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How to move a brand to the next stage, or reinvigorate a slow-down in growth. Walpole meets a man who thinks he has the answer to this knotty question.
By Peter Howarth
It’s a familiar story. A luxury fashion company hits a wall in terms of growth and then wonders what to do. It may be that the firm in question is many years old and still run by the founders, or has been taken over by new proprietors who have inherited a legacy of slow-down. Or it’s a brand that is relatively new and has enjoyed a rapid rise, but then stutters and levels off.
Either way, the question is, how do you jump start the next phase?”
Walpole members will be all too aware of this scenario, which incidentally is not by any means exclusive to fashion and luxury. It’s just that in this particular arena there are also complex issues at play to do with product development, brand value and perceived relevance – that elusive factor that determines whether a brand is suddenly “hot” again. Or not.
One man who is dedicating his time to trying to answer the question “what next” for a company in this position is Edward Lloyd-Davies, who recently left his role at Orlebar Brown where he was Director of Marketing and Communications for seven years to set up his own consultancy, Orsu Consulting. Previous to Orlebar Brown Lloyd-Davies was at Selfridges working on marketing and events.
The logic behind Orsu is faultless. If you are a large, international global brand you can hire in someone with a decade’s experience of brand nurturing and building, negotiating partnerships and honing digital strategy. But if you are a small to medium-sized British business the chances are you can’t afford to add that level of expertise on salary without a guarantee of return on the investment. That’s where a consultancy can work.
‘If you look at the past five to 10 years, there are really two main routes to market,’ says Lloyd-Davies, who has just told me that he loves luxury brands and is fascinated by how they work. ‘You either have someone who has a great idea for a product or service and gains quick traction; often this sort of business will be powered by high-performance paid digital marketing and will be good at exploiting digital channels. Or you have someone who has an old, established brand that has made its roots in bricks and mortar that is trying to keep it relevant and attract a new customer. Both can hit a wall.’
‘If you are skilled at digital marketing and in particular paid social, you can launch a decent product and reach many more people than ever before. You can scale very quickly if you are well funded and have a well thought out acquisition strategy focused solely on a cost per acquisition model. However some businesses that achieve success this way have come very unstuck when they have failed to consider the lifetime value of customers, or even getting them to a second purchase. It’s a recipe for hitting that wall, as it is luxury and fashion created out of performance marketing to a young demographic,’ explains Lloyd-Davies. A good example of this, he says, though at the more affordable end of the luxury scale, would be something like Mahabis, the slipper brand.
Perhaps surprisingly, another example he cites of a brand that took off quickly and then had to find a new story is his former employer, Orlebar Brown, though he says, of course, that this trajectory at the start was not helped or fuelled by digital marketing, as it predated it. ‘But it was a similar thing really,’ says Lloyd-Davies. ‘When Adam Brown started Orlebar Brown he built it from a unique proposition with authenticity and integrity. Like all great brands, it solved a problem – tailored swim shorts that made men look good poolside. The first product, the bulldog short, was very successful. But then there’s the problem: what next?’
It was a question that Lloyd-Davies spent seven-and-a-half years of his life solving, and his learnings from that period are now being put to good use with his new clients. These include some heritage brands where, he explains, he is facing the other problem – a once dynamic brand that has “worked” for many, many years, but has now plateaued and is in need of reinvigoration.
Whatever the cause of the problem – whichever of the two scenarios described is the issue – Lloyd-Davies insists you can tackle the issue by taking some fairly simple and basic action. Though of the two predicaments, he sees the fast-growing brand with minimal product as being the more challenging puzzle: ‘In this case you actually have to invent depth, you have to create more product with a reason exist – you’re having to engage with the “why” of a brand, and if you’re faced with a vacuum beyond a single idea and effective marketing you will need to get very creative.’
He’s not going to give his services away for free, of course, but he’s happy to talk about some steps that will help all brands that are looking for that jump start.
First of all, go back to basics. Who is the customer? ‘It’s amazing how brands can lose sight of this.”
Do a customer survey to validate your own feelings and draw out anomalies. You’re trying to get to a clear idea: “This is who we are and what we stand for.” Instead of being sat behind a screen and wondering why people haven’t bought something, pick up the phone and ask them. And find out what lives they are living, how are they are discovering things.’
This information is critical, he explains, because what you are then going to do is interrogate how you communicate. ‘Start by looking at your historic communications and what effect they’ve had. Make judgements. What you’ve done in the past should inform what you do in the future, of course.’
But then… ‘There is, though, a huge danger in communicating across limited channels. You need to diversify your communication channels to speak to new audiences. I call this “channel dependency” – how many communication channels can people currently discover you on at any one point in time? If you only talk through print you miss out any exposure through digital channels; the opposite is of course also true.’ So as well as looking to replicate previous successes, now is the time to use your survey findings to make sure you are reaching your existing customers effectively; and it is also time to ask yourself how you can reach new customers through new channels.
