This brand’s got legs

Pretty Polly has suffered from a shrinking market, stiff competition and an image that’s not as sexy as it used to be. Louise Jack asks how the hosiery firm plans to turn its fortunes around

Tanned, toned legs in sock-clad feet bursting from the top of a billboard are the first step in a new strategy to reinvigorate Pretty Polly (MW last week). This work is the first execution from recently appointed agency Beattie McGuinness Bungay (BMB), which won the £4m account in a pitch that included Hurrell & Dawson, Isobel and PR specialists Exposure.

The launch of Silver Fresh sports socks marks the initial stage in Pretty Polly’s plans to expand its product portfolio. The decision, though, appears to have come rather late, as the brand finds its core market squeezed from the top by small luxury labels and from the bottom by own-brands.

This tardiness may have been a result of a lengthy period of uncertainty that ended last summer as Sara Lee sold Courtaulds Legwear Brands (Pretty Polly, Aristoc and Elbeo) to PD Enterprises, a Hong Kong-based garment producer, which is keen to revitalise the brand. The appointment of Pretty Polly favourite Trevor Beattie will doubtless invigorate the brand’s advertising, which has lain virtually dormant since parting company with TBWA/London in 2001.

But Pretty Polly’s biggest problem is that the hosiery market has been hit by women’s changing habits and, in the past five years, by the boom in self-tanning products as a viable alternative to legwear. Rita Clifton, chairman of Interbrand, says: “Pretty Polly was such an iconic brand in the 1970s and 1980s. It used to be perceived as sexy, some of its ads were fantastic. But you wouldn’t necessarily associate Pretty Polly with being sexy today.

“It faces stiff competition from high street brands, smaller high-quality brands and changing distribution patterns in a shrinking market. The resurgence of Marks & Spencer must have affected it, M&S and other high street own-brands have upped their game with new, fashionable products and Pretty Polly is a bit off the pace in terms of both product innovation and marketing positioning.”

Pretty Polly, named after a racehorse owned by an English bookmaker, launched in 1926 after his daughter started a hosiery business. The same year it was bought by hosiery producer Hibbert & Buckland and by the 1930s was known for high-quality silk, nylon and lisle stockings, selling more than 48 million pairs in 1939. Over the next 50 years it became known for developing innovative products, launching everything from hold-ups to pop socks. In 1991, US giant Sara Lee bought the brand from then owners BTR and consolidated in 2000 by acquiring Courtaulds Legwear Brands.

But in the past decade, declining sales have meant the hosiery market has hit the kind of snags that can’t be fixed with nail polish. The rise of casualwear in the workplace and more women working from home, together with cheap foreign imports and the growth of competitively priced own-label products, have caused Pretty Polly’s traditional market to shrink in volume and value.

The tights market fell from £283.7m expenditure in the year ending February 2006 to £276.1m for the year to February 2007. In terms of volume, unit sales of tights in 2006 were more than 5 million less than in 2004 and stocking sales in the UK dropped 15% for the same period (TNS Worldpanel). In 2005, Pretty Polly’s Sutton in Ashfield plant closed, resulting in 300 job losses.

But now Courtaulds Legwear Brands commercial director Sue Clague is upbeat about Pretty Polly’s ability to meet market challenges. “We have managed to hold our own in a dreadful, hostile market and in the past 18 months have developed a new strategy for legwear across all our brands. For Pretty Polly, we need to find the right added-value at the premium end of the mass hosiery market and what you have seen so far is just a fraction of our plans. We are about to ratchet up those product plans and it won’t just be hosiery.”

Clague admits that Pretty Polly’s marketing has been in need of a rethink: “We did lose momentum when Sara Lee divested us, which took quite a long time. The PD Enterprises purchase has been a very positive development. It is committed to investing in the brand and we are now able to embark on a different communications strategy.”

The appointment of BMB rekindles Pretty Polly’s relationship with Beattie, whose work has included campaigns such as model L’Wren Scott’s legs as the hands of a clock. In 1996, TBWA created a 64-sheet poster, turning billboards vertically to accommodate a 35-foot high pair of legs, making it the biggest ever billboard at the time.

Beattie says of his renewed links with Pretty Polly: “Its unprompted brand awareness is phenomenal – there is research that put it at 97%. It is in a position to do things other brands can’t and I’ve no doubt that brand extensions will be easily accepted. The Silver Fresh billboard is just a precursor. We’ll be using lots of different forms of media, starting with point of purchase – the actual contact with the product.

“Pretty Polly understands the power of marketing and brings out the best in me. I consider some of the work I’ve done with Pretty Polly as the best of my career.”

Interbrand’s Rita Clifton concludes: “Pretty Polly needs to take control of its core sector and appear to be a leader again, rather than follow the agenda set by high street brands. Then it can expand into other sectors from a position of strength. The sports sock is interesting because, as a brand, innovation is going to be vital. It may be that it will be able to add the sex factor to that sector. That’s the kind of more imaginative approach that is needed.” 

Timeline

Pretty Polly 

1926    Hibbert & Buckland acquires Pretty Polly
1945    Hibbert & Buckland expands, aided by the introduction of nylon
1959    The Thomas Tilling Group buys Pretty Polly and introduces the first non-run seam stockings
1967    The company invents hold-ups, which are an overnight success
1980    First hosiery TV ad campaign
1991    The Sara Lee Corporation, owner of Elbeo, buys Pretty Polly
1993    Pretty Polly and Elbeo merge 1996First vertical poster ads
2000    Sara Lee buys Courtaulds Textiles. Its legwear portfolio is now Aritoc, Elbeo and Pretty Polly
2006    PD Enterprises buys Courtaulds Legwear Brands

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