French Connection’s profits warning last week, issued after autumn’s like-for-like sales crashed 18 per cent, shows the fickleness of fashion.
From mobile phones to trainers, and these days even packet soups, brand owners have a love/ hate relationship with fashion. They court being fashionable as a short-term boost, but often struggle to move with the times.
Where brands were once lauded for offering long-term stability in sales and pricing, today the shifting sands of fashion can make branding look more like a liability than a benefit.
French Connection UK’s “FCUK” advertising strategy, which it has plastered across its T-shirts, has helped the chain build an anti-establishment image. The clothes group, which saw sales grow to &£241m in 2003 from &£156m in 2000, has ridden high on the back of the campaign, created by TBWA/London chairman Trevor Beattie. Sales space has almost doubled since 2000, as have profits. Undoubtedly the campaign has helped this growth. But it all seems to be disappearing in a puff of smoke as FCUK’s much-copied T-shirt chic goes out of style.
Advertising is powerful at ratcheting up growth, but is often less effective at keeping a brand on top. In many areas, advertising and marketing can no longer offer the stability that the City and other stakeholders crave.
By hitching branding to ephemeral fashions, the resulting shooting star is destined to light up the sky for moments before disappearing. “French Connection hasn’t moved the strategy on and used its core customer loyalty to move into other areas. FCUK is no longer a joke, it hasn’t really evolved,” says one source.
French Connection boss Stephen Marks believes the problem for the chain is not so much that fashions have changed, rather that FCUK has failed to keep up with them.
Autumn sales have slumped because the chain had too many basics such as sweaters, he says, but in these times of disposable glamour, did not offer enough fashionable items such as wraparound dresses. He denies there is a wider problem with the FCUK brand.
But others think the crisis goes far deeper. The FCUK campaign has run its course, they believe, and is no longer sufficiently powerful to justify the premium attached to French Connection’s products.
Evolution Securities analyst Nick Bubb says: “French Connection is overpriced. If it doesn’t bring down prices, the retail side will really suffer, unless it gets a fantastic range going.” He believes French Connection is a “schizophrenic” brand.
Its wholesale side has continued to perform strongly and it sells well through department stores where it is placed alongside brands such as Diesel and Miss Sixty, as its pricing seems in line with these.
But on the cut-throat high street, its prices are higher than competitors such as Next or Zara. Bubb says the marketing is looking tired, and says the latest television campaign, which forsook the FCUK line in favour of a “no logo” approach (it didn’t use the name of the brand) is evidence that the campaign is dead.
Meanwhile, US clothes chain Gap is another fallen star looking to reignite its popularity across the globe. Under the guidance of chief executive Paul Pressler, a former Disney theme park executive, the chain is employing traditional techniques of marketing – focus groups, research and analysis – to move the chain on from its “baby boomer” roots.
By contrast, Swedish retailer Hennes & Mauritz is predicted to overtake Marks & Spencer as Europe’s largest clothes retailer by the end of the year, according to analysts Mintel. H&M has used celebrity endorsements and a tie-up with Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld to produce throwaway fashions at low prices.
One brand that has found fashions spinning out of its control is trainer manufacturer New Balance. In the mid-Nineties, the company’s US operation had a few hundred thousand pairs of old-fashioned looking trainers which it couldn’t sell, so it shipped them to Europe. To the company’s surprise, the retro-look trainers became the latest trend.
But the new-found fame became problematic. The fashions changed and the company was left struggling to find a direction. Now it has returned to its roots as a performance shoe, but EMEA general manager Alistair Cameron is aware of the pitfalls of success based on short-term trends. “Today the New Balance approach is very much long term and sustainable – we got totally out of balance,” he says.
It is hard to move on from a successful formula, but the moment something becomes predictable it needs to be canned, according to one fashion source. He says: “You are always either leading up to your best work or living off it. Sometimes you get to a situation where you are so successful it is difficult to change because with success comes size and shareholders. But as soon as you feel it is time for a change, it probably is.”