Chris Wood helps to launch top-end male fashion brand Dom Reilly

March 28, 2013

Dom ReillyFor years, you’ve run your own brand consultancy. After successfully selling it, you step into the limelight as chairman of the Central Office of Information, only to find that mad axeman and part-time cabinet minister Francis Maude is cutting off at the knees the very organisation you’ve just been invited to head. What next?

I caught up with Chris Wood recently and found out. It transpires he is helping to give lift-off to a new top-end fashion brand called Dom Reilly. Never heard of it? Well, unlike Chris Wood, you’ve probably had nothing to do with Formula One. Wood, in his spare time, is an unreconstructed petrol head; and Dominic Reilly (pictured) – the eponymous brand name –  is the former head of marketing at Williams F1 Team.

Reilly’s company, where Wood is a non-executive director and adviser, is ambitiously pitching itself at the very top of a very discriminating market – with a price-tag to match. The initial range, admittedly exquisitely hand-crafted, starts at £95 for a tooled leather phone case and escalates to an eye-watering £1,400 for a weekender bag (roughly the price of a Manolo Blahnik handbag or a Jimmy Choo tote).  This new brand has no intention of being a Mulberrry also-ran, no siree.

So why is Reilly so confident about his ambitious positioning? The answer lies not so much in the quality of the goods – that’s a given when competing with the likes of Louis Vuitton, Armani and Alfred Dunhill – but in a judicious soupçon of Formula One. A soupçon, because too much of it will asphyxiate the brand with the rank odour of “petrol-head” and “anorak” – in short, death by downmarket male. While there’s no escaping Dom Reilly’s essentially masculine appeal, the idea is to imbue the brand with FI’s sophisticated reputation for engineering excellence and technological innovation. One of the accessories, for instance, is a beautifully finished crash helmet case; and some of the collection features a special high-density foam used in F1 cockpits that absorbs almost all shock on impact.

Reilly, given his 6 years as head of marketing at Williams, has second-to-none access to one of the world’s most sophisticated R&D departments. But he has to be careful how he plays the Williams card. Few team brands, with the exception of Ferrari, have much charisma off-track. And in any case, Williams has not performed well of late (one, but only one, good reason, why the Williams name is not directly associated with the brand). Instead, an aura of cutting-edge R&D is being subtly diffused through the person of Patrick Head, co-founder of Williams F1 and its fabled chief of design – who just happens to be a founder shareholder in Dom Reilly.

Dom Reilly EnglandIn truth, the attractions of launching an haute gamme fashion brand are there for all to see: salivating margins and high resilience to recession. Equally, so is the demerit: everyone’s at it. The sector has become crowded with participants touting increasingly obscure and recondite “provenance”: the 17th century Huguenot diaspora, the Empress Josephine’s personal dressmaker etc (I made those up, but you know what I mean). So attaching your brand to future-directed technology with wide aspirational appeal is certainly a point of difference.

But that’s not to say fashion and high-octane auto culture are natural bedfellows, as the history of the Ferrari brand all too clearly illustrates. “It’s interesting,” says Wood, “That in the last Top Gear programme I watched, they were extolling the virtues (and innocence) of Pagani (750bhp hypercars, costing three times as much as a Lamborghini and correspondingly rare), while referring to the Maranello mob (i.e. Ferrari) as ‘purveyors of key rings and baseball caps’. And about Lamborghini as a contrivance of Audi. Out of the mouths of children, and even Clarkson, can come a certain wisdom.”

Indeed.

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Rosenfeld’s wretched road to Mondelez

March 22, 2012

By and large, corporate life is no laughing matter. One exception – and a cause of bottomless mirth at that – is the pompous business of corporate name-minting.

Latest in a long line of jokes is “Mondelez International”. What, you ask? It’s the new monicker for the Kraft spin-off snack business which will shortly be headed by Irene Rosenfeld, after offloading the lumbering US grocery business onto poor old Tony Vernon.

One of Vernon’s few high cards will be the fact that he retains the Kraft name which, whatever its downmarket connotations, has the merit of being agreeably monosyllabic and memorable.

If only we could say the same for Mondelez International. Why, oh why (as The Daily Mail might put it) couldn’t it take the Cadbury name? After all, organisationally and with the exception of a few Kraft legacy brands such as Oreo, Mondelez is the ex-Cadbury company. It faithfully maps Cadbury’s emerging markets strategy and, if it is to achieve the higher margin growth commonly associated with the snack sector, that will in no small part be due to the dominance of Cadbury brands within its portfolio.

Instead of the instant mnemonic, however, we have the instantly forgettable “Mondelez”. Apparently, this was dredged up from an exhaustive trawl of 2,000 ideas – fashionably and inexpensively crowd-sourced from Kraft employees. The ultimate choice was, in fact, a portmanteau word derived from one suggestion fielded in America and another in Europe. Which probably tells you all you need to know about Rosenfeld’s imaginative powers. Camel, horse, committee anyone?