‘Mobile first communications are of course vitally important. But if it’s right for your customer, you shouldn’t disregard weekend newspaper colour supplements that people have built into their lives’.
‘There are still many who want to read beautifully written articles. You are likely to have people’s attention for far longer if they are reading as a ritual; I am sure many people can associate with reading the papers at the weekend with a delicious breakfast!’
This is all about going out and finding people, explains Lloyd-Davies. ‘Opening a new website is like opening a shop on the quietest corner of the street in the world. You have to put your brand in front of your customer. That could be through Facebook marketing, or advertising or PR or standing in a street handing out fliers. Often people don’t want to hear that it’s not always about digital marketing. But it isn’t. Channel dependency on digital is just as much of a problem as the other way round. There can still be a role for things like traditional PR and out-of-home. Always ask yourself, who have we really told about this story? Putting something on your website doesn’t mean you have launched something; only when you have amplified the story will you have reached more than the people who were already going to visit your website.’
Then we come to the crux of the matter: ‘Once you have data about who your customer is, and use this to inform yourself too about who it isn’t and could be, and you understand that there are lots of channels available today for you to use to get the word out there, you have to ask a very important question – the important question: what sort of jump start are you after?
Are you looking for evolution or revolution?’
Ah yes, those two familiar words so beloved of luxury brands. Though in my experience you tend to hear them in the context of a plan that is nearly always described as “evolution not revolution.” However, it’s clear from talking to Lloyd-Davies that he firmly believes that is not the only option. Both are legitimate paths, though he points out that if it’s the former you decide on your “jump” will be less of a jolt and more of a gradual build-up of speed over time. Revolution, on the other hand, can bring about a more dramatic result. But it comes with a risk – of potentially alienating the customer you already have. And, critically, Lloyd-Davies insists, ‘If you are trying to be revolutionary, you either do it or you don’t; don’t go half away, it won’t have the desired effect.’
If you’re looking for examples, I might cite Fortnum & Mason as one of a successful evolution, where the brand’s intrinsic Britishness, heritage appeal and curatorial function has been cleverly built on and promoted to delight existing customers and bring in new ones.”
If it’s revolution you want, then Gucci has to be the recent template. The move from the slick, polished international jet-set aesthetic of Gucci pre 2015 to the Romantic, bohemian highly decorative and eclectic approach heralded in by Alessandro Michele has been nothing short of astonishing. And though we are now used to the flora and fauna of Gucci’s lexicon, its championing of diversity and social and environmental change, and its cast of eccentrics and famous friends like Harry Styles and Iggy Pop, it’s worth remembering that when this new vision was first unleashed, the response was not universally warm. And that the financial rewards were not instantaneous. However, the conversation it created was the point. People could not but sit up and listen. The bottom line came later. The revolution came first.
Lloyd-Davies says that either way – evolution or revolution – companies can benefit from outside perspective. The issue is, he explains, that a degree of ‘brain fog’ can come into play within an organisation that has got used to doing things in the same way. ‘There are so many great British heritage brands, with loads of great credentials, where nothing’s ever changed. They get to a point where they can’t see the wood for the trees.’
This is dangerous, he says. ‘You can be in an echo chamber, and in some respects if a brand is successful there is more danger of that happening. If you have sustained sales growth you’re not likely to question what could or should change. Until you’re forced to. Better to anticipate the problem.’ That’s when an outsider looking in can help.
At the moment, he says, he has been discussing the evolution/revolution ambition with a client who has a heritage brand and has decided it wants revolution. ‘It’s a polite steady brand that has never really done anything too disruptive. It’s finding it quite hard to grab people’s attention by just releasing new collections and products to the same old beat.’ One solution he’s considering is doing a brand partnership to provoke conversation. Lloyd-Davies knows a lot about brand partnerships as it was a core strategy at Orlebar Brown, where among others, there were successful ventures with James Bond, IWC Watches and Formula 1 driver Daniel Ricciardo.
‘Sometimes you have to take a risk,’ says Lloyd-Davies. ‘A great partnership announced recently is McLaren Racing with RHUDE, a clothing brand in LA. It’s not a classic F1 sponsorship deal in any way, and I am sure McLaren have done it because they are looking for a share of voice on social. It’s not really a commercial partnership for McLaren, but what it does is move them out of their comfort zone of being a relatively rigid, sleek, high-performance brand, and it aligns them with a less considered, more hip, laid-back LA-type character. Plus it gives them access to RHUDE’s hard-to-reach, early adopter demographic.’
Brand partnerships can be a useful tool for a brand looking for a jump start, argues Lloyd-Davies. ‘They allow you to open up and tap into existing markets and existing customers, while also engaging with new people.’ They work on the same principles as celebrity endorsement, he explains.
If you are going for the evolution approach then you will seek out a complementary brand, just as you would go for a complementary celebrity endorsement deal.”
