Us Brits may bemoan the rain, the cost of living and the M25, but countless other nationalities consider the UK to be a country of perfection. At one end of the scale, many are charmed by our idyllic life of country mansions, cream teas and royal family. Others associate it with cutting-edge fashion design, trend-setting and quality. Either way, Britishness sells.
This is evident when you look at the phenomenal international success of quintessential British brands such as Paul Smith. Japan is by far its biggest market, where the designer has been elevated to iconic status. If you are a successful brand, there is no doubt that a British heritage provides a useful head start in cracking overseas markets.
But what is the reason for this fascination with Britishness? And how can you play on it to just the right extent to ensure it is advantageous?
For fashion brands, Aquascutum chief executive Kim Winser says it’s about the UK’s long association with top-quality manufacturing, combined with London’s modern culture. “Everywhere you go around the world, people will say London is a fabulous place to live,” she says. “It’s at the forefront of design innovation, it’s got fantastic restaurants, fantastic markets – you name it. So the combination of those things works extremely well for British retailers in foreign markets.”
AT Kearney partner Hana ben Shabat agrees that the association works particularly well for clothing brands. “The image of London is of it being a trendsetter. People view Italy as being about traditional fashion. They view London as fashion-forward. There’s an aura about it and that gives it an edge in the global market.”
It’s not just fashion brands that benefit, either. Archetypal British retailers such as Whittard of Chelsea, Laura Ashley and Cath Kidston are also benefiting from this country’s quaint and quirky associations. Laura Ashley finance director David Cook says the idea of Britishness helps because emerging countries often look for brands with “heritage and distinctive products”.
Cath Kidston is about to open its third Japanese standalone store next month and its first in Kuwait in October. Wholesale manager Danielle O’Driscoll says: “We’re so identifiably English and that’s a huge advantage. Our floral pattern typifies people’s perception of the English countryside.”
But it goes beyond simple associations with a country. Everyone links pasta with Italy, but you wouldn’t order it in a restaurant if you didn’t like eating it. The other advantage British brands have is reputation. It is an endorsement of quality – not just quality design, but quality in terms of operational execution and customer service. As Ernst & Young head of retail Gavin George says: “It’s a stamp of approval.”
Marks & Spencer head of international retail Simeon Piasecki says its overseas market is flourishing, in contrast to the tough market at home. Overseas sales soared 24.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2008/09. And, in the previous financial year, operating profit from international sales surged 33 per cent.
Piasecki says: “We stick to our strong brand values – quality, value, service, innovation and trust – wherever we trade. Customers the world over know us for these values and, in all of the 39 overseas markets where we trade, they are broadly looking for the same thing – good quality, good value products.”
This applies just as much to the luxury sector. Walpole British Luxury deputy chairman Guy Salter says nationality does play a role – “The worst thing you can do is hide your roots” – but adds that retailers such as Jimmy Choo enjoy global success because they understand everything about the customer and product.
Nevertheless, many retailers recognise the value of weaving their roots into their marketing – it certainly helps with differentiation. For instance, Winser says that when Aquascutum presents at shows or compiles its look books, it “always focuses on its heritage”. Cath Kidston, meanwhile, held its press show in Japan at the British Embassy in Tokyo.
Jonathan Heilbron, chief executive of Thomas Pink, which has a presence in more than 60 countries, says its advertising brief is to maintain a British theme. Its latest campaign has been shot in a typically beautiful country house and a London club. “Everyone will recognise that. There is certainly a healthy appetite for Britishness,” he says.
At the opening of Whittard of Chelsea’s store on Boston’s Newbury Street, the retailer made a point of the fact that staff were “London-trained”. It also promoted its tasting bar, where customers could “fully experience the preparation and tastes of a proper pot of tea”.
Meanwhile, watch retailer Storm, which has more than 250 standalone stores in 45 markets, rebranded in 2005 to become Storm London. Brand manager Lisa Thomas says the aim was to “reinforce the fact that it’s a British brand and has London heritage”. Likewise, Oasis calls itself Oasis London in its overseas markets.
Heritage is often incorporated into store design, too. Ted Baker uses a subtle interpretation of themes such as the golden age of the steam train, the British aristocracy or classic cars.
However, patriotic overkill could spell disaster. The only Ted Baker store in which the Union Jack features is its Los Angeles outlet – and even then it’s executed in a playful, tongue-in-cheek manner. The point is, if your British roots are less obvious than those such as Whittard of Chelsea, do not labour the point, otherwise you’ll look ridiculous. As Salter says: “Don’t wrap yourself up in the Union Jack. You don’t want to fly the flag. Consumers are more sophisticated than that. Do it cleverly and do it with humour.”
Heilbron agrees. “We’re absolutely not about splashing the Union Jack about,” he says. Cook adds: “There is a very strong awareness that we are a British brand and we don’t have to play the card strongly. We focus more on quality.”
Retailers therefore need to tread very carefully. George points out that Starbucks used to trade very heavily on its US origins, yet when the US started to become more embroiled in the Middle East conflict, it lost favour with those consumers around the world who disapproved of the country’s political stance. He adds: “Equally, there may be markets where there is anti-British sentiment for historical reasons. It comes down to local knowledge.”
Awareness of individual market demands is also crucial when determining product mix. There is widespread affinity with traditional British products – particularly in former Commonwealth countries and communities with large expat communities, and also in emerging economies that hanker after quality British design. However that doesn’t mean these people necessarily want what the British want.
