Honor thy heritage. In a retail market undergoing transformation, many British brands are leveraging their history in order to differentiate themselves. Where British brands excel — maintaining core values is at the center of their business strategies — seems remarkably fresh and necessary given the tumultuous climate that’s been shaken by unsteady economies, uncertain global politics and capricious consumers. Oh, and Amazon, too.
There’s been a wide range of approaches to face consumer demands and shifting values. Many global fashion apparel and retail brands have revamped their identities, throwing out baby, bath water and tub while they’re at it. Others have sacrificed quality for quantity in an effort to give Amazon a run for its money. Then there are the Brits who are sticking to their roots, and maintaining good form amid the changes.
That’s not to say that U.K. brands haven’t been hit — hard, in many cases — by retail’s ongoing transition and Brexit. Despite this, the U.K. fashion industry continues to be a large contributor to its economy. According to the British Fashion Council, the U.K. fashion industry contributed 28 billion pounds in 2016 — up from 21 billion pounds in 2009. The accessories category has posted similar success: it secured 2.7 billion pounds in sales in 2015, marking a year-over-year increase of more than 3 percent, said a BFC spokesman.
In an effort to sustain success and break into additional markets, the British Consulate has worked with several brands to expand their reach. Companies ranging from Mulberry to New & Lingwood are being fostered by the organization. Here, WWD looks at a few of these brands, examining their histories and seeing how “heritage” continues to play an integral role in their evolving business strategies.
What’s Old Is New Again
Millennials crave all things authentic and savor flairs of nostalgia. For many British brands that house extensive history, it would be foolish to not explore how to market these rich narratives.
There are those like New & Lingwood — a storied outfitter for Eton and bespoke men’s wear maker that heralds back to 1865 — that have been able to remain unequivocally focused on their future, while honoring their roots.
“New & Lingwood is a brand with 152 years of rich and traditional English heritage. Our roots and heritage provide a solid foundation on which we are nurturing the brand and developing a nimble, outward-looking business, geared for growth,” said Carolyn Springett, chief executive officer of New & Lingwood. “Our digital strategy has been at the heart of our growth plan, focused on aligning all aspects of the business, front and back of house, digital and stores, to focus on new customer acquisition and retaining our loyals.”
U.S. capital investment firm Pop Capital purchased the company for an undisclosed amount in 2015. The acquisition pushed a refocus on its digital strategy, while doubling up on its strengths. “Our digital strategy has been at the heart of our growth plan, focused on aligning all aspects of the business, front and back of house, digital and stores, to focus on new customer acquisition and retaining our loyals. Our loyal customers are key, so we’ve had to ensure that we inspire and keep them connected whilst we are on our journey as they underpin our business,” said Springett.
For eyewear company Cutler + Gross, word-of-mouth remains an integral pillar of its operations and marketing. Established in 1969, the company has rededicated itself to deploying efficient production, an initial point of focus for the company.
Marie Wilkinson, style director of Cutler + Gross, said, “The business strategy has been to invest in our design, research and development and to guarantee the most efficient supply chain for the business. This is in order to build on our roots and ensure our future as the most influential eyewear brand through our innovation, flair and quality.”
Founding designers Graham Cutler and Tony Gross crafted the first frames in the workspace above their flagship. It’s from this location that the team continues to supervise the line’s manufacturing. “We control the production through our eponymous factory in Cadore, Italy, we celebrate and cherish this independence. Our considerable archive includes more than 2,000 styles that are available to view at our shop in Marylebone, which is dedicated to our vintage eyewear. The newest styles are showcased in our six stores in the U.K. and North America,” said Wilkinson. To really hit home the point, Wilkinson mined the archives to develop a specialized vintage collection, too.
Mulberry has taken a different approach — it used social media and the general digitization of the industry to spread its brand message. “The digitization of the fashion and retail landscape has been a great enabler for us and has been fundamental in helping us reach a broader, more global audience with a stronger customer proposition,” said Charlotte O’Sullivan, marketing and digital director of Mulberry. “The rise of social media has also helped us do more to bring our brand to life and tell our stories in a more compelling manner.”
Technology has bolstered Mulberry’s return to its roots — connecting with loyal consumers. “We have also been relatively early adopters of omni-channel, which not only facilitates the expansion of our product categories throughout our international retail network, but has helped us to enhance our customer service,” she said. “As a retail business, this is particularly key for us in developing a more direct one-to-one relationship with our customers, which we see as being crucial to our future success.” It has also maintained revenue.
