Tradition is alive in the digital age

The decision by pram manufacturer Silver Cross to embrace social media and diversify its product range shows that heritage brands do not have to abandon their traditional values to survive.

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Heritage brands often arouse deep public affection. But that doesn’t always translate into profits, as pram-maker Silver Cross found out when it fell into receivership in 2002.

Just eight years later, new Silver Cross owner Alan Halsall is taking the rejuvenated brand – which has been synonymous with generations of royal babies since the Twenties – into uncharted territory, including a vast range of new product lines and social media.

“It has always been my intention to make Silver Cross a nursery brand. I think consumers see us as much more than people who sell prams and I want the brand to reflect that,” says Halsall.

Branded nursery furniture and bedding is being previewed later this year, and should be in the shops by 2011. This follows the launch of a toy and gift range last year, and the introduction of modern prams and pushchairs.

Meanwhile, its new social media push, described by Halsall as a “Tripadvisor for kids” service, aims to keep the brand active in the multichannel interactive world.

Halsall wants to make sure that Silver Cross is seen as a varied brand rather than selling posh prams as this gives the company a level of protection; diversifying into multiple areas means that even if you fall out of fashion, you will have many product lines to bring in profits.

Halsall, who bought the brand following its receivership in 2002, was running a toy company at the time. He licensed the Silver Cross name for his doll’s prams and felt that there was mileage in the historic brand moving into new ranges. He sold the toy company in 2006 to concentrate on Silver Cross.

Halsall’s gamble is likely to pay off, according to Mintel figures for baby and nursery equipment. The sector grew by 20% between 2003 and 2008 to reach a value of £639m. The research agency forecasts that the sector will reach £753m by 2013.

In line with its move into modern product areas, Halsall also took the brand into the celebrity endorsement arena when Silver Cross loaned 12 of its Balmoral prams, which are handmade in Yorkshire, to singer Lily Allen so she could use them in her Brit Awards performance this year.

Silver Cross is still promoting the association with the pop star on its website and giving visitors to its site the opportunity to win one of the prams that were used in the performance.

Allen isn’t the only celebrity to be associated with Silver Cross. Britney Spears has been spotted with a pimped up version of one of the heritage collection prams, especially personalised by the UK manufacturer. And Carly Cole, the wife of Chelsea footballer Joe Cole, and actress Jennifer Ellison have also been reported to have plumped for a “trendy vintage” Silver Cross pram.

The celebrity coverage may be helping to promote the Silver Cross name among young mothers, but Halsall says he has reduced the amount of official endorsement the brand gets involved in.

He is keen to get positive PR without being too closely associated with unobtainable famous lifestyles. “If a celebrity buys one of our products then that’s great, but we want to be seen as a brand for everyone,” he says.

While its heritage prams retail for about £1,000, Halsall points out that other products are priced to compete against other high street brands.

But he doesn’t see it as a “mass market” brand. “It is deliberately sold in independent and specialist stores because they are places where you can discuss your individual needs,” he says.

“When you have a brand like Silver Cross you have to encompass so much more than just selling a pram or a pushchair. It’s about producing the right sort of feel for the brand” Alan Halsall, Silver Cross

Mintel reports that supermarkets are becoming an increasingly common place to buy baby products than small independents, but Halsall argues that it’s only the specialists that can match products with consumer lifestyles. He is keen to maintain old-fashioned service levels by keeping his products out of the mass-market supermarket environment.

Supporting the independent stores with appropriate marketing collateral is a priority for Silver Cross. The company spends between 10% and 15% of its annual turnover on marketing, claims Halsall.

At the moment, the largest investment for the company is in the social media space. This is an area where many baby and nursery brands are already very active. Mothercare has a majority stake in Gurgle.com, an online forum for parents, while parenting sites Mumsnet and Netmums attract millions of users to their forums each week.

Silver Cross hopes its Days Out website will differentiate the brand in this busy area. Days Out allows parents to post reviews of places they have been with their children, while other parents can use the site to find out what attractions are recommended in their area. The site will carry the Silver Cross name and will link back to the corporate site.

Halsall insists that Silver Cross Days Out has been designed to demonstrate that his company is more than a nursery brand. “When you have a brand like Silver Cross you have to encompass so much more than just selling a pram or a pushchair. It’s about producing the right sort of feel for the brand,” he argues.

Email marketing
There are plans to also use the Days Out site for email marketing. Eventually the brand will send out targeted emails to registered users telling them about the latest reviews in their area.

“I’m a great believer in working in the social media space,” says Halsall. Silver Cross already gets ideas from its customers via Facebook, he says. This enables consumers to get in touch quickly if they have any problems. For example, customers were finding the new Surf buggy difficult to unfold. In response to this, the brand is creating a video that it will put on Facebook so people can watch a step-by-step guide.

Halsall recently hosted a live webcam on Facebook taking questions from all over the country. He believes direct interaction with consumers in this way is important as it shows the brand is transparent in its operation. Halsall also writes a blog to emphasise how he wants to stay close to consumers.

Yet social media has been a curse rather than a benefit for rival brand Maclaren. The pushchair company was criticised last year for mishandling a recall of its products. Some comments on parenting forums are negative about the perceived slow response of the brand.
Halsall says Silver Cross has probably benefited from the skirmish and acknowledges that his rival brand “could have handled the crisis better and more quickly”.

Halsall isn’t anxious about a similar slip-up of his own. If the worst happened, he says that he would be as transparent as possible about what went wrong. This, he says, is what will keep Silver Cross relevant for the consumers of today.

“It’s how we cement an honest relationship with our customers,” he explains.

Mintel’s top seven premium prams by brand share

1 Mamas & Papas
2 Graco
3 Maclaren
4 Mothercare
5 Silver Cross
6 Bugaboo
7 Dorel

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Silver Cross:
UK versus international

Silver Cross might be appealing to modern mums in the UK, but it is the heritage side of the brand that is heavily promoted overseas. The company exploits the royal connection heavily in the Far East, where the company has a marketing office in Hong Kong.

This is similar to other traditional English brands with large international customer bases. Fashion brands such as Burberry and Barbour have both adopted younger, funkier images within the UK, being publicised by supermodel Kate Moss and band The Arctic Monkeys. But outside the British Isles, the two brands play up their traditional status, as this appeals to shoppers looking to buy a piece of royal-endorsed history.

Halsall says that to capitalise on the heritage of the brand, it does turn to its Britishness and uses royal pictures in its marketing material. He remarks: “The wealthy consumer buys into this image in the Far East.”

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