Profile: Johnnie Boden

Boden’s founder tells us at The Marketing Society’s conference how digital transformation took the ‘yummy mummy’ brand global.

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“I’m very neurotic, I’m very impatient, I’m a terrible manager… I can’t sit still and I don’t sleep,” says Johnnie Boden, founder and chairman of the upmarket mail order and online clothing brand that bears his name.

These are not necessarily the attributes one might expect a business owner – especially one of the country’s foremost entrepreneurs – to admit, but it is a formula that works for Boden, who set up his business in 1991 with a clear ambition to disrupt the market and bring high-end catalogue clothing to the UK.

More than two decades later the brand’s distinctive prints and quirky style have become the unofficial uniform of Britain’s ‘yummy mummy’ brigade, an accolade cemented earlier this year when Boden was named as one of Mumsnet users’ favourite brands. However, that is also one of Boden’s biggest dilemmas – shared with high street staples such as Marks & Spencer – as it seeks to keep its ageing core customers happy while being relevant and appealing for new, younger shoppers.

Online growth

Although it started life as a catalogue company offering only eight menswear products, nearly all sales are now generated online, which the owner is not ashamed to admit caught him a little off guard.

“To my great embarrassment, I famously said to my team of directors ‘this internet thing will never catch on’. Now 98% of our orders are online, so I’ve been made to look rather stupid,” he told broadcaster Kirsty Wark at The Marketing Society’s annual conference last month.

Despite the dominance of ecommerce, however, the catalogue still plays a crucial role, he tells Marketing Week, as two-thirds of shoppers peruse its pages before placing an order online, and as soon as an item is removed, sales for that product fall by 60%.

Although there will always be people who want the catalogue, Boden knows that growth in that channel no longer exists.

“Recruiting new customers cost-effectively is a big challenge,” he tells Marketing Week off-stage at The Marketing Society conference. “When I started, 90% of our effort was in cold lists and I still think print plays a part but it is more about ads and inserts in magazines, combined with digital.”

Boden, a former banker who was educated at Eton and Oxford, is as bright and charming as the designs that adorn his clothes, and he talks with the same open and inclusive manner as the correspondence he sends to customers, illustrating just how much he embodies the brand.

“To my great embarrassment, I famously said to my team of directors ‘this internet thing will never catch on’. Now 98% of our orders are online, so I’ve been made to look rather stupid.”

But he says it is a common misconception that Boden is just “Johnnie and his mates” and in fact it is a “professional, dynamic business with a lot of creativity and complexity”.

The privately-owned company reported a 5% rise in full year sales in 2013 after strengthening its presence in the US and Germany – 55% of sales now come from outside the UK – but pre-tax profit remained static at £24.4m compared to £24.3m the previous year.

Boden launched in Australia in August and is already present in Austria and France, and although Asian countries are renowned for their love of quintessentially British brands, this is not a market Boden plans to explore in the near future.

“The problem with Asia is simple – it is sizing. People are smaller so we would have to resize everything, which would be expensive and disruptive,” he says.

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Although Boden started off as a mail order company, most of its sales are now generated online

Multichannel business

In spite of Boden’s personal uncertainty initially about the significance of internet shopping, the transition from mail order to online was relatively smooth, because, unlike bricks-and-mortar retailers, the brand already had the necessary infrastructure of call centres and warehouses in place. But although the brand might have stolen a march to begin with, the fast rise of ecommerce has levelled the playing field in other respects.

“The principle USP of our brand in the early days was that we sold direct [to the consumer] but thanks to the introduction of the internet it is no longer unique to sell direct, so although we had an initial advantage we soon lost it,” he confesses.

To cement the long-term stability of the brand, Boden says it is important to “clarify what the business stands for and not think too much about channel, as you need to be in all channels”.

In order to be a truly multichannel business, Boden is for the first time planning to extend its network of retail outlets – quite a big departure for the brand that opened its first and only store in Hanger Green on the outskirts of London more than 10 years ago.

If successful, however, it is a move that could deliver considerable rewards. Marks & Spencer admitted recently that although it invests 25% of its marketing budget into digital, only 16% of sales are made via its website. Boden calculates that people shop for clothes in store 3.5 times more than online in the UK, which rises to seven times more in the US, meaning there is huge scope to add to its pool of 1.5 million active customers.

“We have always wanted to do it but have never had the time, the resources or the right people,” says Boden. “We’ve now hired a firm of consultants and are looking seriously at some sort of retail test in the UK and the US.”

Boden admits the business has probably left it too late to open new stores next year so the expansion is likely to kick off in 2016. “America remains the biggest opportunity,” he says. “It’s an enormous market and we’ve barely scratched the surface.”

Although the style of UK and US consumers is “remarkably similar”, there are several key differences Boden will bear in mind when marketing to its US audience.

