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The Franchise “Space Programme”

(Published in ETRetail.com on 6 December 2013)

Franchising isn’t rocket science, but advanced space programmes offer at least one parallel which we can learn from – the staging of objectives and planning accordingly.

A franchise development programme can be staged like a space launch, each successive stage being designed and defined for a specific function or role, and sequentially building the needed velocity and direction to successfully create a franchise operation. The stages may be equated to Launch, Booster, Orbiter and Landing stages, and cover the following aspects:

  1. Launch: assessment of the franchiser’s own readiness to launch and manage a franchise network in the target geography
  2. Booster: having the franchise pack ready to target the appropriate geographies and franchisee profile
  3. Orbiter: franchisee recruitment
  4. Landing: operationalising the franchise location

Stage 1: Launch

The first and perhaps the most important stage in launching a franchise programme is to check whether the organisation is really ready to create a franchise network. Sure, inept franchisees can cause damage to the brand, but it is important to first look at the responsibilities that a brand has to making the franchise network a success. Too many brands see franchising as a quick-fix for expansion, as a low-cost source for capital and manpower at the expense of franchisee-investors. It is vital for the franchiser to demonstrate that it has a successful and profitable business model, as well as the ability to provide support to a network of multiple operating locations in diverse geographies. For this, it has to have put in place management resources (people with the appropriate skills, business processes, financial and information systems) as well as budgets to provide the support the franchisee needs to succeed. The failure of many franchise concepts, in fact, lies in weakness within the franchiser’s organisation rather than outside.

Stage 2: Booster

Once the organisation and the brand are assessed to be “franchise-ready”, there is still work to be put into two sets of documents: one related to the brand and the second related to the operations processes and systems. A comprehensive marketing reference manual needs to be in place to be able to convey the “pulling” power that the brand will provide to the franchisee, clearly articulate the tangible and intangible aspects that comprise the brand, and also specify the guidelines for usage of brand materials in various marketing environments. The operations manual aims to document standard operating procedures that provide consistency across the franchise network and are aimed at reducing variability in customer experience and performance. It must be noted that both sets of documents must be seen as evolving with growth of the business and with changes in the external environment – the Marketing Manual is likely to be more stable, while the Operations Manual necessary needs to be as dynamic as the internal and external environment.

Stage 3: Orbiter

Now the brand is ready to reach out to potential franchisees. How wide a brand reaches, across how many potential franchisees, with what sort of terms, all depend on the vision of the brand, its business plan and the practices prevalent in the market. However, in all cases, it is essential to adopt a “parent” framework that defines the essential and desirable characteristics that a franchisee should possess, the relationship structure that needs to be consistent across markets (if that is the case), and any commercial terms about which the franchiser wishes to be rigid. This would allow clearer direction and focussed efforts on the part of the franchiser, and filter out proposals that do not fit the franchiser’s requirements. Franchisees can be connected through a variety of means: some will find you through other franchisees, or through your website or other marketing materials; others you might reach out to yourselves through marketing outreach programmes, trade shows, or through business partners. During all of this it is useful, perhaps essential, to create a single point of responsibility at a senior level in the organisation to be able to maintain both consistency and flexibility during the franchise recruitment and negotiation process, through to the stage where a franchisee is signed-on.

Stage 4: Landing

Congratulations – the destination is in sight. The search might have been hard, the negotiations harder still, but you now – officially – have a partner who has agreed to put in their money and their efforts behind launching YOUR brand in THEIR market, and to even pay you for the period that they would be running the business under your name. That’s a big commitment on the franchisee’s part. The commitment with which the franchiser handles this stage is important, because this is where the foundation will be laid for the success – or failure – of the franchisee’s business. Other than a general orientation that you need to start you franchisee off with, the Marketing Manual and the Operational Manual are essential tools during the training process for the franchisee’s team. Depending on the complexity of the business and the infrastructure available with the franchiser, the franchisee’s team may be first trained at the franchiser’s location, followed by pre-launch training at the franchisee’s own location, and that may be augmented by active operational support for a certain period provided by the franchiser’s staff at the franchisee’s site. The duration and the amount of support are best determined by the nature of the business and the relative maturity of both parties in the relationship. For instance, someone picking up a food service franchise without any prior experience in the industry is certainly likely to need more training and support than a franchisee who is already successfully running other food service locations.

Will going through these steps guarantee that the franchise location or the franchise network succeeds? Perhaps not. But at the very least the framework will provide much more direction and clarity to your business, and will improve the chances of its success. And it’s a whole lot better than flapping around unpredictably during the heat of negotiations with high-energy franchisees in high-potential markets.

India’s Luxury Love Affair: It’s Complicated!

Luxury is an ill-defined concept. There is no specific line or limit of price, quality or availability that separates the luxurious from all that is not.

However, like other similarly intangible attributes such as power or grace, we all immediately recognise luxury when we experience it.

In fact, experience — vague as that may sound — is key to differentiating luxury, more than the tangible product being consumed. It’s not just the person’s own direct sensory experience, but also the prestige and status granted by others around her or him that creates the luxury experience.

Surely, with such intangible notions of experience, power and prestige, luxury brands should be among the most influential in the market. They should be pioneers that set the tone for change in improving retail management practices, upping customer service standards, driving quantum leaps in quality.

But is it so? The response from the rest of the retail sector may not quite be “meh”, but I suspect that it would not be far off.

There are strong reasons why luxury brands would have a lower influence as benchmarks in India and why, in fact, they may draw in more influence from the market themselves.

Market presence and location

As an example, in physical presence, luxury brands seem to demonstrate a delayed response to changes in the market, both in terms of market entry and location selection.

Prior to the entry of global brands, luxury products and services in India were naturally defined by niche, largely owner-managed businesses. Business scale was curtailed by internal limitations, and due to the small size, its market reach was also limited. While there were some designer brands that would occasionally get copied by mid-priced retailers, by and large luxury brands lived in their own separate bubble, with little or no influence on the heaving mass of the market.

In contrast, in the Western economies, from where many of today’s luxury brands originate, they are looked up to for inspiration. So, it is natural to expect Western luxury brands to lead the charge into the newly emerging modern retail economy of India. However, according to Third Eyesight’s research of international fashion and accessory brands in India, in the last 25 years it is mid-priced and premium brands that have opened the market. It is only in the last 10 years, well after the economic and retail growth was underway, that luxury brands stepped up their presence.

Sure, during the so-called “retail boom” from 2004, luxury brands went up to one-quarter of all international fashion and accessory brands present in the market. Then, when practically the whole world was in a recessionary mood, and mid-priced and premium brands took a call to defer their India launch plans, luxury brands pushed ahead. In 2009, luxury fashion brand launches accounted for two-third of all foreign fashion brands launched in India. Maybe the brand principals felt that this market could take on the burden of slowing growth elsewhere, or perhaps it was their Indian counterparts who were the source of optimism. Either way, the optimism took a hit in 2010 and 2011 when it was luxury brands that became cautious.

In terms of store openings and location selection too, luxury brands seem to have waited for the overall market to upgrade itself, and have then latched on to that growth. Previously luxury brand stores, such as there were, largely restricted their presence to five-star hotel shopping arcades, while a few took up non-descript sites as they were confident of being destinations in their own right or clustered together to create a precious few bohemian locations in surroundings that were far from luxurious. As modern shopping centres emerged in recent years, these presented an environment where rich consumers — especially the ‘new’ rich — could flock to buy globally benchmarked lifestyle statements. While these were mainly targeted at mid-market to premium brands, some of them are now even attracting designer brands such as Canali at Mumbai’s Palladium mall rubbing shoulders with Zara. These new luxury stores in mid-market or premium locations are performing better than the original “luxury” sites.

Thus, in terms of expressing confidence in the market, luxury brands seem to be following market trends rather than leading them. And far from being the anchors to create demand, they seem to be following where the demand goes.

Design and product development

The most important impact that luxury brands could have on the market is by influencing product design. This fashion trickle-down is supposed to work in two ways: one, through “inspiring” knock-offs by cheaper brands; two, making luxury customers act as opinion leaders and trend-setters for other consumers.

However, various factors dilute the luxury brands’ product and design influence in India: the preponderance of domestic (“ethnic”) style and colour, especially in womenswear, the existing domestic variety in products, the flood of premium (non-luxury) international brands and a customer base that is oblivious to the difference between the premium and luxury segments. In spite of their small size, Indian luxury and designer brands possibly have a larger direct impact, not to mention the massive Bollywood machine that drives mainstream fashion trends on a day-to-day basis. The international luxury giants are conspicuous by their small influence.

In fact, increasingly the influence is flowing the other way. A few luxury brands have attempted to create India-specific items to give the customer what they might want. Some of these may be indulging in superficial pandering such as putting an Indian image on a global product, but others have created Indian products that genuinely reflect what the brand stands for. While some use India as a production sweatshop to minimise the cost of high-skills jobs, others are now beginning to use Indian crafts to design products that are relevant to other global markets. A few examples, without passing judgement on which category they fit into, include: Lladro’s Spirit of India collection, the Hermès sari, the Jimmy Choo “Chandra” clutch bag, Louis Vuitton’s Diwali collection and Canali’s nawab jacket.

Slow, but not yet steady

Another issue with India is the sheer numbers, or the lack thereof!

China’s GDP is about four times the size of India’s but its luxury market size is estimated to be six times that of India. There are 1.7 million households in China that meet the high net-worth criteria, as compared to 125,000 in India. What’s more, according to industry estimates, only about 30 per cent of luxury consumers in China are actually wealthy, while the overwhelming majority are people with mid-market incomes who are given to conspicuous consumption, whether buying luxury goods for themselves or as gifts.

Indian consumers also have a penchant for buying overseas rather than shopping from the same brands’ stores in India. This is not just due to higher costs and import duties in India, but because of wider and more current selections of merchandise in stores overseas. Indians’ luxury shopping destinations include the usual suspects: London, New York, Paris, Milan, Singapore and Dubai. This has meant that while luxury brands recognise Indians as a large, emerging base of customers, for most brands India itself remains an operating market for the future.