For instance, O’Driscoll says Japan’s large rental property market means fewer people buy Cath Kidston’s wallpaper ranges. And, at Storm London, Thomas says there is a definite preference for certain colours or materials in certain markets. “Eastern European countries particularly love gold,” she says.
In the long term, retailers need to be mindful that the world will increasingly appear a smaller place. As more and more consumers travel widely, they will become more aware of the heritage of other countries that might well be able to match or surpass Britain’s design credentials or brand values.
But, for the time being, there are too many examples of anodyne retail around the world and Britain’s retailers are doing a good job of bucking the trend with unique, vibrant and quality offers. So, while cream teas are a rarity and hardly any of us have met the Queen, retailers still have every reason to be proud of being British.
Founded in 1851, Aquascutum’s heritage is rooted in British tailoring. Its core products such as coats - complete with their Crafted in England logo - are still made at its Northamptonshire factory. Iconic Aquascutum patrons have included Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn and Gene Kelly. It has a presence in Italy, the US and France, and operates through licence partners in Japan, Hong Kong, China and India. It has also signed distribution deals in Russia, the Middle East and the US.
Flying the flag… British Army officers wore Aquascutum raincoats during the Russian winter of the Crimean War.
Founded in 1856, Burberry is one of the UK’s leading luxury UK clothing retailers and actively promotes its British credentials. The creative force in the business is Yorkshireman Christopher Bailey. Its first Russian standalone store is based on its flagship New Bond Street shop and uses “intrinsically British materials and themes”.
Flying the flag… Burberry is a stickler for British-only marketing. The latest ad campaign was inspired by Manchester-born artist Lowry. Shot in Kensington Gardens, it features British actor Sam Riley and British model Rosie Huntington Whiteley. Video footage uses music by British brand One Night Only.
Many Thomas Pink customers might assume that the shirt retailer, with its Jermyn Street strapline, is steeped in history. In fact, it’s only 24 years old, having been set up in 1984 by three Irish brothers who wanted to market the traditional Jermyn Street shirt to a wider audience. Its very English reputation has no doubt helped boost its international fan base. It now has more than 60 stores across the world in markets including Thailand, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and its biggest international market, the US.
Flying the flag… Thomas Pink’s biggest-selling cufflink design across the world to date has been a pair of silver British bulldogs.
The Japanese just can’t get enough of Cath Kidston’s vintage-inspired floral prints. The business was founded in the UK in 1992 and has had a presence in Japan for the past five years. Founder Kidston once pointed out the importance of tailoring ranges abroad. “The Japanese love it,” she said. “But I have to make everything smaller for that market – smaller bed linen, for example – whereas it is the opposite for the Americans.”
Flying the flag… Such is the demand for all things floral, a specially commissioned Cath Kidston book has sold hundreds of thousand of copies in Japan, retailing at about£5 each.
Ted Baker’s quirky reputation has earned it a loyal following overseas. One fashion blogger on a US site says: “It’s based out of the UK. I love the updated looks, and so refined. Awesome work attire if you’re in the office.” The US retail division has delivered a particularly strong performance in the last financial year. Sales rose 13.8 per cent to US$19.5 million (£10.5 million). The brand also has a presence in the Middle East, Asia and Australasia through licence partners.
Flying the flag… Ted Baker celebrated the opening of its first Australian store in Melbourne with a full village fete, complete with Morris dancers.
Japan is Paul Smith’s biggest market. In one interview, Paul Smith said: “The Japanese had, and still have, a love of British culture. Japanese people have a close relationship with British music; they were aware I knew David Bowie, David Hockney... so when Japanese people met me, or latterly, bought Paul Smith, it enabled them to plug into that European scene somehow.” The brand is in more than 50 countries and Smith prides himself on providing unique retail spaces with character.
Flying the flag… When Paul Smith opened its New York store in 1992, expats used to come in and ask if it sold Mars bars.
The first office of the watch retailer, founded in 1989, was above a pizza takeaway in Acton, north London – perhaps not the image that its hordes of international customers would associate with British design. It was rebranded Storm London to draw attention to its heritage. It now has more than 250 standalone stores in more than 45 countries, with shops in Shanghai, Riga in Latvia, Prague, Bratislava, Dubai, Melbourne and Delhi. More sites are planned in India, China, Nigeria and the Czech Republic.
Flying the flag… The name Storm was inspired by a particularly harrowing plane journey that its founders once had to endure.
The fashion retailer, now owned by Mosaic Fashions, was founded by Michael and Maurice Bennett in 1991. It now has more than 100 stores across 22 countries, including the Middle East, Scandinavia and the Far East. It also plans to expand its Russian market this year and beyond. Oasis’ international division has a specialist buying team that focuses on maximising opportunities within each market, while complementing the retailer’s UK product.
Flying the flag… Oasis sponsored this year’s Fashion in Film Festival – a travelling, biennial exhibition of international film and the perfect vehicle for promoting London’s fashion design credentials.
Whittard of Chelsea
What could be more British than a cup of tea? Whittard of Chelsea, founded in 1886, has a presence in Japan, the US and Australia. It opened its first US store in Boston (spot the joke) in April last year and crossed the Atlantic “to bring quality tea ‘the proper English way’ back to America”. One blogger fan in Boston notes: “The simple instruction to remove the tea bag from the cup after reaching the desired strength really improved my tea-drinking experience.”
Flying the flag… Whittard of Chelsea’s “tea master” Giles Hilton flew out for the opening of its first Boston store. He said: “Clearly, one feels America is ready for a coffee alternative.”