place as the high street chocolatier people go to when they want a treat. Hotel Chocolat isn’t cheap, but people feel they’re getting something special when they shop there. Unlike Thorntons, which for a lot of people isn’t much of a cut above going to a newsagents and picking up a bar of Cadbury’s.

Hart is right that the experience in the stores is important, and creating a bit of excitement and the feeling that it’s a treat will be vital if he’s to put the magic back into Thorntons. But doing so while he juggles its other competing – and more successful – channels will be hard.