Having said that, when compared to any other sector of business, luxury brands in India probably get the most media coverage for every rupee of sales earned. Although they are a small fraction of the sales, luxury brands rule in terms of column centimetres or telecast seconds. The coverage is not restricted to consumer-oriented media such as lifestyle magazines or mainstream newspapers, individual luxury brands are also extensively covered in business media.

One may argue that such is the nature of luxury: this disproportionate visibility and share of mind happen because luxury is not just aspirational, but inspirational. However, that inspiration and influence is yet to become apparent in the business at large. Until we see significantly larger numbers of upper-middle-income customers in India, luxury brands will find it difficult to expand their reach beyond the small base of ultra-rich consumers. The aspiration and price gap is just too wide for the Indian middle class, and there are very few who will emulate their Chinese counterparts and save up a year’s salary for a single luxury item.

And so…

One thing is beyond doubt: the luxury sector in India is undergoing significant change. We could even say it is in active ferment. There has never been so much interest among so many people, or so many brands so widely promoted, as now.

The question is still open on whether it is a good ferment such as the one that produces wine from raw grape juice and fine cheese from plain curds, or the unguided rot that results in a putrid, smelly mess unfit for consumption.

My bet is on the first possibility. In the short term, the luxury business appears to be a mess, littered with fractured partnerships and bleeding financial statements. But the brew needs time to mature. Gradually, as the luxury segment matures along with the rest of the market, we will see the influence trickling down into other segments. But remember, the finest brews do not only impart their flavour to the cask, but imbibe the cask’s characteristics into themselves. So it is with luxury and the Indian market. The message that we have given many other international businesses seems to hold doubly true for the global purveyors of influence, the luxury brands: “As much as you think you would change India, India will change you.”

Entry Strategy of Global Brands – Impact of FDI

By Tarang Gautam Saxena & Devangshu Dutta

Since the onset of reopening of India’s economy in the late 1980s, fashion is one consumer sector that has drawn the largest number of global brands and retailers. Notwithstanding the country’s own rich heritage in textiles the market has looked up to the West for inspiration. This may be partly attributable to colonial linkages from earlier times, as well as to the pre-liberalisation years when it was fashionable to have friends and relatives overseas bring back desirable international brands when there were no equivalent Indian counterparts. Even today international fashion brands, particularly those from the USA, Europe or another Western economy, are perceived to be superior in terms of design, product quality and variety.

International brands that have been drawn to India by its large “willing and able to spend” consumer base and the rapidly growing economy have benefitted in attaining quick acceptance in the Indian market and given their high desirability meter, most international brands have positioned themselves at the premium-end of the market, even if that is not the case in the home markets. In addition, Indian companies – manufacturers or retailers – have been more than ready to act as platforms for launching these brands in the market and today there are over 200 international fashion brands in the Indian market for clothing, footwear and accessories alone, and their numbers are still growing.

Global Fashion Brands – Destination India

Europe’s luxury brands have had a long history with India’s princely past, but modern India tickled the interest of international fashion brands in the 1980s when it set on the path of liberalisation. The pioneering companies during this stage were Coats Viyella, Benetton and VF Corporation. At the time the Indian apparel market was still fragmented, with multiple local and regional labels and very few national brands. Ready-to-wear apparel was prevalent primarily for the menswear segment and was the logical target for many international fashion brands (such as Louis Philippe, Arrow, Allen Solly, Lacoste, Adidas and Nike). (Addendum: The rights to Louis Philippe, Van Heusen and Allen Solly in India and a few other markets were sold after several years to the Indian conglomerate, Aditya Birla Group, as part of the Madura Garments business.)

The rapidly growing media sector also helped the international brands in gaining visibility and establishing brand equity in the Indian market more quickly. However, this period did not see a huge rush of international brands into India. West Asia and East Asia (countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and even Thailand) were seen as more attractive due to higher incomes and better infrastructure. In the mid-1990s there was a brief upward bump in international fashion brands entering the Indian market, but by and large it was a slow and steady upward trend.

The late-1990s marked a significant milestone in the growth of modern retail in India. Higher disposable incomes and the availability of credit significantly enhanced the consumers’ buying power. Growth in good-quality retail real estate and large format department stores also allowed companies to create a more complete brand experience through exclusive brand stores in shopping centres and shop-in-shops in department stores.

By the mid-2000s, however, a very distinct shift became visible. By this time India had demonstrated itself to be an economy that showed a very large, long-term potential and, at least for some brands, the short to mid-term prospects had also begun to look good.
While India was a promising market to many international brands, it was not completely immune to the global economic flu. More than its primary impact on the economy, it sobered the mood in the consumer market. Even the core target group for international brands tightened the purse strings and either down-traded or postponed their purchases.

In 2008, in the midst of economic downturn, scepticism and uncertainty, international fashion brands continued to enter India at nearly the same momentum as the previous year. Many international brands such as Cartier, Giorgio Armani, Kenzo and Prada entered India in 2008, targeting the luxury or premium segment. However, given the high import duties and high real estate costs, the products ended up being priced significantly higher than in other markets. Many brands ended up discounting the goods heavily to promote sales, while a few gave up and closed shop.

The year 2009 saw the true impact of the slowdown as fewer international brands were launched during the year. The brands that launched in 2009 included Beverly Hills Polo Club, Fruit of the Loom, Izod, Polo U.S., Mustang, Tie Rack, Donna Karan/DKNY and Timberland amongst others. Some of these had already been in the pipeline for quite some time and had invested considerable time and effort in understanding the dynamics of the Indian retail market, scouting for appropriate partners, building distribution relationships and tying up for retail space, setting up the supply chain and, most importantly, getting their operational team in place.

2010 was better in comparison: although initially slow, the growth of new international brands entering the Indian market in 2010 bounced back later during the year, and some brands that had exited the Indian market earlier also made a comeback. Amongst the new launches, a highlight of the year was the launch of the most awaited and discussed-about Spanish brand Zara. The first store was launched in Delhi to an absolutely phenomenal response, followed by a store in Mumbai, and a third again in Delhi. The Italian value fashion brand, OVS Industry, was launched in 2010 by Oviesse through a joint-venture with Brandhouse Retail from the SKNL group. While in its first year products were imported from Italy, the company had mentioned that it intended to bring in the merchandise directly from the supply source for speed and cost effectiveness, to achieve aggressive growth over the following five years.

2010 indicated a fresh round of optimism as the pace of new brands entering the market picked up, and those already present in the market showing signs that they were adapting their strategies to grow their India business, including lowering prices and entering new segments.

Though the number of new brands entering the Indian shores in 2011 and 2012 may not have matched the numbers in the peak years, both years have been healthy and the list of new brands ready to enter in 2013 already seems promising.

Amongst others, 2011 saw the entry of Australian brands such as Roxy and Quiksilver having tied up with Reliance Brands for distribution. The largest British football club and lifestyle brand Manchester United, signed up with Indus-League Clothing Ltd. to bring the fashion products to India, after having launched café bars in India in 2010 through a franchisee.

2012 brought in luxury brands such as Christian Louboutin, Roberto Cavalli and Thomas Pink, womenswear brands such as Elle, Monsoon and fashion accessories brands such as Claire’s.

Routes to Market – The Evolution

The choice for entry strategy for the fashion brands has evolved over the years. During the initial years licensing was the preferable route for international brands that were testing the market. This shifted to franchising as import duties dropped and brands looked at exerting more control on the product and the supply chain. More recently, brands seem to be opting for some degree of ownership, as they begin to take a long-term view of the market.

In the 1980s and the early 1990s, licensing was a popular entry strategy amongst the global fashion brands, with minimal involvement in the Indian business.

Entry Routes Jan 2012

In the mid-1990s a few companies such as Levi Strauss set up wholly owned subsidiaries while others such as Adidas and Reebok entered into majority-owned joint ventures. This helped them to gain a greater control over their Indian operations, sourcing and supply chain, and brand. In the subsequent years import duties for fashion products successively came down making imports a less expensive sourcing option and the realty boom brought in many investors in retail real estate who became franchisees for the international brands. By 2003, franchising became the preferred launch vehicle for an increasing number of international companies, while only a few chose to enter through licensing.

In 2006 the Government of India reopened retail to foreign investment (allowing up to 51 per cent foreign direct investment in single-brand retail). Using this route, many brands have entered India by setting up majority-owned joint ventures, or moving their existing franchise relationships into a joint venture structure. By the end of 2008, more than 40 per cent of the international brands were present through a franchise or distribution relationship, while more than 25 per cent had either a wholly-owned or majority-owned subsidiary. All these structures allowed the brands to have greater control of operations, particularly of the product.

Amongst the international brands that entered the Indian market, a few were on their second or even third attempt at the market. For instance, Diesel BV initially signed a joint venture agreement in 2007 with Arvind Mills. However, by the middle of 2008, the relationship ended with mutual consent, as Arvind reduced its emphasis at the time on retailing international brands within the country. Within a few months of ending this relationship, Diesel signed a joint venture with Reliance Brands as the iconic denim brand wanted to take on the Indian market full throttle and the Indian counterpart had indicated that it wanted to rapidly build its portfolio of Indian and foreign brands in the premium to luxury segments across apparel, footwear and lifestyle segments.

Similarly, Miss Sixty entered India in 2007 through a franchisee agreement with Indus Clothing. It switched to a joint venture with Reliance Brands in the same year but the partnership was called off in 2008. Miss Sixty finally entered India through a franchisee agreement with a manufacturer of women’s footwear and accessories.

During the turbulence of 2008 and 2009, a few brands also moved out of the market. Some of them were possibly due to misplaced expectations initially about the size of the market or about the pace of change in consumer buying habits. Others were due to a failure either on the part of the brand or its Indian partners (or both), to fully understand what needed to be done to be successful in the Indian market. Whatever the reason, the principals or their partners in the country decided that the business was under-performing against expectations for the amount of effort and money being invested, and that it was better to pull the plug. Amongst the brands that exited the market during 2008 and 2009 were Gas, Springfield and VNC (Vincci).

