A touch of American magic on Britain’s high streets

The eyes of the world are on the UK during the Olympics and, as the country grapples with a double-dip recession, US brands are trying to inject some confidence and brashness. Lucy Handley reports.


Brits may be familiar with famous American exports including Hershey’s chocolate, Oreo cookies and supersized portions of food, but US brands are becoming more than a holiday treat brought back to the office.

After much anticipation and a number of delays, US lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret launched its first UK store at Westfield’s Stratford shopping centre in London last week, a brand famous for its ‘Angel’ models who strut down the catwalk in wings and tutus as well as their underwear.

But behind the fluff and fairy costumes lies a serious business. Parent company Limited Brands made nearly $300m (£193m) profit in the first quarter of this year alone.

The underwear shop will be hoping Brits warm to its particular brand of smalls. And despite the rocky UK economy, US companies seem to have brought their brand of optimism with them. Latest GDP data shows that the UK economy has contracted by 0.7%, but many US exporters believe the global exposure of London 2012 will benefit their brands and enable them to reach further than British shoppers.

Matt Lopez, chief executive of EB Brands UK, a US firm that has just launched a range of brightly coloured silicone purses and wallets over here called Candy Store, says he was surprised at how quickly they sold out in Selfridges, a popular destination for British and overseas shoppers alike.

He believes British shoppers are keen to see new brands on the high street and are particularly quick to pick up trends from the States.

“There’s a faster turnover than a [similar] location in the US,” he says. “The UK consumer spends more discretionary income on these types of accessories [than in the US] and that’s why the UK market is going to be particularly strong.”

Lopez hopes the high-impulse, low-cost brand will sell well here, retailing at independent stores where its young target audience likes to flash their cash.

That can-do attitude has also contributed to a culture of innovation across the Atlantic. PepsiCo’s fruit smoothie drink Naked Juice is the biggest-selling brand over there

Linda Chang, marketing director at Forever 21, the perky and inexpensive American fashion chain that launched in the UK in 2010, agrees British consumers latch on to new brands quickly – something it has had to adapt to since its UK launch.

“The British consumer adopts trends much quicker than we had anticipated, so looking at how quickly we could bring things to the market was a challenge for us. Coming from LA, that was something we had to focus on as well as getting our timings correct, such as sales and launch periods.”

The brand has a turnover of about $3bn (£1.93m), in the US and only four shops in the UK so far. Speaking to Marketing Week at the opening of the Oxford Street store – which has expanded, swallowing up the old Desigual store next door – Chang says: “In the UK market there’s competition we don’t see in the US – there are a lot of fast fashion retailers that already have a really strong brand presence here, so we’re something new.

“We’ve been in the US for 28 years now and have made our place in the market, so it was a challenge to introduce ourselves here.”

Since launching the brand in the UK, stores in Austria, Spain and France have followed, but the original UK shop in Birmingham has reduced in size. Chang claims this is not due to a reduction in sales but rather finding that a different type of store was required in that location.

“We found the size was a little too big for us – we’re better able to display in a smaller [space],” she claims.

While that store has become smaller, a new one opened in Manchester’s Trafford Centre last month and others are planned for Bluewater and Lakeside.

But the store’s challenge will be to keep up with fierce competition from other low-cost retailers such as H&M and New Look. Chang claims that constant change will help it appeal to UK teens.

“We won’t just open a store and let it be, we’re always listening to what customers’ demands are,” she says. “When we launched in the US, we were an in-mall retailer targeted just to teens and now we have men’s, women’s, plus-size, lingerie and shoes.

“That all evolved from us listening to customers and trying to see where the holes in the market are – the fact that we’re constantly reinventing ourselves is something that stands apart.”


The US is proving to be a place teeming with ideas for British and European entrepreneurs to mimic. The German Samwer brothers, three entrepreneurs trading under the name of Rocket Internet, have been called the ‘copycat brothers’, well-known for borrowing the idea behind someone else’s American business model and replicating it. The brothers are famous for starting Lazada.com, which they call ‘the biggest online shopping mall in the world’, a South East Asian site that looks similar to Amazon.

The company recently hired ex-investment banker Kate Cornell as chief executive of Glossybox, its UK beauty subscription company, to make it profitable – something she has done successfully in the past couple of months.

Cornell explains that the original American concept was called Birchbox, started by two Harvard University graduates who realised sample-sized products could be sold rather than just be seen as freebies. Glossybox charges £10 a month for a selection of sample-sized high-end beauty products.

“The idea for Glossybox derived from Birchbox, but the concept is quite different,” says Cornell. “Glossybox is more niche, the products are more premium and we would never have supermarket brands in ours. We’ve taken it on a slightly different angle – one more suited to UK customers.”

As Forever 21 has had to adapt how it works to meet the demands of UK consumers, so Glossybox has had to make sure the products it offers are up to scratch.

