Why FCUK has turned into a brand iceberg for French Connection

Several times in the past I’ve written about the challenges of managing brands from the top of companies, in particular in a turbulent trading environment like the one we find ourselves in. According to various experts this is likely to get worse before it gets better.

It would seem French Connection is another retailer having a torrid time based on their stock market profit warnings and I wonder to what extent is the brand a problem over and above the numerous practical issues such as falling consumer demand, pressures on pricing, manufacturing, sourcing etc., etc?

In my recent mini-book, Day 1 to Day 2555, I talk about a notion of brand health based on a view of brand equity, i.e. the value placed on a brand by all interested parties. The hypothesis is that brands fall in to one of three zones; Rising Stars, Orbiting Stars and Fading Stars. For example Facebook continues to be a Rising Star and its recent IPO reflects that position.

The commentators in the serious grown-up press operate with the same perspective as the finance sector; analysts work on buy, stick, sell advice on a daily basis. The same applies from the customers’ point of view, albeit on a slightly longer timeline than analysts.

My contention is that all brands are in one of the three zones mentioned above and the responsibility of top management is to have a very firm grip of forward navigation. It is all too easy for a brand that has enjoyed Rising Star status for years to suddenly be holed by the brand iceberg ahead. The question is how fatal the collision might be and also the ability of the captain to avert disaster.

I know very little about the market French Connection is in, I’ve never worked in fashion as such although I have worked on fashionable brands, but these are different entities. It would appear that Next is doing fine so why not French Connection? One question could be the legacy of FCUK which was the driver of growth for a while. Although it was dropped some time ago there are still plenty of people walking around sporting t-shirts with the FCUK logo in prominent position.

FCUK was for me in the same territory as the Club 18-30 campaign which featured posters talking about muff diving and similar smutty, school boy sniggers. FCUK was a one-off idea, good for a one-off laugh, but not a campaign to build a brand’s future on.

Years ago I found myself in deep water with Cadbury for similar reasons. We had shot a new commercial for Cadbury’s Flake in the South of France and when I saw the edit for the first time a small lizard slithered across a white telephone next to a sexy female. The creative team convinced me ‘it just happened on the day.’ It went out on air with the lizard still there. Within days I took a panic call from Cadbury telling us to take it off air due to the sexual overtones of the lizard. The order had come down from the then CEO, Sir Adrian Cadbury. Pretty impressive, Sir Adrian not only spotted the ad but also immediately suspected some sleight of hand on the lizard front.

His concern was the potential accusation of running soft porn on television across the nation and denting the good name of Cadbury. We did however conduct some focus groups with women and nobody objected or regarded it as offensive. When Sir Adrian was shown the research he accepted the findings and the lizard was back on air.

(By the way, some years later I was talking to the creative lead on this shoot and he admitted they had deliberately placed the lizard on the telephone!).

My point here is brand management operating at the very top of a large organisation, concern about the reputation of the master brand, but then being big enough to have a change of heart once a bit of investigation concluded a particular issue wasn’t a biggy in the real world.

There are plenty of own goals where massive mis-judgements occur such as the classic Gerald Ratner remark about the quality of the merchandise his shops sold. He destroyed a business with one comment by trying to be amusing but in doing revealed his belief that Ratners customers were mugs because they bought cheap rubbish.

I’m not for one minute suggesting caution and conservatism at all times, indeed I am a big advocate of bravery. However there is clearly a judgement line in the sand that needs careful scrutiny. I do wonder if French Connection has been wounded by the FCUK campaign because I would guess today’s 27 year-old is likely to cringe about wearing a t-shirt with FCUK across the front which they did when they were 17. If true it damns the brand to a certain time zone and to a certain age group.

Where brands flirt with sexual innuendo the fine line in the sand becomes very important. BBH has done it well a few times – Levi 501’s for years and also with Haagen-Daaz. It is dangerous territory to hand a brief to a creative department with sex written into the brief as it always seems every team has a draw full of vagina and willy jokes ready to present to the client.

I would venture the view that such brand icebergs are multiplying. Therefore that radar needs to be on red alert always and the client board needs to become familiar with all the intel. If overall demand and spending is challenged (as it is now) then it is inevitable that brands with less relevance today, or ones with a few blemishes, maybe the odd reputation skeleton in the cupboard, are going to more vulnerable than the brands in a better position. This is based on elementary economic theory: supply and demand and all that good stuff. Most of us need a reason not to buy from Brand A, elimination of options, rather than a reason to consider.

I wish French Connection every success in addressing its challenges.

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.