In the last few years as the foreign direct investment rules are being softened in particular with regard to the more flexibility in the 30% domestic sourcing and clarification on brand ownership norm there is an increasing preference for international companies to enter the India market with some form of ownership while those that are already in the market are looking to increase their stakes in the business.

Several brands have taken the plunge into investing in the Indian operations and moved more aggressively into the market. Since the year 2009, international brands increasingly opted for joint-ventures as the choice for entry into the market. Even the brands already present started looking to modify the nature of their presence in India in order to exert more control over the retail operations, products, supply chain and marketing. Brands that changed their operating structures and, in some cases partners, include VF (Wrangler, Lee etc.), Lee Cooper, Lee,  Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Burberry amongst others. Mothercare, the baby product retailer, which was initially present through a franchise agreement with Shoppers Stop, formed a joint venture with DLF Brands Ltd to enable the expansion through stand-alone stores.

During 2011, Promod changed its franchise arrangement with Major Brands into a joint-venture that is majority-owned by Promod. From its launch in 2005, the brand has opened 9 stores so far. However with the new joint venture in place, the international brand is reported to be looking at opening 40 stores in the next four years with the hope of increasing the contribution of India business to its global revenue to the extent of 15-20% from a mere 3% at present.

After its partnership with Raymond fell through in 2007 and all of its standalone stores were shut down, Gas (Grotto SpA) scouted around for an appropriate partner for India business.  Eventually, the brand set up a wholly owned subsidiary in 2010 for wholesale operation while retail stores were franchised. In 2012 the company formed an equal joint venture partnership with Reliance Brands with plans to ramp up India retail presence.

2012 was a defining year marking the government’s decision to allow 100% foreign direct investment in single brand retail business and permitting multi-brand retail in India. Not only has this encouraged new brands to consider the Indian market but many existing brands have started reviewing their existing operating structures and alliances, and have initiated moves towards greater ownership and a stronger foothold in the Indian market. Some of the brands have taken the decision to step into an ownership position in India as they felt that India was too strategic a market to be “delegated” entirely to a partner (whether licensee or franchisee), or that an Indian partner alone might not be able to do justice to the brand in terms of management effort and financial capital.

S. Oliver restructured its India operations in 2012 by exiting its prior relationship with the apparel exporter Orient Craft and tied up with a new partner through a majority joint venture. To gain a larger share in the Indian market the company has repositioning the brand, changed its sourcing strategy, reduced the entry-level prices by 40% while reducing the store size (from 5,000 sq. ft. to 1,200-2,400 sq. ft.). It has also put in place an aggressive expansion strategy for tier II towns. The change in FDI norms towards the end of last year may cause it to review its position further.

Canali has entered into a majority-owned joint-venture with its existing partner Genesis Luxury. The brand had entered in India in 2004 through a distribution agreement. Through this change the international brand plans to grow its presence in India multi-fold by opening 10-15 stores over the next three-four years.

Pavers England is the first international brand to have applied for and been granted the permission to own and operate its retail business in India through a 100 per cent subsidiary owned by a UK based company. Newcomers such as H&M and Loro Piana are reportedly considering the joint venture route.

As we have already mentioned in one of our earlier papers (“Tapping into the India Gold Rush”) we do not expect a dramatic short-term growth in the number of international brands following the retail FDI relaxation in September 2012. However, at that time we did foresee some changes in the operating structures for the single brand ventures already active in the market, as well as entry of new brands that have been holding back so far as they wanted greater control in their India retail business and this seems to be happening already.

In the luxury sector, 51 percent FDI and distribution relationships are likely to continue to be a norm, since it is virtually impossible for most luxury companies to meet the 30 percent domestic sourcing requirement in its true spirit. In many cases, the local partner in a joint venture is a mere placeholder until FDI rules are liberalised further and, unless the business grows significantly, most brands will be content to keep the existing structures in place.

In the other segments some more relationships could be reconstituted during 2013, taking the international brand at least a step closer to gaining greater control, even if their partners remain the same.

Operating Models Jan 2013

Franchising is still the more common form of route to market for most single brand retail companies although for many international companies an eventual ownership in India business may be desirable. However, licensing should not be excluded from the choice set, especially for companies that are multi-brand retail concepts such as Sephora or those that manage to find a suitable Indian partner that can provide end-to-end support from product sourcing to distribution and retail (for example, the relationship between Elle and Arvind).

Today two thirds of the international fashion brands come from three countries the U.S.A., Italy and the U.K. with nearly 30 per cent originating from the U.S.A. alone.

 COO Jan 2013

 Is This A Lucky 13?

The theme for the year 2013 is positive for most brands, although still cautious.

Amongst the international brands that one can look forward to shopping in 2013 are “Uniqlo” of Fast Retailing, Japan’s largest apparel retailer, Sweden’s H&M, Emilio Pucci and Billabong. But India is not merely a destination anymore for the international brands to grow their business. The country is also increasingly becoming the innovation-platform or testing ground for new concepts and trends. World Co. a Japanese retailer with  more than 3,000 stores in Japan and 200 stores in other parts of Asia is also test-marketing women’s apparel and accessories brands such as Couture Brooch, Opaque.clip, zoc, Tk Mixpie and Hot Beat to gain insights into consumers’ psyche. Italian brand United Colors of Benetton has recently introduced a global retail interior design concept which is present in major European cities but is the first-of-its-kind store in Asia and may well set the trend for the rest of Asia.

Gucci recently opened its largest store in India recently Delhi-NCR after two failed joint ventures. All of its five stores are now run directly by the company and the Indian business also reported to have turned profitable this year.

Brands such as Mango who have chosen the franchise route are tying up with additional partners (e.g. DLF) in the hope of making the Indian business contribute significantly to the overall revenue of the company.

UK-based apparel chain Marks & Spencer is accelerating its expansion in India with plans to add ten stores in the next six to eight months in the country. The company has identified India as one of the key markets to become the world’s most sustainable retailer by 2015. It  plans to increase the number of stores in India from 24 currently to over 30 through the 51:49 joint venture with Reliance Retail.

Puma SE, the global sports lifestyle company for athletic shoes, footwear, and other sports-wear aggressively set out to gain 30 per cent of the Indian organised retail sportswear market within a year, from a share of 18-20 per cent in the top four branded sportswear segments in 2011. To this end the company targeted opening nearly 100 more stores during 2012. While the actual numbers are reportedly short of target, the brand has been opening amongst the largest stores during the year.

The confidence in the India opportunity is rising again, with existing global brands expecting the contribution from India business to grow multi-fold in a few years. However, the approach is of careful consideration and brands realise that India is a unique market, different not only from the West but also from other Asian economies such as China. Rather than adopting a “cut-and-paste” approach one needs to seriously consider the appropriate business model for India. Many of the global players have had to create a different positioning from their home markets. Some have significantly corrected pricing and fine-tuned the product offering since they first launched; these include The Body Shop and Marks & Spencer. Others are unearthing new segments to grow into; for instance, Puma and Lacoste are now seriously targeting womenswear as a growth market.

It is not only international brands that are more optimistic. Indian partners are also reviewing their approach. For instance, the Arvind Group that had looked at reducing its emphasis on international fashion brands in 2007-08 has recently acquired the business operations of Planet Retail which operated the franchises of British fashion retailers Debenhams and Next, and American lifestyle brand Nautica in India. The company termed Debenhams’ franchise as a significant acquisition as it provided an entry into the department store segment. Arvind plans to increase the India presence of Debenhams from 2 stores to 8 over the next three years. It also plants to grow the network of Next, the large-format speciality stores, from 3 to 12 in the same period.

As customer footfall and conversions pick up, international brands are also shoring up their foundations for future expansion in terms of better processes and systems, closer understanding of the market, and nurturing talent within their team. Third Eyesight’s study of the market highlights international brands’ concerns with ensuring a consistent brand message, improved organisational capabilities right down to front-line staff, and focussing on unit productivity (per store and per employee).

India shows signs of a healthier business outlook for International brands but the game has just begun and with competition getting tougher, we can expect interesting times ahead.

Indian men take to shoes – MINT video

There was time when there were two choices for the middle-class Indian male of all ages—(usually) Bata or (occasionally) the Chinese guy who made shoes to order. Over the years, other brands also entered the market. Things have changed. While it may not reach the scale of an all-consuming obsession, there’s now a strong enough market in India for several upscale overseas and local brands to think it worth their while to vie for custom here, as Paromita Banerjee of Mint discusses in this video.


The article from Mint by Sapna Agarwal & Byravee Iyer is available here.

2012 – Will India Sizzle or Fizzle for International Fashion Brands?

Among consumer sectors, very few can match up to fashion in terms of its global nature. Despite food having led the way in global trade through spices, it is the fashion sector that led the global march of brands. As the economies in Europe and Asia recovered and grew, historical colonial linkages as well as modern culture-vehicles such as movies carried images of what was cool in the benchmark culture. Fashion brands were the most identifiable representation of cool.

India itself has known international fashion and luxury brands for several decades. From the mass footwear brand Bata to the top-notch luxury of LVMH, some of whose most important global customers included the rulers of Indian princely states, international fashion brands have an age-old connection with India.

In spite of these old links, the absolute base of consumers for fashion brands was small, and for them, prior to the 1980s , India was a relatively low potential market with low attractiveness and low probability of success.