“They are more formal, they dress up for social activities and in the summer they go to ‘the [country] club’, so they wear a lot more dresses,” he says. “Sixty per cent of our US customers also go to church regularly. They are more fitness obsessed – the average American gets up at 5.15am to go to the gym, so they change their outfits many more times than British women.”

Boden’s core customer tends to be women over 30 with a household income of more than £70,000, “who want a bit of fashion but are not obsessed with it and above all value quality and reliability”, Boden explains.

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Brand perceptions

The retailer is also able to charge higher prices for its products thanks to the perceptions of its brand, according to a report by research agency Mintel. The report picks out Boden and Net-A-Porter as online fashion brands that consumers consider note for their quality . However, while it is women under 25 who lead those perceptions for Net-A-Porter, it is over-35s for Boden.

Age is a sticking point for Boden because while it wants to attract a 30-something audience, in reality it is synonymous with a more mature crowd with celebrity fans such as the prime minister’s wife Samantha Cameron and American first lady Michelle Obama illustrating that gap.

However, Boden argues that fashion is more ageless today than it used to be. “The days of wearing different clothes at different stages of your life are gone. Actually now what 50-year-old women wear is very similar to what 30-year-old women wear, so the barrier is not as big as it used to be.”

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The retailer wants to attract a younger clientele; it uses social media and has a cross section of contributors writing on its blog

In order to entice a younger audience Boden says the brand needs to be “in the zones” where these consumers shop. “Young people are not so wedded to the catalogue. They are also much more digitally aware, so social media and blogs enable us to meet younger customers,” he explains.

The brand’s blog, The Great Boden Diaries, aims to appeal to a wide range of women by having a cross-section of contributors. These include 21-year-old fashion and food blogger Olivia Purvis, who writes the What Olivia Did blog, Sasha Wilkins, who is better known as Liberty London Girl and appeals to a slightly older audience, as well as Brooke White and Summer Bellessa, who produce the US-based web series and blog The Girls With Glasses.

Dealing with criticisms

In the past, critics have accused the brand of being “middle-aged” and even “smug” and although Boden takes on the criticism, he is unwavering in his vision for the brand. “We have to make sure that we remove any suggestion that we are middle-aged,” he asserts. “It’s a very good point and we are guilty in certain respects, but the aspects of the brand that are good and strong must remain good and strong irrespective of the criticism.”

He admits that striking a balance can be difficult at times as “some people complain if the brand changes but others complain if it doesn’t”. He also concedes that the business has been guilty of focusing too heavily on existing shoppers rather than trying to entice new customers.

“Entrepreneurs are fundamentally disruptive; the reason they set up their business is because they don’t like the natural order of things, but that can be difficult for employees”

But when the brand moved away from its wholesome, everyday woman image in 2012, after choosing model Helena Christensen for a more fashion-led shoot, there was outrage from the brand’s diehard fan base on Twitter, who felt it was too “sultry and sexy”.

Despite the backlash, Boden believes the campaign was “really successful” but has no appetite to go down the same route again. “We do need pretty people to wear our clothes, but to become too identified with any one person is quite dangerous,” he says.

If he could choose any celebrity to wear his clothes, it would be the Duchess of Cambridge and it is not difficult to see why, as the ‘Kate effect’ has already propelled other British brands, including LK Bennett and Reiss, into the global spotlight.

“Of course I’d like more public figures to wear our clothes but I want people to genuinely engage with the brand,” he says. “Our competitors spend a lot of time and money on it. There is endless gifting. It’s a kind of bribery really and we don’t do that. Is it something we should be doing? I don’t know.”

Being a “rubbish manager”

Boden, is very open and honest about a lot of things, none more so than the admission that he is a “rubbish manager” – perhaps to be taken with a pinch of salt, given the company’s consistent ability to grow sales. Yet he sees his skills as being in the field of shaking things up than holding them steady.

“You can’t be good at everything,” he concedes. “Entrepreneurs are fundamentally disruptive; the reason they set up their business is because they don’t like the natural order of things, but that can be difficult for employees. There are occasions when I will get involved in management, but on the whole I have a very good team that are better at it than I am.”

Leading that team is CEO Julian Granville, who joined the business in 1995 and whom Boden regards as the “sensible one”. When he launched the business, Boden did everything from design clothes to personally check each package before it left the warehouse. Today, the brand sends 100,000 parcels a week, so it is no longer possible for him to have such a tight grip. Learning to let go and delegate is one of the most important lessons Boden says he has learnt over the past 20 years.

“If I could go back, I would have hired a design team [and managing director] earlier on. I would have been clearer about the brand, and would have been braver about testing new products and dropping those that aren’t selling so well,” he says. “When you’re doing well, you tend to be less receptive to change, but in fact you always need to be changing whether you’re doing well or not.”

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