‘Find the brand or person who will resonate with your archetypal customer and use that association to validate your own brand.’ James Bond is a great example, of course. Bond is a brand, and a celebrity. ‘If Bond was a real person, he’d be the most stylish man on the planet and win the best-dressed awards every time,’ says Lloyd-Davies. ‘He’s also an incredibly interesting and well-travelled person. So, if you are a fashion brand and have the most stylish fictional character wearing your product, that validates your existing customer.’
If, however, it’s revolution you want, then find an association that will surprise.”
‘The advantage of a disruptive brand partnership is that it gives you a level of entitlement to look different; a one-off collaboration allows you the freedom to be different.’ Of course, the point of the partnership is also to stimulate media coverage. ‘A great partnership will generate great earned media – it is something you should be able to amplify through social channels, Facebook marketing and, in the case of working with people, events such as red carpet moments. It can bring the brand alive.’
However, there is a warning: ‘The challenge with brand partnerships is that if that is your one marketing method, if you constantly do it, you will get collaboration and partnership fatigue,’ cautions Lloyd-Davies. ‘And there is a danger that you will lose sight of what you stand for as a brand. There can be a scenario where you start to rely on collaborations to sell new products, which leaves you with the challenge of how to sell the other stuff.’ He is wary that collaboration has almost become a natural reflex for marketeers and product designers when they are out of ideas. ‘The partnership has to feel right,’ he insists. ‘And crucially, you have to know who you are before you get involved with someone else. You have to have your house and foundations built before you can go and live in someone else’s!’
Also, he is at pains to explain to his clients that collaborations will only be as successful as the extent to which they are activated. ‘There is no point in creating a partnership and not activating it. That often happens. There are lots of examples of big sponsorship and endorsement deals that have happened, but have been made very little of.’ It is his job, he says, in this context, to highlight not only the right partnerships but, crucially, also ideas of how to activate them. ‘What are we going to do with this – how can we turn it into compelling content?’
And here Lloyd-Davies is clear.
Whether it’s evolution or revolution you are going for, the aim is to create content that will spread the message about what you are doing.”
‘Once you’ve nailed your communication channel strategy, once you’re clear on your channels, the question is what are you going to put on those channels? What are you saying to your traditional customers? What are you trying to say that will attract new ones? If the product is great and interesting and new you have the right to communicate product stories, of course. But when your proposition is not new any more, you need to expand your narratives. And even when it is new, just talking about product has its limitations.’
Essentially, he maintains, once you have determined the audience you are targeting, you need to work out a content strategy. ‘You need to lean on creativity,’ says Lloyd-Davies. ‘It’s one thing to sign a cheque for reach, but it’s pointless if you don’t have engaging ideas to broadcast.’
Compelling content is, he says, about editorialising a brand and humanising it. ‘Be consistent about what you talk about and build brand about it. Ask yourself particularly, what are the engagement points for your brand that are not products? Loving products is important, but it’s also critical to build other touchpoints – non-product touchpoints – to continually re-engage people.’
Lloyd-Davies knows that all this can seem daunting. But he believes that it is logical and it will deliver. The important thing is to do things in the right order and to start. You don’t need wildly deep pockets to get on the right track. ‘It’s like the best-selling author who when asked how he has become world-famous says he just forces himself to write 200 words a day. This is the same thing. By the act of starting something you make things happen. Thinking it is all too much is never a good reason for not taking the first step.’
It is also important to have clear expectations and objectives. ‘It’s interesting what digital has done to our expectations. If you place an advert in a magazine you don’t expect a person to walk into the shop holding it and say I want to buy this. But because we see digital as a way of achieving instant gratification, we expect digital marketing to achieve instant results. Smaller businesses especially, and perhaps understandably, always seem to look for immediate return. But really this is a delicate balancing act between performance and brand. You need to blend these together… You need both for success.’
So what about monitoring the effect of the steps you are taking to jump start things? ‘It may be that your KPIs on digital should be engagement and/or traffic, rather than sales. Really, you should be clear about what the purpose of the activity is, about what are you trying to achieve. If you want to achieve brand awareness then set your goals around awareness rather than last-click revenue. I am yet to find the elusive silver bullet that does everything you want; for me it’s about being clear on your channels of communication and communicating in them as often as you can afford, overlaid with a good performance-marketing strategy. If anyone has the silver bullet please send me an email!’
Remember that the greatest brands have been built over time, cautions Lloyd-Davies. ‘Today, they may be powered by wonderfully talented people turning the dials of performance marketing, but they have all taken the time and trouble to build a foundation – brands that are great are great.’
And as a final thought, our conversation ends on a cautionary note. ‘We’ve been talking about jump starting, and good ideas and partnerships and content can indeed achieve this. But it’s worth also looking at the root cause of why you need to jump start the business in the first place. If you are not clear about that, then the problem is likely to recur.’
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