India's changing position as a market

A transition began in the 1980s, as India moved emphasis from central planning and a restrictive economy to a more liberal business regime, and brands and modern retailers started growing in presence gradually. During this transition period, other than the notable exception of Bata, it was mainly Indian brands that were at the forefront of modernisation of retail in India, with the first retail chains being set up for textiles, footwear and clothing. Though the seeds were laid earlier – Liberty is credited with the launch of the first ready-to-wear shirt brand in the 1950s, Raymond with the first ready-to-wear trouser brand in the 1960s – the growth started in real earnest only in the 1980s when apparel exporters such as Intercraft (with brands like “FU’s”), Gokaldas Exports (“Wearhouse”), and Gokaldas Images (“Weekender”) also tried their hand at modern retail, as did corporate groups (“Little Kingdom” for kids and “Ms” stores for womenswear).

Yet, even in the early to mid-1990s, when western companies looked at the Asian economies for international growth, West Asia and East Asia (countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and even Thailand) were seen as more attractive due to higher incomes and better infrastructure. In the mid-1990s there was a brief upward bump in international fashion brands entering the Indian market, but by and large it was a slow, steady process of increase.

By the mid-2000s, however, a very distinct shift became visible. By this time India had demonstrated itself to be an economy that showed a very large, long-term potential and, at least for some brands, the short to mid-term prospects had also begun looking good. In a few years, from 2005 onwards, the number of international fashion brands entering the market has increased 4-fold.

Growth of international fashion brands in India

Market Still Evolving, but Brands are Confident

The sheer number of brands that are now present in India and the new ones that are entering every year is a clear sign of strengthening confidence among international brands that India is now one of the most important markets that they cannot ignore for long.

There is a visible acceleration of growth in absolute revenues, too, being achieved by individual brands. Brands such as Levi Strauss, Reebok, Louis Philippe (a British brand formerly owned by Coats Viyella, now by Aditya Birla Group for India and other territories) and its sister brands took perhaps 12-15 years to break through the threshold of Rs. 500 crores (Rs. 5 billion) in sales turnover, but industry opinion is that the “0 to 500” trajectories today are faster and that younger brands are likely to take less time – under a decade – to cross the threshold. While modern apparel retail currently contributes less than 20 per cent of the total apparel market, with growing incomes and increased availability of modern retail environments, consumers are spending more on branded fashion than ever before. In the year closing March 2012, at least 2-3 additional brands (including Indian ones) are expected to cross the Rs. 500 crores threshold.

Clearly, there are few markets globally that can support potential growth from zero to US$100 million in a decade, with the potential to even reach a billion-dollar mark within the next couple of decades. However, some of these markets are already hugely competitive, and also going through painful economic churns. India, on the other hand, is a market that is at the earliest stages of consumer growth – it is, in the words of the managing director of a European brand, a market where “a brand can enter now and live out its whole lifecycle”.

In fact, it is tempting to compare the emerging golden bird of India to the golden dragon of China where western brands seem to have rapidly established as products of choice for the newly affluent Chinese consumer during the last 15 years or so.

In our work with brands and marketers from around the world, we have to constantly remind them that not all emerging markets are the same. The explosion of luxury and premium brands in China during the last decade or so has happened on the back of explosive economic growth that came after a long cultural and economic vacuum. When the new money wanted links with the old and when uniform grey-blue suits needed to give way to something more expressive, well-established western premium and luxury brands provided the most convenient bridge.

On the other hand, in India “discernment” may be a new experience to the newly-rich Indians for whom brands can be a valuable guide and “secure” purchase, but discernment and taste are not new to India as a whole. More importantly, differentiation and self-expression never disappeared even during India’s darkest years of “socialistic” economics. Therefore, the Indian market has a more “layered” approach to the premium fashion market and will continue to grow in a more fragmented, more organic manner than the Chinese market. There would be multiple tiers of growth available for international as well as Indian brands. For international brands customisation and Indianisation will be important. This is already visible in bespoke products by Louis Vuitton and Indian products by brands such as Canali (jackets) on the one hand, and significant re-thinking on product mix and pricing by brands such as Marks & Spencer. That brands are willing to rethink their position in the context of the Indian market demonstrates that they see India as a strategic market, worth investing in for the long term.

Another sign of the growing confidence amongst international brands in the Indian market is the number of companies that are looking at directly investing in joint ventures, or even going further to set up wholly-owned subsidiaries in the country.

It is worth keeping in mind that setting up a subsidiary is a decision that is not taken lightly, regardless of the size of the business and the amount of investment, since it involves a disproportionate amount of management time and effort from the headquarters during the launch and early growth phase where revenues are small and profits non-existent.

Among our clients, brands have taken the decision to step into an ownership structure in India when they feel that India is too strategic a market to be “delegated” entirely to a partner (whether licensee or franchisee), or that an Indian partner alone may not be able to do justice to the brand in terms of management effort and financial capital.

In the last few years we have seen several brands take the plunge into investing in the Indian business, among them S. Oliver (Germany), Marks & Spencer (UK) and Mothercare (UK).

During 2011 specifically, Promod changed its franchise arrangement with Major Brands into a joint-venture that is majority-owned by Promod. From its launch in 2005, the brand has opened 9 stores so far. However with the new JV in place, the venture is reported to be looking at opening 40 stores in the next five years.

Most recently, Canali was one of the brands that moved into a majority-owned joint-venture. The brand entered in India in 2004 through a distribution agreement with Genesis Luxury. This has recently given way to a joint venture between the two companies that is owned 51 per cent by Canali. The brand currently operates five exclusive stores in India has plans to accelerate the brands growth in India by opening 10-15 stores over the next three-four years.

Operating Model for International fashion brands in India

The Impact of FDI Regulations

If a “theme of the year” has to be picked for the Indian retail sector in 2011, it must be ‘Foreign Direct Investment’. The debate during the year was hardly a clean and clear “pro vs. con” exchange of ideas. It was a motley mix of extreme lobbying for and against FDI, some balanced reasoning on why FDI should be allowed, and also moderate voices calling for governing the speed at which and the conditions under which foreign investment could be allowed. In many cases there seemed to be dissenting voices emerging from within the government. One possible impact of this uncertainty through the year was that several brands postponed their decisions regarding the potential entry and the strategy that they would follow in India with regard to partnership or investment.

In November 2011, the Indian government announced that 100 per cent foreign investment in single brand retail and 51 per cent foreign ownership of multi-brand retail operations, but was forced to back-track due to vociferous opposition from several quarters. At the very end of the year, the government finally reopened 100 per cent foreign ownership retail operations, albeit limiting it to single brand retail businesses. However, it allowed this under the condition that the Indian retail operation would source at least 30 per cent of its needs from Indian small and mid-sized suppliers.

The condition of 30 per cent domestic sourcing from SMEs is well-intentioned – aiming to provide a growth platform for India’s manufacturing enterprises – but unachievable for brands that do not currently source any serious volumes from India. In fact, for most international fashion brands India contributes less than 10 per cent of their total sourcing, in many cases well under 5 per cent.

Under these circumstances, we shouldn’t expect any dramatic changes, though we do expect the growth in joint-ventures and subsidiaries to continue in the coming months and years.

If an international brand perceives India to be at the right stage of development, and it wishes to exert significant or complete control over its Indian presence, then a majority or completely owned subsidiary seems the most logical step, and the brand will find a way to structure its involvement in India appropriately.

However, many brands that today have a 51 per cent ownership in India are stopping short of climbing to 100 per cent until they can sort out how to meet the SME sourcing conditions.

Getting Over the Sourcing Hurdle

The problem with the 30 per cent sourcing rider is simple. When a brand launches in India, it would like to present the consumer with the most complete product offering that showcases its capabilities and positioning as relevant to the target consumer in India. In most instances, the brand would not be sourcing the full range of its merchandise from India.

This is not a problem if the brand approaches the market through a wholesale or franchise structure, or even with a retail business that is not owned by it 100 per cent.

But for a retailer that wants to own the Indian business completely, complying with the 30 per cent domestic sourcing restriction means developing a new set of suppliers in India from scratch, pulling in the design and product development staff to work with them, and to develop ranges that suit not only the Indian market, but also other markets around the world. Simply putting together an India-specific sourcing team to replicate the entire range to buy small volumes for the Indian business is neither practical nor feasible for most of these brands. This means that the product development and sourcing team must be willing to see India as a strategic supply base for the future, just as their selling-side colleagues may be seeing it as a strategic market.

In this context it is worth repeating something that I have said before: retail managers are generally risk averse, and like to move in packs – where there are some brands, more come in and create a mutually reinforcing business environment. The presence of other international brands – especially from their own country – helps in creating a familiar context at first sight and encourages further exploration of the market. At least for the executives handling international retail expansion, India presents a more ‘familiar’ and ‘developed’ face today than ten years ago.

However, the explosive growth that we have witnessed in terms of the number of brands present in India is not mirrored by the growth of fashion sourcing out of India. In fact, even when compared to what has happened in the global textile, apparel and footwear sourcing environment since quotas were removed in 2005, the India’s export growth looks dispiritingly low, even stagnant. China still remains the largest source for fashion products, while countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia and Viet Nam have grown their share aggressively. India’s share of clothing exports is a lowly one-tenth that of China.

In our work related to global sourcing strategies for western retailers, on an objective measurement matrix of sourcing competitiveness India rates highly. In several cases, sourcing from India as a hub (and, for European retailers, Turkey as a hub) has been seen as a logical counterweight to balance out the high concentration of current sourcing in China.

However, product development and sourcing is not entirely an objective process – in fact, sourcing habits are sometimes the hardest to change. The buyer’s subjective experiences – sometimes buried deeply in the past career – have a significant role to play. A conversation from 2001 with the sourcing head of a European brand sticks in my mind, when he said, “I don’t really want to buy anything from India – Indian suppliers can do a very limited product range, quality isn’t always good and the shipments are always late.” On probing further, I discovered that his last transaction was in 1992, after which he never set foot in India again. Much as we might present statistics and facts about the developments in the Indian textile and apparel industry, a personal injury early in his career has left a deep scar that obviously influenced this gentleman’s buying decisions worth over €300 million in global apparel sourcing, or about €700-800 million worth of sales.

