Magazine article Marketing

Mark Ritson on Branding: Laura Ashley's Resurrection Is Not Unthinkable

Magazine article Marketing

Mark Ritson on Branding: Laura Ashley's Resurrection Is Not Unthinkable

Article excerpt

For lessons in branding there are few richer case studies than Laura Ashley. In the 50s Laura Ashley began silk-screening her own designs onto scarves and napkins. Drawing her inspiration from Victorian images, her work was unusual and sold well at John Lewis and Heal's. She quickly became associated with floral designs, a country idyll and a brand new vision of the past.

Like most founders of great brands, Ashley was a unique woman whose vision encompassed creativity and business.

In the 60s production was moved to Wales, Ashley's birthplace, and diversified into furnishings and Victorian dresses. In 1969 the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid opened across Britain; co-star Katharine Ross, in her vintage dresses, started a fashion sensation that Ashley's designs spoke directly to. Five hundred stores, from Paris to New York, now offered the world a new fashion brand.

Ashley died in 1985, but the success of the brand continued. Laura Ashley was floated on the stock market that year, turnover reached pounds 300m and production was expanded.

The death of a founder is a big challenge for any brand, as they are usually the physical representation of it, the creative spirit behind product development and the pro-tector of the brand equity.

The key lessons for marketers are that they need to be aware of the effect this can have and must understand that a negative impact on brand strategy rarely has an immediate effect on the bottom line. When brands stray from their equity the effects on turnover and profitability are usually delayed, but always imminent.

By 1995 the vacuum created by Ashley's absence had halved the share price and left the brand with annual losses of pounds 30m.

Cue the arrival of US turnaround specialist Ann Iverson as chief executive. She installed her own team, expanded the stores and increased the range and diversity of Laura Ashley products.

Initially the results were pos-itive, but two years later it became clear that Iverson's expansion strategy had been a big error. Huge new stores required an enormous range of products to fill them, but the brand could not support such a large inventory and sales could not match expectations.

The production costs were astronomical and the company announced a profit warning. …

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