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Peter Williams Preaches British Prep

The founder and ceo of British lifestyle brand Jack Wills keeps a laser focus on his target customer: 18- to 21-year-old students.

Peter Williams feels old. But that doesn’t stop the founder and chief executive officer of Jack Wills from having a laser focus on his target customer: an 18- to 21-year-old student.

This story first appeared in the November 16, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The British lifestyle brand that Williams launched in 1999 creates “fabulously British goods for the university crowd.” According to the brand’s Web site, Jack Wills takes its “influence from Britain’s rich history and culture, juxtaposed with a heavy dose of the hedonistic college lifestyle. We create authentic and relevant clothing for today. Jack Wills is all about excess, adventure and sexiness — and we don’t just say this stuff, we live it.”

Williams said that when he graduated from college, where he had perfected playing rugby and drinking beer, he was faced with three choices: continue his education and become an academic, launch a career as a professional rugby player or “get a job.” Realizing he was neither the professorial type nor rugby’s answer to David Beckham, he opted to enter the workforce.

He joined a consulting firm working with brands such as Nike and Virgin, and found he was “totally fascinated by brands on an intellectual level,” particularly those at a premium price point. He soon realized he wasn’t cut out to work for someone else and decided to branch out on his own. He was 23 years old and together with a college friend, Robert Shaw, he set out to create a clothing brand that embodied the spirit of an 18- to 21-year-old, with all the naïvety and sexual energy that defines that demographic.

The result was Jack Wills, “an authentic British brand” that he believed could establish “a global footprint.” Then, as today, the world has a “great appetite for all things British,” he said, as evidenced by the royal wedding in April, which was watched by as much as 30 percent of the world’s population.

Hoping to capitalize on this appetite, Williams and Shaw scraped together some money and opened a 160-square-foot store in Salcombe, Devon, a town similar to Nantucket, Mass., and opened the doors. They lived in an apartment above the store “in squalor, sleeping among mountains of unsold stock.”

But from Day One, Williams had a vision of what the brand should be and who its target customer was. In Salcombe, he sought out the “opinion-makers,” such as the guys working on the ferry boats and the bartenders in town and cajoled them to wear Jack Wills. “That’s now called viral marketing,” Williams said.

The strategy worked and the young kids soon embraced this cool new brand, allowing Jack Wills to expand its reach, to the point that the company now operates 54 stores around the world, including 11 in the U.S., and sales this year are expected to exceed $200 million.

“We’ve been hyper-selective in our store locations,” he said, “so we’re only consumed by our target audience,” who frequent bars and chalets in the winter and beaches in the summer. As a result, Williams sought a foothold in seasonal resorts or university towns, seeking out historic buildings that helped provide “authenticity” for the brand.

“We’re brand obsessives,” he said, noting that the U.S. locations include “grand town houses” in Boston and Philadelphia, as well as locations in seaside towns such as Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. “We won’t open market stores,” he said. “Our philosophy is that every store should add value to the brand, not chip away at it.”

These authentic locations also serve to create relationships with the young adults frequenting those areas. “It’s where they go on vacation or go to school,” he said. And when they see the cool, preppie, British-style pieces, such as redingotes, tweeds and tailcoats, it is “completely relevant” to their lives. “We mix heritage and contemporary all styled together as an authentic British look.”

In order to maintain its authenticity, Jack Wills has been working with historic British mills and manufacturers, whose “archives are priceless,” he said, even as Britain’s manufacturing base has almost disappeared.

Social media has also played a role in the success of Jack Wills. “We’ve always been multichannel from Day One,” he said, and the company uses the Web to “have a conversation” with its customers. But he cautioned other companies to fully integrate their Web strategies into their business model so they appear “seamless. Otherwise, it will be seen as a fraud by the younger customer.” He also said brands need to stop just talking at their target audiences and instead work to create two-way relationships since they’re much more lasting.

In answer to a question from the audience, Williams said that for Jack Wills to continue its relationship after its customers turn 21, the company created Aubin & Wills to address “the next lifestage beyond Jack Wills.” This allows customers to “grow up with the brand. Customer acquisition is expensive” and after having a relationship for several years, it makes no sense to let those customers go elsewhere. So Aubin & Wills is the natural extension.