There is clearly much to be done in terms of encouraging modernisation and better organisation amongst apparel suppliers, and making those changes visible to buyers. Even brands that are well-engaged with the Indian supply base have between 40-70% of their people here focussed on in-line and post-production quality issues. We are today at a stage where larger and better-equipped apparel exporters would be best placed to address the needs of international brands within India, but find the volumes too small to bother with setting up entirely different documentation and accounting processes.

Health & Safety and Labour compliances are also areas in which the brands will not forego their corporate standards. Can we imagine a brand saying that its European customers do not want their products made in sweatshops, but for the Indian consumers of the brand this is not (yet) an issue? While this may be a fact, would a high profile brand risk its global reputation to source competitively for its small Indian business?

So a government dictat to international brands’ fully-owned subsidiaries to ensure that they source 30 per cent of their needs is not enough. At best it will encourage some of the brands to start looking at India more seriously, but a more likely scenario for most brands is that they will carry on business as usual until the supply base in India pulls up its socks, or until the business in India becomes large enough to be interesting to their existing Indian suppliers who are currently focussed on exports.

Certainly the government itself needs to do much for more manufacturing-friendly policies, as well as focussed investment in infrastructure that can provide rapid, efficient and cost-effective transportation from the country and within the country.

It is time to bridge the gap between “textile exports” and “fashion retail” in the country. Remember, the explosive growth of brands in China followed the manufacturing explosion, not the other way round. Until the Indian apparel, textile and footwear manufacturing sector grows strongly, the actual volume growth of modern fashion retail will remain hobbled, regardless of the number of brands that enter the market.

To me this statement by a senior professional from one of Hong Kong’s largest apparel companies says it all: “The Indian industry looks like a formidable competitor, the day it decides to wake up.”

Drawing the Full Circle of Confidence

In closing I would like to mention the least acknowledged, but a very important part of the growth of international brands in India: the acquisition of brands overseas by Indian companies. The Aditya Birla group laid an early foundation when it bought out, for India and several other territories, the perpetual rights for Coats Viyella’s brands including Louis Philippe, Van Heusen and Allen Solly. Lerros was a slightly different example – being a brand that was set up by the House of Pearl in Germany – but that also circled back to India. More recently (2010) we have the example of the Swiss company Switcher Holdings, whose with brands including Switcher, Respect and Whale, was bought by PGC Industries.

In markets such as the EU, there are today brands that may be available because they are finding difficult to survive in harsh trading environments and that do not have the financial or management bandwidth to take on initiatives in growing markets like India. These offer a legitimate growth platform for Indian companies that are strong in manufacturing those product categories and want to move higher up the value chain from being a generic commodity “supplier”.

Although exporters may initially approach these brands for franchise or license relationships, to some it soon becomes clear that if they are in a position to make an incremental investment they could well own the perpetual rights and perhaps the whole business, rather than investing in building up someone else’s brand, especially in the business in India is likely to grow very rapidly. Obviously, this new-found confidence needs to be backed with solid management capability, but as other consumer goods companies such as Tata (beverages, automotive), Mahindra (automotive) and Dabur (personal care) have shown, it is entirely feasible to look at growth in India as well as internationally by using an existing international brand as a stepping stone.

It also presents a challenge of classifying such brands as international or Indian. Bata was founded in the Czech Republic and went global from there – however, today it is legitimate to treat it as a Canadian brand since its headquarters moved there in the 1960s. Among other products, Gloria Jean’s Coffee was founded in the USA, but is now completely Australian-owned. In that sense, today would that not make Louis Philippe, Allen Solly, Switcher Indian brands?

I think this puzzle is a challenge that many people in the industry in India would look forward to contributing to.

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Additional comment after reading the following blog post on Forbes on Single Brand Retailing (March 12, 2012):

Policies restricting foreign investment are not the biggest barrier to entering the Indian market. Brands and retailers that are clear that India is a strategic market with which they wish to engage will find a way. Even the largest global retailers have created structures that allow them a toehold in the market, awaiting a larger opening, despite the current ban on FDI in multi-brand retail.

The biggest barrier to entering India is actually the comfort zone within which the management team of an international retailer or brand may be operating. For some, the business environment of India needs at least a small step outside that comfort zone, for others it needs a big leap of faith.

There are encouraging signs of this happening already. Research carried out by Third Eyesight shows that the number of foreign brands operating in India in the fashion segment alone have quadrupled since 2005-2006, and a significant chunk of these are operating with direct investment in the Indian operations, whether as 100 per cent owned subsidiaries or as joint-ventures, indicating their growing comfort and confidence in the market.

One last word of advice: assess the opportunity pragmatically; don’t come looking for “a small percentage of the 1.3 billion population” in the short term – it takes time and patience to develop a meaningful share in the market.

Luxu-Re: Back to the Roots

Luxury is dichotomous, conflicted and conflict-creating by its very nature. “Luxuria” is Latin for “Lust”, the first in the list of the Seven Deadly Sins. The British poet Edith Sitwell is quoted as saying, “Good taste is the worst vice ever invented.” Luxuries are not a basic fundamental need to start with, yet to seek them out is innate in our nature.

For the most part, the term luxury has been and continues to be applied to tangible goods whether found naturally, hunted or manufactured, rather than to intangible services. Yet, it is the intangible that differentiates what is luxurious from what is not.

Certainly, the definition of luxury changes with time. There was a time, in today’s advanced markets, when hot water baths were a luxury and available frequently to only a few people. Indian pepper was once more expensive than gold. In fact, a significant part of European exploration of the world during the last millennium was driven by the craze for spices from “the Indies” before morphing into empire-building. Today, most modern Europeans would call neither a hot bath nor spices as a luxury, and many would gladly delegate to someone else their share of global travel.

If we want to understand the shifts in the luxury market and how the emerging markets of luxury such as India and China might evolve in future, we must understand the two most fundamental drivers of price premium: the social esteem achieved and the possessor’s own experience of the product or service.

When viewed together in the Experience-Esteem Price Premium Model (see graphic), we see the relationship of price premium and these two factors zig-zagging in an N-shape for immature or rapidly evolving markets (“New”), whereas in more mature markets the premium would follow more of an S-curve (“Stable”). The term “market” here refers to not just geography but consumer segments, including segments defined by need/use rather than by demographics such as income or age.

In rapidly evolving markets there is a significant premium available on products and services that are conspicuously expensive, whose price (or at least the apparent price level) is known in the buyer’s social circle. It’s a positive feedback loop: high social recognition keeps the price up, which in turn improves the social esteem of the buyer. Expensive cars and gadgets, designer brand apparel and accessories, holidays that would be the envy of others, Big Fat Indian Weddings (for and by Indians) all fit into this category. Beyond social recognition, however, the buyer’s own experience and satisfaction also plays a role in driving the price premium: the better the buyer’s own experience is for a given amount of social recognition, the higher the price premium is likely to be. This gives rise to the familiar pyramid for the luxury market, where the highest price is available for products and services that deliver both high social status and a superlative personal experience.

In “New” or evolving markets, more of the premium is attributable to social status; the buyer’s thought process is: “if you’ve spent a million Rupees or Yuan on something and no one knows about it, it’s not that valuable”. In more evolved or “Stable” markets, on the other hand, where tastes have had longer to evolve, personal experience becomes important in driving premium for at least some products: for example, high-fidelity unbranded speakers bought by music aficionados or a vacation in an unknown destination fit the bill. The satisfaction, and the premium, is driven more from the personal high-quality experience, not from receiving recognition or respect from someone else.

Developing taste needs time both at the personal level and for the society. On the other hand, status difference is a factor in all societies, at any given time. The pull between conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption at the higher price end plays out between indulgence and luxury versus opulence. Opulence may or may not enhance the buyer’s experience, but its main function is to make a status-statement, including instances such as millions being spent on “public” spaces to enhance a political leader’s own standing.

The thing with status is this: If others see you as worse off than them it is their problem; if you think you’re worse off than others, it is yours. By and large, the luxury industry, as it has evolved over the last 30-40 years, feeds on this status insecurity that is multiplied and amplified by media.

Luxury used to mean something that was expensive because it was highly desirable but also scarce. Today ubiquity seems to be the driving force of luxury not scarcity. As economic growth has created nouveau riche worldwide, brands (especially logo-bearing ones) have emerged to deliver instant gratification and legitimacy. Distinct, recognisably expensive brands are the accepted currency in the world of cachet. In the final price, the share of marketing spend is often higher than the cost of the core product. In a consumer society that is more conscious of the status that the product offers rather than its utility, it is the recognition and identification that matters most.

This has led to the trickle-down effect with luxury brands becoming increasingly more accessible, not just in terms of physical availability but also in terms of price units through bridge, diffusion and prêt lines, and licensing. A particular consumer may not be able to buy a Chanel dress or Dior gown, but she can surely scrounge enough to buy a perfume that promises at least a whiff of celebrity status!

The vintage of the product or service is an important component of the status or recognition premium, especially when the buyer has newly come into money. This is why the market is dominated by European luxury brands that can claim ancestry of at least a few decades, if not centuries, while there are barely any brands of note from other geographies. This is not conclusive evidence of European tastes being better or more acceptable, just the economic cycles through which societies around the world have been.

So where does India stand for luxury marketers? The Indian operations of most brands that have been launched in the last few years are bleeding, and seem unsustainable. And yet, it is tempting to compare the emerging golden bird of India to the golden dragon of China.

In our work with brands and marketers from around the world, we have to constantly remind people that not all emerging markets are the same. The explosion of luxury and premium brands in China during the last decade or so has been aided by sudden economic growth that came after a long cultural and economic vacuum. When the new money wanted links with the old and when uniform grey-blue suits needed to give way to something more expressive, well-established western premium and luxury brands provided the most convenient bridge. As China evolves further and consumer become more discerning, I believe we will see the emergence of Chinese and smaller new international brands that differentiate themselves on the core product, rather than relying on a long foreign history.