“When it comes to beauty, UK customers are particularly demanding, they’re not going to spend £10 without really understanding what they’re going to receive,” she says. “US customers are less savvy, less demanding, will appreciate supermarket [beauty] brands and won’t have the same levels of questioning in terms of questioning what they’re getting.”

The underwear shop will be hoping Brits warm to its particular brand of smalls. And despite the rocky UK economy, US companies seem to have brought their brand of optimism with them

But Cornell knows there is a limit to how many samples a British beauty junkie will want to buy. Birchbox now sells men’s grooming products at $20 a month, as well as the $10 women’s subscription, so it remains to be seen whether the UK version will move this way too. Cornell confirms the UK brand is likely to expand.

While consumers across the pond may seem less demanding in some ways than the Brits, Cornell says the US breeds a certain type of entrepreneur that UK marketers could learn from.

“There’s a much more entrepreneurial sentiment [in the US] than we find in Europe,” says Cornell. “In the US, having been bankrupt twice and then setting up your own company is considered quite admirable, but in the UK it’s not – it’s considered unconventional and slightly eccentric.

“It is beginning to shift now, but in the UK we are used to people working in the larger corporates, and that’s how success is often measured. The US is a more open and liberal marketplace, so people are incentivised to start their own businesses – it’s something we should support.”

This is something that Alberto Perlman, the chief executive of US dance craze Zumba Fitness, has seen. He describes instructors Stateside as being entrepreneurs who teach at several clubs and says their British counterparts needed more encouragement when the brand launched over here (see box).

That can-do attitude has also contributed to a culture of innovation across the Atlantic. PepsiCo’s fruit smoothie drink Naked Juice is the biggest-selling brand over there, and includes flavours such as peach, mango and oat, and ‘protein zone double berry’ that Brits may find unusual. Indeed, the brand launched here in 2007 with just four flavours, compared with the 30-odd across the pond.

“The US is often so far ahead in terms of innovation there’s more stuff than we have capacity to [launch] really – it’s one step at a time,” says Ian Pate, senior brand manager of Naked in the UK (see box).

While this high level of innovation gives American brands lots of opportunities in the UK, being American can also be a hindrance, warns Pate.

“Bringing an American brand to Britain forces you not to rest on its Americanness alone to sell it,” he says. “Americana is not necessarily a draw – sometimes it can have the opposite effect.

“It forces you to think carefully about what it is about the brand and product that’s going to make it succeed here, there is no magic formula. It’s as simple as – the product has to be relevant.”

This is something high-end US leather goods company Coach found when it opened its first outlets in the UK last August. Allyson Stewart-Allen, author of Working with Americans, briefed store staff before the launch, pointing out that Brits don’t always warm to the ‘have a nice day’ approach their American cousins prefer. She adds that certain items that are ubiquitous in the States, such as a wallet with a strap called a ‘wristlet’, are met with confusion here.

But despite the differences in the US and UK consumers, it appears US brands believe they can bring confidence, innovation and novelty to a gloomy British high street. Perhaps an injection of sunny American confidence could help it shine again.

Case study: Naked Juice


PepsiCo’s brand Naked Juice is the number one smoothie brand in the US, with more than 30 flavours, but is less well-known over here, carving out its niche over the past five years.

You might expect a juggernaut like PepsiCo to give Naked the Tropicana treatment and throw millions of pounds into a marketing pot to launch and support it, but the nature of the product means it has a smaller audience in the UK than in the US. The most popular of the four juices in the UK is Green Machine, a greeny-grey mixture of kiwi, apple, pineapple and banana – it even contains broccoli and blue-green algae.

Green drinks are just not something Brits are used to seeking out, says Ian Pate, senior brand manager for Naked Juice, Copella and incubation brands at PepsiCo. He points out that in the States, the California lifestyle and image lends itself more to super-healthy drinks.

“We are learning that there’s almost a challenge with picking up something that’s so deeply weird – we call it ‘love at second gulp’ because the first sip is tentative as you’re convinced it is going to taste like broccoli, and then because it tastes nothing like that, the second gulp is massive,” he says. “If you live on the west coast of America or in Australia people seem to be downing shots of wheatgrass all the time and everyone is OK with these bright green things, whereas in the UK we’re used to pink, yellow or red smoothies.”

So rather than put lots of money into a TV campaign, Pate has focused on sampling and word of mouth to communicate what Naked is all about.

“There’s been a real ‘seeding’ growth strategy from PepsiCo, quite different from our usual big launch and get it everywhere [approach],” he says. “It was based on the thinking that there was a real gap in the market – smoothies in the UK just seemed a little samey, a little worthy.

“We were sitting on this product in the US that was the number one seller so it was a bit of a gamble [to launch it here]. It was very much about trying to find the right retail customers, so we went in cautiously with classic customers like Whole Foods and Starbucks. Those are a great fit in terms of the US connection but also in terms of the kind of shoppers who go there.”

