Inside Business: A chance to be cool again

Instead of bemoaning Yardley's acquisition by Wella we should be celebrating, argues Emma Fric
WHY IS IT that whenever a British brand falls into foreign ownership, we see this as another nail in the coffin of British industry? For some reason, emotions run highest when the buyer happens to be German.

The point is that Yardley, the cosmetics company, went into receivership. So instead of focusing on the acquisition of the company by the German Wella group, we should examine why it failed. It all boils down to inconsistent brand management and insufficient investment.

Hang on, there was that pounds 32.5m Linda Evangelista campaign - that was investment, wasn't it? On the contrary, that was a last, desperate attempt to shift the brand into new territory, and it was hopelessly misguided. Yardley's strength is its quintessential Britishness, and you cannot convey that by hiring an American supermodel and having her strike a series of bondage poses, particularly when your packaging carries three royal warrants. It looks (if you will excuse the pun) cosmetic and the public is more intelligent than that.

What Yardley should have done (and a lot earlier) was to tap into the powerful myth of Britain that has served brands such as Dunhill, Burberry and Mulberry so well, particularly in overseas markets.

This does not mean fossilising it in some idealised, bygone British landscape but leveraging the appeal that modern Britain has to modern consumers. Burberry, in particular, has smoothly migrated from the pages of Country Life into magazines such as The Face and i-D: a bold move born from the recognition that the brand had to become relevant to younger consumer groups, without alienating its traditional customer base.

Yardley failed to realise that there has never been a better time to be British in the fashion and cosmetics industries. While British designers like John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney blaze their trails at famous Parisian fashion houses; while Paul Smith and Dr Marten continue to enjoy international commercial success, there are huge opportunities for related British brands to ride the Cool Britannia wave. But Yardley stuck with Rule Britannia, before taking a sudden detour into tame fetishism.

Another factor in Yardley's demise was its failure to create any kind of compelling retail presence. The display of Yardley products was left entirely to the retailer, which put the cosmetics lines in one place, the perfumes in another and the toiletries somewhere else. The consumer was never given the chance to assimilate the whole Yardley proposition, as Mulberry has done with its distinctive stores within stores.

But all is not lost. In fact, with an ambitious German group behind it, Yardley is in better shape than it has been for a long time. As the receiver, Tony Thompson, of KPMG, said: "The brands will now receive the investment they warrant," and jobs at the company's Basildon plant have been saved. The only losers are Yardley's unsecured creditors.

But is Yardley still British - a British brand we can all be proud of? Technically, no; spiritually, yes. Yardley can mean nothing without its Britishness, just as Jaguar continues to trade on its British roots even under American ownership.

But it needs to find an attitude: a unique place for itself in the current British offer. I can see it exploring the natural, organic route pioneered by Body Shop but at a higher premium, with strong fashion associations. Then, perhaps, it could diversify into soft goods and home accessories and become a brand you can surround yourself with.

The profits from whatever success Yardley enjoys in the future will go, of course, to Germany. But the credit and most of the jobs will stay with Britain.

Instead of begrudging Wella its opportunity to strike, we should enjoy the fact that Britain is a place in which so many foreign businesses want to invest, and that Britishness is a quality that so many people all over the world desire to bring into their lives.

Emma Fric is managing director of Cato Consulting, the brand development group.

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