India’s case is slightly different. Discernment may be a new experience to some Indians who have come into money recently, for whom brands can be a valuable guide and “secure” purchase. Globally well-known premium and luxury brands or products that are endorsed by “people in the know” (including works of art) are the first to benefit from this spending.

However, discernment and taste are not new to India and, more importantly, differentiation and self-expression never disappeared even during the darkest years of “socialistic” economics. Therefore, India will see a layered approach to the luxury market and grow in a more fragmented manner, with slower expansion of individual brands. There would be multiple tiers of growth for international as well as Indian luxury products. For international brands customisation and Indianisation will be important, as is already visible in bespoke products by Louis Vuitton and Indian products by brands such as Canali (jackets) and Lladro. And there is a real prospect of luxury Indian brands emerging to respectable size, if they can stay the course and travel the distance.

As the market matures spending by Indian consumers on indulgences will also grow, driven by the need to satisfy themselves rather than for the status they could gain. In fact, another market to watch out for is India itself is a source of indulgences for foreigners – luxurious Indian experiences in which price is not the object but the experience – Big Fat Indian Weddings, ayurvedic treatments and meditation holidays for non-Indians are a case in point.

While on indulgences, in closing, I refer back to the ExEs Price Premium Model. For a limited number of people the price premium curve follows a clockwise-D, starting from Indulgences. For them invisible or inconspicuous products whose only function is to enhance the owner’s or buyer’s own experience are the most prized. In many cases, the fewer people that know about it, the better and more premium it would be.

In fact, perhaps invisibility could be the greatest indulgence of all in a world of hyper-information, self-promotion and instant celebrity. Increasingly we will find that anonymity and invisibility will be treated as luxuries, and service providers will charge a huge premium for taking you down below the radar, making you invisible. We don’t really need to wait to see that emerge. That world of luxurious anonymity is already here, and its most valuable service providers are banks in offshore tax havens!

(Edit: This article appeared in a special issue of the Strategist on March 26, 2012.)

(View PDF or download from Slideshare >> )

“Luxu-re” – what drives luxury price premium // China, India from Devangshu Dutta

Will the Indian Apparel Sector Change its Fashion?

The apparel retail sector worldwide thrives on change, on account of fashion as well as season.

In India, for most of the country, weather changes are less extreme, so seasonal change is not a major driver of changeover of wardrobe. Also, more modest incomes reduce the customer’s willingness to buy new clothes frequently.

We believe pricing remains a critical challenge and a barrier to growth. About 5 years ago, Third Eyesight had evaluated the pricing of various brands in the context of the average incomes of their stated target customer group. For a like-to-like comparison with average pricing in Europe, we came to the conclusion that branded merchandise in India should be priced 30-50% lower than it was currently. And this is true not just of international brands that are present in India, but Indian-based companies as well. (In fact, most international brands end up targeting a customer segment in India that is more premium than they would in their home markets.)

Of course, with growing incomes and increasing exposure to fashion trends promoted through various media, larger numbers of Indian consumers are opting to buy more, and more frequently as well. But one only has to look at the share of marked-down product, promotions and end-of-season sales to know that the Indian consumer, by and large, believes that the in-season product is overpriced.

Brands that overestimate the growth possibilities add to the problem by over-ordering – these unjustified expectations are littered across the stores at the end of each season, with big red “Sale” and “Discounted” signs. When it comes to a game of nerves, the Indian consumer has a far stronger ability to hold on to her wallet, than a brand’s ability to hold on to the price line. Most consumers are quite prepared to wait a few extra weeks, rather than buying the product as soon as it hits the shelf.

Part of the problem, at the brands’ end, could be some inflexible costs. The three big productivity issues, in my mind, are: real estate, people and advertising.

Indian retail real estate is definitely among the most expensive in the world, when viewed in the context of sales that can be expected per square foot. Similarly, sales per employee rupee could also be vastly better than they are currently. And lastly, many Indian apparel brands could possibly do better to reallocate at least part of their advertising budget to developing better product and training their sales staff; no amount of loud celebrity endorsement can compensate for disinterested automatons showing bad products at the store.

Technology can certainly be leveraged better at every step of the operation, from design through supply chain, from planogram and merchandise planning to post-sale analytics.

Also, some of the more “modern” operations are, unfortunately, modelled on business processes and merchandise calendars that are more suited to the western retail environment of the 1980s than on best-practice as needed in the Indian retail environment of 2011! The “organised” apparel brands are weighed down by too many reviews, too many batch processes, too little merchant entrepreneurship. There is far too much time and resource wasted at each stage. Decisions are deliberately bottle-necked, under the label of “organisation” and “process-orientation”. The excitement is taken out of fashion; products become “normalised”, safe, boring which the consumer doesn’t really want! Shipments get delayed, missing the peaks of the season. And added cost ends in a price which the customer doesn’t want to pay.

The Indian apparel industry certainly needs a transformation.

Whether this will happen through a rapid shakedown or a more gradual process over the next 10-15 years, whether it will be driven by large international multi-brand retailers when they are allowed to invest directly in the country or by domestic companies, I do believe the industry will see significant shifts in the coming years.

International Fashion Brands in India – 2011: Auguring a New Wave

It has been almost two decades since the government in India re-opened the economy to international investors and brands. During the first dozen years or so, apart from a single visible bump in 1995, every year had a steady dribble of fashion brands coming into the country. It was not until 2005 that this rate accelerated to over 20 international fashion brands entering the Indian market annually, even as the existing brands grew their own retail footprint in the market.

2008 and 2009 were both slightly damp by comparison, reflecting the global economic sentiment, but we were optimistic as we laid out our expectations for 2010. While writing the previous version of our research report released a year ago, we felt that 2010 was going to be promising and it could well be a “curtain-raiser for a new decade of growth for international fashion brands in India”.

The increased bustle in the market has endorsed our forecast. Though initially slow, the growth of new international brands entering the Indian market in 2010 bounced back with the same vigour as before the downturn. Some brands that had exited the Indian market earlier also made a comeback as in the earlier years.

The Entry Strategies In 2010

The most preferred entry route for the international fashion brands entering India in 2010 has been franchise or distribution, with more than half the brands selecting this strategy that allows high control over the product and the supply chain with less intensity of involvement at the front-end. There are two discernible categories of brands that are picking this route: firstly, brands that are usually distributed through department stores and multi-brand independent stores in their home market and other markets, but also those brands that are as yet unsure of their capability to engage intensively with the Indian market. Franchising remained a popular choice in 2010 particularly for the brands looking to test the market or operating in niche or luxury segments.

Routes chosen by international fashion brands to enter the Indian market in 2010

Some brands taking this route for entering the Indian market include Forever 21, Etro, Tom Ford, and Ladybird, amongst others. However, a number of brands that entered in 2010 (nearly 40% for the new entrants) also showed that they wanted a piece of the action through some degree of ownership (whether through a majority or minority stake in a joint venture or through a wholly owned subsidiary). Some – such as S. Oliver – also switched to joint-ventures from their earlier franchise structure.

Under the current regulations governing foreign investment into retail, several companies that typically want control operate either through 100% subsidiaries that sell to independent retail franchisees , or through 51:49 joint-ventures that operate the stores as well.

We are finding increasing signs among companies of a confidence in the market, a growing comfort with the operating environment, and a desire to own and control the direction their brand takes in a strategic market like India. it is likely that if the government decides to allow 100% FDI in single brand retail, several brands will opt to set up wholly-owned subsidiaries that control the entire chain of activities, source-to-store.

International brands opting for the ownership in the Indian venture included OVS (Italy’s Gruppo Coin), Yishion (China) and Chicco (Italy).

International fashion brands launched in India in 2010

Fast Fashion for the Family

Amongst the new launches, a highlight of the year was the launch of the most awaited and discussed-about brand Zara. The first store was launched in Delhi with menswear, womenswear and childrenswear, followed by a store in Mumbai, and a third again in Delhi. While almost every other brand launches with an advertising blitz, Zara – in its usual fashion – needed none. The news buzz it generated created enough traffic to provide record sales during the first few weekends. It was also instrumental in generating 30-40% more footfall in the malls where it opened.

Inditex was certainly one of the brands looking for control, and has formed a 51:49 joint venture with the Tata Group’s retail business, Trent. For now the company has adopted its global supply chain for the Indian market as well which clearly adds cost and time to the supply chain. The merchandise is imported from the central distribution centre in Spain, and includes products manufactured in the Indian subcontinent. Competing brands in the industry have raised questions about Zara being able to build a successful and sustainable business in India just on the back of rapid fashion changes, at prices that are not quite “competitive”. However, the brand is reportedly aware of the struggle in building a successful business around import-led sourcing model and is seen to have planned growth conservatively.

Another southern European value fashion brand, OVS Industry, was launched last year by Oviesse through a joint-venture with Brandhouse Retail from the SKNL group. OVS Industry also offers a range for men, women and kids. While in the first year products have been imported from Italy, the company says it intends to bring in the merchandise directly from the supply source for speed and cost effectiveness, to achieve aggressive growth over the next five years.

Multi-Brand Platforms, Larger Stores

International brands have been drawn to India by its large “willing and able to spend” consumer base and the rapidly growing economy, but so also are Indian companies – manufacturers or retailers – who are ready to act as platforms for their launch.

Given the current restrictions on investment into retail operations, Indian companies are increasingly setting up large multi-brand outlets for an array of international brands under one roof. This allows the Indian franchisee to share overheads among many brands, and also negotiate harder for shopping centre space that is increasingly unaffordable. However, the idea is not only to gain from the operational efficiencies and cost efficiencies, but also to capture a higher share of the wallet of the consumers walking into the stores.

Even those Indian companies that are already retailing their own brands in a particular category are seeking franchise or distribution relationships with international brands, in order to capture a complementary segment of consumers or to offer a larger choice-set to their existing consumers.

