Ted Baker's 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' marketing strategy

The brand reveals the challenges it faces tackling the U.S. market.

Ted Baker is not a real person -- let’s just get that out the way.

But his presence is felt around the world. The quintessentially British clothing brand, known for its punchy, in-your-face tone of voice and dapper style, has a physical retail presence in 39 of the 50 countries in which it's available.

But it wasn’t always this way. Ted began as a tiny shop in Glasgow, Scotland, 30 years ago.

Its first taste of transatlantic bounty didn’t come until the mid-to-late '90s and after years of struggle (the founder, Ray Kelvin, used to sleep on the shop floor and deliver his own goods around the U.K. because he couldn’t afford shipping). Ted arrived in Las Vegas, Nevada at what was then the world’s biggest fashion trade expo -- Magic -- in the form of unforgivingly sassy shirts. It took the show by storm.

"I’m not diminishing all the stuff that goes around it, but we’ve really not changed our approach to the brand in all the time I’ve been in the business," said Craig Smith, Ted Baker’s digital commerce director, who joined the company around 12 months after its American debut.

More than two decades have lapsed since then, and Ted’s marketing strategy has barely shifted. Now, as brands constantly reinvent the way they communicate while navigating an onslaught of platforms, Ted’s still drumming away to the old "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" tune. And who are we to argue with the results? The firm’s total group sales revenue (retail and wholesale) grew from £531M ($716.2M) in January 2017 to £591.7M ($798M) in January 2018. North America took home the second biggest piece of pie after U.K. and Europe sales. It grew from £147.6M ($199M) to £175.2M ($236.2M) over the same time period -- an increase of 18.7 percent in total sales. Stores took home the lion’s share of that, with online sales accounting for £16.3M ($21.9M).

Ted Baker’s marketing palette has sophisticated over the years with the e-commerce evolution, but the crux of its strategy remains old-school, much like the fictitious brand hero. The creative team, which is entirely in-house, focuses on researching and implementing visual feasts in its stores. They aim to design cultural plays which connect both Ted Baker’s Britishness with the locals. A shop poised to open later this year in Orlando, Florida, for example, is a culture clash between an English thoroughfare and Coney Island, Brooklyn. Of course, it’ll be executed with the signature playfulness Ted’s known for. But one thing you’ll never find in its U.S. stores is a Union Jack flag.

Using Britain as a marketing tool isn’t dead, Smith persists.

"[Americans] buy into our cultural heritage and those unique parts of our history, and it gives our floor teams fantastic stories to tell," he explained. "Customers really do like it. Other brands have played with this idea and tried to deliver versions of, but because we’ve done it for the 30 years we’ve been in the business, it is inherently natural, whereas for a lot of brands there is a forced feel. It’s sort of levered in, as opposed to a natural element of what they’re trying to portray."

It’s true.

Charles Tyrwhitt’s U.S. campaign totally misses the mark. Most of the material features a gang of suave Englishman loitering on the waters that surround Manhattan under a Union Jack flag. They look like pirates ready to commandeer the city. It’s not even close to organic -- you can’t ram Britain down consumers’ throats (which is a shame, in Charles Tyrwhitt’s case, because its non-iron shirts are the definition of value-for-money).

That’s not to say it’s been smooth sailing for Ted Baker. Smith spoke candidly about challenges, including political volatility and fact that U.S. tourism has been in decline since Donald Trump took office. International travelers to America spent 3.3 percent less through November of 2017 than at the same point the previous year, according to the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. That pattern led to losses of $4.6 billion in the U.S. economy and cost 40,000 jobs.

"You also can’t play down the generally negative effects of consumer confidence," said Smith. "Rates are up, prices are up, lifestyle in general is more challenging than it has been for many years. It’s coming back, but it’s some way back to where it was three years ago.

"There’s also enormous competition from the Amazons of this world. As soon as you think you’re catching up a bit, the Amazons say, ‘oh, now we’re doing this,’ and the benchmark for excellence is really high, and that’s good because it’s a unique challenge and you have to have the appetite.

"There is definitely a seismic shift away from physical retail, even though 80 percent of all retail still happens in stores."

Add all this to the divisive, cultural conversation that’s playing out in the U.S. right now, which provide quite a number of hurdles to overcome. Brands are under increasing pressure to market togetherness in the wake of political split from the 2016 presidential election.

In fact, new research from WPP’s Grey agency found that 88 percent of the 1,000 people surveyed agree with the statement that Americans must unite, although the process is a difficult and painful one. A total of 63 percent of the country is united in its dissatisfaction with its current state.

Meanwhile, 60 percent think brands should try to bring people together, and half believe they should stop getting political.

Smith said Ted Baker’s plugged into the societal conversations which play out in all its markets via a number of influencers, but is exceptionally wary of where the brand hangs its hat because taking sides can be extremely polarizing.  

Ken Robinson, partner at Ark Advisors, a New York-based consultancy firm, said: "It’s a really critical time in U.S. communications history given the presidency and the prevailing attitude of America First.

"Even an American brand takes a risk by taking a stand. The problem is that it's a tightrope, and it’s very hard to have a single position that is going to resonate positively with a spectrum of political preferences and gender-specific issues."

Robinson believes that firms opening shop outside their home countries face unique challenges, but extraordinary opportunity.

He said: "There’s a conundrum of choice when entering a new market for the first time. What some of these brands have a hard time doing is really embracing the fact you can be different things in different markets. It’s like going to college and reinventing yourself in a good way; you become the person you wanted to be, you learn from the mistakes of the past several years."

Diesel is proof this works. The Italian clothing brand handed the creative reins to Publicis New York in a bid to rebirth its name in America.

Chief creative officer Andy Bird helped launch a one-off store in an area of Manhattan popular among shoppers looking for cheap fakes of well-known brands. Thousands of "knock-off" T-shirts, hats and jeans bearing the name "Deisel" were shipped from the manufacturing plant in Italy to a shabby pop-up shop in Canal Street earlier this year. The stunt was an instant hit. Limited-edition swag sold out in-store and online -- Diesel had joined college as the nerdy virgin and graduated with stud credentials.

Foreign brands will keep doing whatever they need to do to make their voices heard in the U.S. But the reason why there’s so much white noise is because companies simply aren’t trying hard enough, said Smith. The American marketplace is cluttered with lazy designs and limp story-telling.

Smith added: "We talk about the four Ps, in this order, and it’s been the same since I joined the company: people, product, passion -- if you get those three right, profit follows. Never the other way round, never in a different order. That’s really hard to keep doing, but it really, really works for us."

And it must. Ray Kelvin is definitely not sleeping on shop floors anymore.

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