Technology can dole out its share of temptation, but timepiece company Rapport London has proved successful in maximizing digital features without sacrificing its heritage. “Rapport London strives to stay true to our founding principles and continues to establish new excellent standards in the quality and expert craftsmanship of our products across the globe. Attention to detail and the finest materials and processes ensure our products meet the highest standards of the most discerning customer,” said Katie Goldblatt, executive director of the company.
Dispersing a company narrative that spans more than 100 years in 140 characters may be daunting. For good reason — the invasion of social media has more or less pushed brands to either embrace or flee it. The former are still operating, the latter — not for long.
Shoppers are paying attention. According to Mintel, 68 percent of all U.K. Internet users buy clothing and footwear online. What’s more, U.K. online consumers spent 12.4 billion pounds on fashion in 2015 — a 16 percent increase from the previous year.
Where some luxury brands have turned up their noses at the idea of social media, Mulberry embraced the opportunity to appear to a larger shopper base. It also served as a venue to showcase one of its main themes, accessibility. O’Sullivan said: “Social media has done a huge amount to democratize customers’ access to luxury brands and today a large portion of many customers’ interaction occurs via social channels. Social media is a crucial tool for us to interact with our customer base — it’s been a key enabler for us to tell our story to a broader and more global audience. Accessibility has always been a key pillar of our brand.”
Winning social strategies incorporate more than an influencer touting her latest provided item — Mulberry has invoked its messaging and enhanced its level of customer service through the channels. “Our seasonal campaign approach is increasingly being built around our storytelling and using social channels to support our narrative, something we most recently demonstrated in our Modern Heritage and fall 2017 campaigns,” said O’Sullivan.
At New & Lingwood, a sense of receptive understanding of social capabilities has upped communication between brand and consumer — a central component in any bespoke business. Here, social media has magnified its heritage.
Springett said: “We understand that the continued success of the New & Lingwood brand relies on our ability to evolve and keep moving forward. Our rich English heritage plays a vital role in who we are as a brand and despite the ever-changing digital space, staying true to our founding morals is what sets us apart. Product continues to come first and foremost as without desirable product, you don’t have a brand or a business. However, we are keen to develop the digital experience and the in-store experience hand-in-hand getting to the point where we can interact between the two channels, but talk to our customers with one voice.”
Remaining dedicated to a brand’s DNA and deploying advanced technology are not mutually exclusive — in fact, that distinction is likely outdated itself. Instead, supply chains are improved, often accelerated and streamlined. Infrastructure and operations from the cutting-room floor and up are enhanced. The opportunity to explore archives from various locations is now possible. The brands that view modernity as an opportunity rather than a threat will be the last ones standing in the current dog-eat-dog or rather, dog-acquire-dog climate.
“Modern technology has provided opportunities for us, as it has enabled our consumers to access products, services and information in an instant. Not only has it allowed access for consumers, it has given us the opportunity to ‘show it now’ through personalized banner adverts, e-mails and social media posts,” said Goldblatt of Rapport London’s digital advancements. “When it comes to marketing, we can deliver dynamic banner ads, which encourage our clients to head back to our site and purchase those wish list items. In addition to this, we can provide hyper-personalization across digital experiences which is imperative to increase brand loyalty and enhance the ‘fan experience’ on every level.”
The team at Mulberry shares a similar sentiment. “We see ourselves as a ‘customer-first’ brand, by which we mean we meet the needs of our customer anytime, anywhere, anyhow. Rather than focusing on a single channel, we invest and develop our business in line with the rapidly evolving shopping behaviors of our consumer, be that through our network of physical stores via our digital channels or omnichannel services,” said O’Sullivan.
Mulberry has also invested extensively in its local manufacturing, which realizes its heritage. O’Sullivan said, “Our Britishness has always been a core strength and point of differentiation for us internationally, not just in terms of our brand identity, but also in terms of our manufacturing base.”
The current strategy is also the manifestation of the original business approach by these players — focus on the consumer and exploit any means necessary to make them happy. Now in addition to customized product, shoppers are accessible through a multitude of touch points that encourage proactive communication — powered by data collection, of course — rather than reactive customer service that begins once a customer enters a brick-and-mortar.
Springett said of New & Lingwood’s evolution: “We are proud of our British roots and it is essential that this is maintained and even strengthened in this increasingly global market. Having spent more than 150 years as a small beacon in the luxury men’s wear sector, our unique sense of style is what makes us stand out as a brand. As our customers become increasingly international, we must consciously retain all the things that denote the brand as being quintessentially British, but we should think about the brand differently to appeal to a different customer profile. We always bear in mind that being recognized as a British brand is a huge positive as traditional English tailoring, the services and quality provided by and English gentleman’s outfitter and British culture are still highly sought after by consumers worldwide.”