For instance, Reliance Brands has partnered with some well known premium to luxury fashion and lifestyle brands. In 2010 alone, it brought Diesel, Paul & Shark and Timberland to the Indian market. On the other hand Maxwell Industries’ relationship with Eminence, a French innerwear brand, has allowed it to address the premium segment in which it was not present, and to compete with other international players such as Jockey, Triumph, Hanes, Fruit of the Loom and others.

RPG Group’s Spencer’s Retail, one of the pioneers of modern retail in the last two decades is looking at increasing the share of its apparel business. Apart from its private labels, Spencer’s is also actively seeking to grow its international brand portfolio quickly. Following up on its launch of Beverly Hills Polo Club in 2008, Spencer’s introduced Ecko Unltd (a youth fashion brand) in 2010. It has also become the platform for the British childrenswear brand Ladybird in its second coming to India.

While the emergence of large multi-brand franchise outlets is driven by Indian franchisees looking to optimise their businesses, the brands themselves are also looking at larger store sizes that are gradually becoming comparable to their stores elsewhere. For instance, the American brand Forever 21 launched with 10,000 square feet for only women’s western clothing and accessories. Similarly, Zara launched its business with a 14,000 square feet store. Larger stores are allowing brands to increase the efficiency of their operations, maximise the visual impact, and increase the speed at which they can achieve critical mass in the country.

Beyond Europe and the US

While European and American brands clearly dominate, 2010 also saw brands from China, Japan and Turkey making inroads to the Indian market.

China’s apparel retailer Yishion launched a 51:49 joint venture with a distribution company, Upmarket Group. Yishion is aiming at rapid growth in the mid price segment in India through own stores and multi-brand outlets (MBOs).

Turkish brands Tween, ADV and Damat from the Orka Group have been brought to the market by Blues Clothing Company, a mid-sized retailer of fashion apparel that also distributes brands such as Versace, Corneliani and Cadini.

The Strategy Shifts & Changing Structures

In the past the international brands have undergone changes in their strategy and operating structures to suit their current context and changing environment. Last year was not an exception to the correction and some brands did undergo a change in their approach and strategy for the Indian market.

Italian denim brand Energie exited the market and their partnership with Reliance Brands in 2007. However, in 2010, the Miss Sixty group entered into a licensing agreement with Arvind Limited which relaunched Energie as part of its portfolio of international denim brands. Arvind already had international brands catering to the mass and the middle segments of the denim market, and with the launch of Energie, it has achieved brand presence in the super-premium category as well.

Another notable denim brand that re-entered the market in 2010 was GAS, also from Italy. After it fell out with Raymond, the brand investigated other relationships, and finally decided to set up a fully-owned subsidiary. The brand was re-launched with one flagship store and through various shop-in-shop counters at Shoppers Stop, the department store chain.

The second attempt of the Germany-based casualwear apparel brand Lerros owned by the House of Pearl was ill-timed in 2008. With business coming up below expectations, the company decided exit the business in India. But instead of exiting the market, it granted the license to manufacture, retail and distribute Lerros to the maker of the Indian denim brand Numero Uno. With a complementary product mix, the principal and the licensee are looking to achieve greater success together.

Another brand that has undergone a shift in its strategy and the operating structure is the Italian brand Zegna, a world leader in luxury menswear. It was first introduced in the Indian market early on in the decade through a franchise arrangement. In 2005 with 51% FDI being allowed the Zegna Group invested in taking a majority stake in its Indian operations. Last year the brand entered into a joint venture with Reliance Brands Limited with the objective of ramping up its India operations and capturing a larger share in the Indian luxury market. For Reliance, it was a great addition to its international brand portfolio.

Compared to 2009, 2010 witnessed hardly any exits, Aigner being one.

Strategies for Growth and Prospects For 2011

Overall the year 2010 has been very positive and the pace of new brands entering the market is picking up. Those already present in the market, have been adapting their strategies to grow their India business. The growth strategy for international brands has revolved around lowering the prices and entering new segments.

The brands that have rationalised their pricing last year to attract more customers include Adams Kidswear. Previously priced significantly higher than the market leaders in that segment, Adams is looking to change its sourcing strategy and source a part of its product range locally. Similarly, having tasted success in the previous year, The Body Shop not only rationalised prices for more products in 2010, but also introduced new products at lower price points.

Another notable trend last year was the focus of international brands on Tier 2 and 3 cities. Marks & Spencer unveiled its plans to enter Tier 2 cities such as Jaipur and Chandigarh and grow its national footprint. Reebok, Adidas, Ed Hardy, Tommy Hilfiger, The Bodyshop and Puma are amongst those that have stated their intent to further expand to such cities. The success of adopting these strategies is bearing results already and the momentum is likely to build further as others follow.

For international brands, as for Indian brands, significant challenges remain in the path of growing their business.

At the base level is drumming up adequate demand. While India is often compared with China because of similar size of population, the fact is that urban discretionary incomes and the concentration of spend are far higher in China. This reflects in the speed with which brands have been able to ramp up in the two countries. For instance, Mango entered the two markets around the same time. However, a the end of 2010, the network of stores in India was only a tenth the size of the store network in China (100-plus), with over 200 more stores projected to open in 2011.

In scaling up, the lack of affordable good retail locations is one of the other biggest hurdles. With the slow growth in 2008 and 2009, brands are significantly more cautious in signing up space at high rentals.

Future challenges also remain more at the internal operational level. Retaining adequately trained front-line staff is an issue. Not only does the increasing number of international brands increase the competition for the employee pool, so also does growth in other segments of the economy and it is tough to sell retail as an employment option of first-choice.

We expect prices to become more realistic, but also operational efficiency to be a driver. Clustering of stores for efficient management, a concerted drive towards lower cost locations and variable (revenue-linked) payments to landlords are likely to be critical in driving better performance. We also expect many brands to seriously consider scaling up the network to provide critical mass to their business, which can also drive local sourcing of merchandise or direct shipments to the Indian business from Indian and other Asian sources.

If the Indian Government announces further relaxation in the foreign ownership norms, we would expect more brands to take equity stakes in the business in India, including the entry of those that wish to operate fully-owned subsidiaries. However, with many different signals from various arms of the government it is best not to try and read the crystal ball too closely on that issue.

Despite challenges and barriers, the market is far from being saturated right now as newer product segments and product lines create ever-newer needs. With India being one of the few large economies showing consistently strong performance, many more are considering the Indian market seriously. Among the ones reported to be interested in launching are GAP, Uniqlo and Polo by Ralph Lauren.

The market may become more segmented and even fragmented with a plethora of international brands being available.

The largest brands currently include Levi Strauss and Reebok which are both reportedly well past the US$ 100 million mark in India, but the race for market leadership is still well and truly on. No matter which brand comes out ahead the winner, without a doubt, will be the consumer.

Franchising International Fashion Brands

India has been consistently rated amongst the top destinations for consumer businesses year after year. While international fashion brands had earlier entered India at a steady pace, there was a greater surge of the global brands in the Indian market since 2002.

Interestingly many international brands opted to choose the franchise route for their entry into India. There were changes in the market environment and government policies that made the business environment favourable for growth through franchising.

Firstly, as a signatory of the WTO, India reduced import duties consistently. Consequently products could be sourced from other countries at more competitive prices and international brands could create an internationally-consistent product offering, with greater control on the supply chain.

Secondly, with more international brands vying for a share of consumer’s wallet, there was a need for brands to create a distinctive brand identity. Exclusive branded outlets increasingly became a marketing tool through which the brands could not only showcase a complete product range but also create the full brand experience.

Simultaneously the real estate market grew significantly, bringing in many “investors” who did not have the capability or the desire to develop their own brand. The availability of potential master franchises ready to invest capital and real estate created an environment conducive for growth of franchising.

As per Third Eyesight’s report (“Global Fashion Brands: Tryst with India”), by the end of 2008, just under half of the brands were present through a franchise or distribution relationship.

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Unlike more developed markets where brands have sizable networks of large-format store as a launch and growth platform, in India there are still limited choices to simply “plug-and-play” using department stores or any other large-format retail network. Also, having a local partner as a franchisee provides a closer understanding of the market and the ability to adapt to changing consumer needs.

For a successful relationship it is vital that a franchisee should have an entrepreneurial mind-set. The essence of the brand needs be well understood, and the franchisee must have operational involvement rather than a “passive investment” approach.

The question is whether franchising would continue to remain the preferred entry mode as a new decade starts. Liberalisation of foreign investment norms has already led to many brands transitioning into a joint venture or subsidiaries. (See the more recent version of the report on International brands in India.)

However, while for many international brands it would be ideal to have ownership and control over the operations in a strategic market like India, direct investment does also increase their risk and the investment is not financial alone.

Therefore, for many brands, franchising would still remain the more practical choice whether by using a national master franchisee or using site-specific franchise relationships in combination with a direct wholesale presence in India.

Brand Immortality and Reincarnation

The entertainment business suggests that nostalgia is a very powerful driver of profit.

It is quite clear that retro is “in”. The movie business worldwide is full of sequels, prequels, re-releases and remakes. The music business is ringing up the cash registers with remixes and jukebox compilations.  Star Wars and Sholay still have a fan following. ABBA has leaped across three decades, Hindi film songs from 30-60 years ago have been given a skin-uplift by American hip-hop artists, while Pink Floyd is hot with Indian teens along with Akon and Rihanna.

As copyright restrictions are removed from the works of authors long-gone, the market gets flooded with several reprints of their most popular writings. Of course, we know that classic literature survives not just a few years but even thousands of years. Examples include the still widely-read 2,500-year-old Indian epic Ramayana by Valmiki, the Greek philosophers’ works that continue to be popular after two millennia and the Norse legends that have been told and re-told for over a thousand years.  Spiritual and religious leaders’ writings are also recycled into the guaranteed market of their followers and possible converts for a long time after their passing away.