Research has shown that affluent people aged 25 to 35 and living in the south east of England are the kind of people who will be keen on the drinks, so the company is giving out 130,000 full-sized samples over the summer. It is hoping to increase bottle sales from a total of 10 million since launch in 2007, to 13 million by the end of the year.


Advertising in the US focuses on the Santa Monica beach lifestyle, where Naked was founded in the early 1980s, but images of the palm-fronded coast do not necessarily resonate with Londoners, says Pate.

“People in the UK might associate beaches with holidays, where you are ‘on’ the beach, whereas in Santa Monica, you are on the west coast and you are living ‘by’ the beach – that’s difficult to translate to your average Londoner crammed on the tube with our media showing beautiful palm trees, so [it would be] trying to draw a very awkward parallel between London and LA,” he says.

Similarly, Pate says that British palates are not yet ready for Naked’s coconut water, a drink that has been around in the US for 20 years or more, although with the high-profile launch of rival product Vita Coco featuring pop star Rihanna, this could change.



Alberto Perlman
Chief executive
Zumba Fitness

Zumba is a combination of traditional aerobics and dance moves, and was started in the US by Beto Perez in 2001. The UK is one of its biggest markets outside the US

Marketing Week (MW): Why has Zumba been so successful in the UK?

Alberto Perlman (AP): We brought something to the fitness world in the UK that people were craving, which was this sort of warm, friendly, let-loose kind of attitude that Zumba has. People assume that we are big in South America, but we are bigger in northern Europe.

MW: How did you launch here?

AP: The key was that we had our DVD distributor advertising on TV and that brought people to classes. We also hired PR firm Beige. They got the word out and were able to get the right journalists and celebrities to try the class. The creator of Zumba, Beto Perez, went to five cities teaching classes and we had celebrities in each city at Virgin Active clubs. To start with we partnered with Virgin and Fitness First and then with David Lloyd and LA Fitness.

A lot of fitness programmes before us charged licensing fees to the gym [chain], but the way we set up our business means we charge those licensing fees to instructors. We believe that if an instructor is willing to push themselves and be passionate about it, it makes them and the gym successful.


MW: How do the fitness markets in the UK compare to the US?

AP: In the UK, fitness instructors and dancers are not entrepreneurs. In the US they are and they will teach at seven clubs, but in the UK they will maybe teach at one club and take 10 classes.

What we have taught the gyms is how to audition and pick the right instructors, so we have shifted the burden of quality control to the fitness facilities. Music and dance are so universal that Zumba works anywhere, so we really did not have to change the product or marketing much [when launching in the UK].

MW: What is the reaction to the idea that individual instructors have a licence to teach, rather than the gyms themselves?

AP: We got a lot of resistance from the clubs which were saying that they wanted to have the licence and control the instructors. But we said we didn’t want that – we want the instructors to drive the programme. For the first year [in the UK] we kept pounding that message and finally they realised it was the right way to go; the instructors were on board and then the clubs were on board too.

Ones to watch

Ann Taylor and Williams-Sonoma

Allyson Stewart-Allen, author of Working with Americans, suggests there is a gap in the UK market for these two US brands. Ann Taylor, she says, is quality workwear for women, which could be something Marks & Spencer is missing in its womenswear collections. Williams-Sonoma is a high-end kitchenware shop with about 250 stores across the States that ships to the UK for £10. But it is not cheap – prices go up to more than £300 for a frying pan.


This super high-end gym, pronounced ‘ee-quinox’ has more than 50 fitness clubs across the US and will open its first UK branch in London this year. It says: “It’s not just a fitness club, it’s a temple of wellbeing.” Equinox has celebrity members in the States including actress Claire Danes and socialite Paris Hilton. The Kensington branch will open in the autumn and chief executive Harvey Spevak will be hoping the £160-a-month club catches on.

Free People

Part of the clothing group that owns fashionable Urban Outfitters and upmarket Anthropologie, which were founded in Philadelphia, Free People offers classic festival styles and ‘vegan’ leather, and will launch its UK ecommerce site in October. Urban Outfitters has 34 shops in the UK. Anthropologie joined it in 2009 and now has three shops in London and one in Edinburgh.


Opening Ceremony

Nothing to do with the Olympics, the name relates to the up-and-coming fashion designers the shop is showcasing. According to the website, ‘the Olympics were founded under the guise of creatively merging sports, business, and global participation. Opening Ceremony takes from this foundation and applies these elements towards fashion’. It is importing its shop format from downtown Manhattan to a London pop-up shop in fashion hot-spot Covent Garden, which opened last month using a design that looks strikingly similar to the brightly-coloured shapes that make up the London 2012 brand. A permanent shop will open this autumn.

Rag & Bone

The contemporary American fashion store opened in London last week, bankrolled by mogul Andrew Rosen, the man who funds US label Theory, which has two shops here. Rosen’s interests have been compared to those of LVMH by American Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who told WSJ Magazine: “We don’t have a Gucci or LVMH in this country, but in his own way Andrew is creating a kind of American equivalent.”