Following a successful year of developing innovative and exciting pop-up spaces, Backlash co-founder and creative director Katie Peake talks to Retail Week about how pop-ups are revitalising the high street and creating unique experiences for customers and retailers

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Backlash provided a Barbie-themed beach club pop-up for NYX in London

Founded in 2017, Backlash set out to be disruptive and different by combining the advertising, design and business backgrounds of co-founders Katie Peake, James Barnes and Aarron Taylor.

After spending years in creative advertising roles, Peake helped set up Backlash to deliver “big agency thinking without the price tag” and has since helped a number of beauty and fashion retailers use the company’s expertise to create pop-up spaces.

“We naturally started to fall into the world of beauty as, at the time, not a lot of beauty retailers were doing anything experiential,” Peake says.

“The more we were doing, the more exposure we were getting and that has grown massively over the last seven years.”

Peake says it was “unheard of” for big makeup and beauty brands to open pop-ups back then, but Backlash has recently provided them for the likes of Space NK and CeraVe, as well as a Barbie-themed beach club for NYX.

“We always say to clients: ‘Don’t make your pop-up look like a shop’ as it should look and feel quite theatrical,” she says.

“When shoppers walk past, they should want to immediately go in and not think to come back later as it probably won’t be there.”

Peake advises retailers to look at pop-ups as a means of advertising, marketing, building brand awareness and boosting social media campaigns.

“It’s basically a humongous billboard that people can interact with,” she says. “We come up with a disruptive, creative space and bring in people who can browse products, and find out much more about the brand.”

Reviving the high street

Providing pop-up spaces doesn’t just supply retailers with new customers; it can also breathe a bit more life into the high street.

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From left to right: Backlash co-founders James Barnes, Aarron Taylor and Katie Peake

While the death of the high street has been much predicted due to the rise of online shopping and a growing number of vacant stores, Peake believes a whole new generation is seeking physical shopping experiences.

“Retailers could take over those empty units for pop-up shops for a week, a month, six months, and do something totally different,” she says.

“It means that every time you go to the high street, there’s going to be something different and I think that’s what Gen Z consumers are now looking for.

“Retailers having shops there that are conceptual and maybe just for the launch of a new product mean that people want to keep going back and seeing what that brand is doing.”

Peake also believes retailers should ensure each individual store offers something different to consumers.

She refers to the Uniqlo store in London’s Covent Garden, which is championing personalisation by offering shoppers the opportunity to take its products and have them embroidered with whatever they choose.

“That’s a reason to go because that specific Uniqlo isn’t the same as its other stores. In an ideal world, the high street would have its staple retailers, but then also have shops that are ever-changing.”

Competitive edge

While Backlash has found a successful niche in the market, not everyone has been so successful. Competitor Sook went bust in January after being unable to “raise sufficient investment” but Peake believes Backlash differs from its rivals.

The team’s extensive history in advertising, design and focusing on what a consumer would want from a pop-up has so far provided the business with more clients and opportunities.

“It’s really interesting because when we speak to brands, they are thinking about themselves and how they look,” she says. “But I try to flip this and say: ‘What does a customer think when they come and see you?’ As they’re the ones having that experience.”

Peake explains that customers should walk away from a pop-up remembering how they felt, what they saw and what they heard, so they can go away and keep interacting with that specific brand.

It can be hard for beauty retailers to stand out from the competition, so it is vital that an agency like Backlash creates something distinctive and personal to them.

“Everyone in beauty has a similar demographic, so we want to get into the reality of the audience,” she says.

“A lot of brands want to have a pop-up in London, but if most of your shoppers are in Manchester or Liverpool, then we will try and do it there.”

Seven years in, Backlash is still growing with Peake saying the business has “a lot more fashion and beauty clients” lined up this year following the recent success of its NYX, Marc Jacobs and Pandora pop-ups in London.

She says she would love to get involved in developing pop-up spaces in the fast-moving consumer goods sector as there are plenty of opportunities to be experiential there.

While Peake is keeping schtum on which retailers Backlash is soon to partner with, she is certain that its pop-ups will continue to be creative, innovative and disruptive.