On the other hand, the basic premise of today’s fashion and lifestyle businesses is that silhouettes, colours and design-cues will become (or be made) obsolete within a few weeks or a few months, and will be replaced with new ones.   This principle is true not just of clothing and footwear, but is applied to home furnishings, furniture, white goods, electronics, mobile phones and even cars.  In fact, the fashion business (as it exists) would find it impossible to survive if customers around the world chose only classics which could be used for as long as the product lasted in usable form.

What Fashionability Means for Brands

Other than individual styles or products falling out of favour, as fashions move and as the market changes, it is evident that some brands also become less acceptable, are seen as “outdated” and may also die out as they lose their customer base.

Of course, that some brands become classics is quite apparent, especially in the luxury segment where brands such as Bulgari have survived several generations of consumers, and continue to thrive.

However, the past is of relevance to the fashion sector because, other than planned or forced obsolescence, the fashion business has also long worked on another principle – that trends are cyclical.

Skirts go up and down, ties change their width, and the colour palette moves through evolution across the years.  A style formula that was popular in the summer of a year in the 1970s might be just right in another summer in the first decade of the 21st century.

So, the question that comes up is whether the same logic that is applicable to individual products, styles and trends, could also be applied to brands.

The answer to whether apparently weak, dead or dying brands could be brought back to life is provided by brands such as Burberry’s, Lee Cooper and Hush Puppies.  Sometimes innovative consumers create the opportunity – as with Hush Puppies in the 1980s – while in other cases (such as Burberry’s, Volkswagen’s Beetle, or Harley Davidson), vision, concerted effort and resources can make the brand attractive again.

The question then is not whether brands can be relaunched – they can. The more important question for brand owners is: should a brand be relaunched. And using the logic of the fashion business, rather than being left to linger and then dying a painful death, could brands be consciously phased-out and later brought back into the market as the trends change?

The Brand Portfolio – Diversifying Opportunities and Risks

These questions are particularly important for large companies, or in times when market growth rates are slow, or when the market is fragmented. Organic growth can be difficult in all these scenarios, and companies begin to look at developing “portfolios” by acquiring other businesses and brands, or by launching multiple brands of their own.

The car industry worldwide has lived with brand portfolio management for long. Even as companies have merged with and acquired each other, the various marques have been retained and sometimes even dead ones have been revived.  The companies generally focus the brands in their portfolio on distinct customer segments and needs (such as Ford’s ownership of “Ford”, “Volvo” and “Jaguar”, or General Motors with its multiple brands), and then further play with models and product variants within those.  When things go right portfolio strategies can be quite profitable, but the mistakes are especially expensive. Sensible and sensitive management of the portfolio is absolutely critical.

In the fashion and lifestyle sector, the players who already follow a portfolio strategy are as diverse as the luxury group LVMH, mainstream fashion groups like Liz Claiborne (with brands in its portfolio including Liz Claiborne, Mexx, Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand Jeans) and LimitedBrands (Limited, Victoria’s Secret, La Senza etc.), retailers such as Marks & Spencer (with its original St. Michael’s brand having given way to “Your M&S”, and also Per Una) and Chico’s (Chico’s, White House | Black Market, and Soma Intimates) who wish to capture new customer segments or re-capture lost customers.  Some of these companies have launched new brands, some have relaunched their own brands, and some have even acquired competing brands.

The issue is also relevant to the Indian market, whether we consider Reliance’s revival of Vimal, the new brand ambassador for Mayur Suitings, or the PE-funded take over of Weekender.  As the market begins evolving into significantly large differentiated segments, branding opportunities grow, and so will activity related to existing or old brands being resurrected and refreshed. An additional twist is provided by Indian corporate groups such as Reliance, Future (Pantaloons) and Arvind that are looking to partner international and Indian brands, or grow private labels to gain additional sales and margin.

The issue also concerns those companies whose management is attached to one or more brands owned by them which may not have been performing well in the recent past, but due to historical or sentimental reasons the management may not like to close down or sell them.

It is equally critical for potential buyers who would like to take over and turn brands around into sustainable profits. This is a real possibility in this era of private-equity funds and leveraged buyouts, where a company or a financial investor might find it cheaper and more profitable to take over an existing brand and turn it around, rather than building a new brand.  This is already happening in the Indian market. More interestingly, Indian companies have also already acquired businesses in the USA and Europe, and the potential revival or relaunch of brands is certainly relevant for these companies as well.

When to Recycle and Reuse

Relaunch or acquisition of an existing active or dormant brand can be an attractive option when building a portfolio, or when a company is getting into a new market.

For the company, acquiring an existing brand is often a lower cost way to reach the customers, and also faster to roll-out the business. The company may assess that the brand already has an existing share of positive customer awareness that is active or dormant, and that the effort and resources (including money) needed to build a business from that awareness will be much less than that to create a new brand.

The risk of failure may also be lower for a relaunched brand than for a new brand.

This is because the softer aspects, the hidden psychological and emotional hooks, are already pre-designed. This provides a ready platform from which to re-launch and grow the brand.

From the customer’s point of view, there is the confidence from previous experience and usage, and possibly also nostalgia and comfort of the ‘known’.

‘Age’ or vintage is respectable and trustworthy. This is especially powerful during volatile times or in rapidly changing environments when there is uncertainty about what lies in the future, and makes an existing brand a powerful vehicle for sustaining and growing the business.

On the Downside

However, when handling brands it is also wise to keep in mind the cautionary note that mutual funds issue: “past performance is no indicator of the future”.

In re-launching active or dormant brands, there is also a downside risk.  While the brand may have been strong and relevant in its last avatar, it may be totally out of place in the current market scenario.  The competitive landscape would have shifted, consumers would have changed – new consumers entering the market, old consumers evolving or moving out – and the economic scenario itself may now be unfriendly to the brand.

Also, the “awareness” or “share of mind” may only be a perception in the mind of the person who is looking to re-launch the brand, and the consumer may actually not care about the brand at all.  There are instances where the management of the company has been so caught up in their own perception of the brand that they have not bothered to carry out first-hand research with the target segment to check whether there is actually an unaided recall, or at worst, aided-recall of the brand. They are imagining potential strengths, when the brand has none.

It is also possible that, during its last stint in the market, the brand may have gathered negative connotations – consumers may remember it for poor products or wrong pricing, the trade may remember it for late deliveries, vendors may remember it for delayed payments…the list goes on. In such a scenario, it may be a relaunch may be a disaster.

So how does one know whether to resurrect a brand, or to reincarnate it in another form, and when to just let it die?  The answers to that lie in answering the question: what is a brand? And then, what is this brand?

A Critical Question: What is a Brand?

Even in these enlightened marketing times, many people believe that the brand is the name. They believe that once you advertise a name widely and loudly enough, a brand can be created. Nothing could be further from the truth.  High-decibel advertising only informs customers of the name, it cannot create a brand.

If we put ourselves in the customer’s shoes, a brand is an image, comprising of a bundle of promises on the company’s part and expectations on the customer’s part, which have been met.  When promises are delivered, when expectations are met, the brand develops an attribute that it is defined by.

The promise may be of edgy design (think Apple), and the customer expects that – when the brand delivers on the promise and meets the expectation the brand image gets re-affirmed and strengthened. However, these attributes are not always necessarily all “positive” in the traditional sense. For instance, a company’s promise may be to be low-cost and low-service (think Ikea, or “low-cost airlines”), and the customer may expect that and be happy with that when the company delivers on that promise.  The promise may be products with a conscience (think The Body Shop), which may strike a chord with the consumer.

What that brand actually stands for can only be created experientially. Creating this image, creation of the brand, is a complex and step-by-step process that takes place over time and over many transactions. Repetition of the same kind of experience strengthens the brand.

The brand touches everything that defines the customer’s experience – the product design and packaging, the retail store it is sold in, the service it is sold with, the after-sales interaction – all have a role to play in the creation of the brand.

For instance, to some it may sound silly that market research or how supply chain practices can help define a brand, but that is exactly how the state of affairs is for Zara.  Changeovers and new fashions being quickly available are what that brand is about, and it would be impossible for Zara to deliver on that promise without leading edge supply chains, or a wide variety of trend research.

Similarly, it may sound clichéd that your salesperson defines the brand to the consumer, but even with the best products, extensive advertising, and swanky stores, for service-oriented retailers everything would fall apart if the salesperson is not up to the mark. This is indeed a sad reality faced by so many of the so-called premium and luxury brands.

Of course, brand images can be changed or updated, but the new image also needs to be reinforced through repeated action, a process just like the first time the brand was created.

Reviving a Brand: the New-Old Seesaw

Given that a brand is created over multiple interactions and repetitive delivery of certain attributes, it is only natural that the older the brand, the more potential advantage it would have over a new brand.  Just the sheer time it would have spent in the market would give an old brand an edge.

An old brand can appear to be proven, experienced and secure, while a new brand could be seen as untested, raw and risky.  An old brand may have had a positive relationship with the consumer, but may have been dormant due to strategic or operational reasons.  In this case, reviving the brand is clearly a good idea.  There is already an existing awareness of an older brand, which can act as a ready platform for launching the same or a new set of products or services.  Often, there may be a connection with the consumer’s past positive experience of the brand.

On the other hand, a new brand may appear to be fresh, more up-to-date and relevant, and vigorous, compared to an old one that may be seen as outdated and tired.  Certainly, if nostalgia had been all that brands needed to thrive, then old brands would never die and it would be difficult to create new brands.

Clearly, there is no single answer to whether it is a good idea to re-launch an existing or old brand.   If you are considering whether it would be a good idea to revive an old brand, or to acquire and turn an existing brand around, ask yourself this:

  • Is there evidence of enough customer awareness and support for the brand?
  • Are there positive connotations for the brand that can be built upon in the current market context?
  • Is there an opportunity to refresh the brand, so that it does not appear outdated, while retaining its core promise and authenticity?
  • Does the company have the resources and inclination to be a “caretaker” or “steward” of the relationship that has been created in the past between the brand and its customers?

If the answer is “No” to any of these questions, then one needs to think again.  However, if the answers are all “Yes”, then a resuscitation is just what the doctor might have ordered.