On second thoughts, however, I’m not entirely convinced by this folksy little conceit of hers. “Mondelez” has about it a strong whiff of corporate ID specialist. Allegedly it’s a bit of cod-Latin, derived from a hybrid of mundus (world) and delectatio (delight or pleasure), which is more readily understood by substituting the French modern equivalents “monde” and “délice”. Note the subtle potential French wordplay – Mon délice – perfect but for the fact it is grammatically incorrect, délice being feminine.

What does all this remind you of? Yes, right first time: Diageo, Altria, Aviva and most memorable of all – for the wrong reasons – Consignia. All of these rejoice in being bland latinisms (although Diageo sounds all Greek to me – dia, “through”; geo, “world”: but let’s not get pedantic about it). It seems a curious irony that at a time when interest in classical languages is at an all time low, corporate identity specialists have turned their abuse into a high art form.

And, in their earnestness not to create offence by minting something more meaningful, have often achieved laughable results. Take Aviva for example. On one reading, it could mean “Without life”.

As for Mondelez, which Americans clearly have difficulty in pronouncing, I shall leave you with the wise words of Sharon Shedroff, founder of San Diego consulting firm Strategic Vision Inc:

“Until the brand is established, it will be difficult for people to give it meaning in the US and probably in Asia. Brands under it, like Oreo, could lend credibility to Mondelez.”

So why go to the trouble and expense in the first place?



Tales of the Recession. Part 2: Sir James Dyson

November 1, 2009

James DysonNo blades, no buffeting is the strapline of Sir James Dyson’s latest innovative product, the Air Multiplier fan. You certainly couldn’t accuse its inventor of being like that. Emollient and smooth he is not. But he is very passionate about what he believes in.

And one thing he loathes viscerally is the parasitical financial system that has brought the UK economy to its knees. Wealth for wealth’s sake simply won’t do. Why can’t we make money from actually making things? As we used to, he might have added.

It’s a fair question, and in posing it authoritatively Dyson lays claim to being the latest in a long but thinning line of great British engineers: James Watt, Matthew Boulton, George Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Frank Whittle. When I say “engineers” I mean they were – like Archimedes – far more besides: inventors, fearless contrarians, entrepreneurs and industrialists rather than merely technical experts or industrial designers (though they were certainly that as well).

Somewhere, in the later 19th century, Britain took a wrong turn. It forsook the straight and narrow path of technological innovation, at which it had excelled, for the broad and spacious ways of Mammon. Without thinking, we lionise celebrities; yet, as Dyson eloquently points out, nowhere in Britain will you find a statue of his hero Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine. Why is that?

There was finance aplenty, even in the Depression, but almost no one was interested in Whittle’s idea at the time. Least of all the Air Ministry, which fought him tooth and nail until a race against time with Nazi Germany eventually forced them into producing the Gloster Meteor jet fighter.

As with war, so with financial disaster. Both can be accelerants of change. Certainly change is what Dyson hopes will emerge from the current recession. A strong technology sector would have defensive qualities in a downturn, and help to redress the imbalance in our economy produced by flaky financial services. With this in mind, he has already nailed his colours to the mast of the Conservative Party, as leader of a taskforce on innovation.

His own (privately-owned) company is the living proof of Dyson Economic Theory. The foundation of his £500m fortune was the cyclonic vacuum cleaner (USP, it doesn’t lose suction as the drum fills up with dust, unlike conventional cleaners). It was brought to market in the teeth of extraordinary scepticism from the manufacturing and financial communities. Once it proved a best-seller – quickly consigning most conventional cleaners to oblivion – Dyson found himself involved in a seemingly endless legal guerrilla war to forestall his rivals from ripping off the proprietary technology. Today, a triumphant Sir James can afford to smile tolerantly at all this, as he sits atop one third of the market by value in the US and UK. It is achievements like this which have enabled him to grow his profits even during the recession. Not many of us can say that.

Whether Dyson’s achievement lays a template for others to follow I’m not so sure. There have been plenty of failures along the way (as there usually are with pioneers) – most conspicuously the twin-drum washing machine. It takes a particular kind of pig-headed genius to stare disaster in the face and yet remain unalterably convinced that your idea is the right one.

BrunelOne-off or not, Dyson has already secured a place in history. It may not be the heroic, romantic legacy of a Brunel, with his bridges, tunnels, railways and steamships. But it is one we can’t fail to notice, in our living rooms, utility cupboards and – in the case of the Airblade – our public conveniences as well. And, unlike Brunel, Dyson will never die a near-pauper.


Tales of the recession. Part 1: Cath Kidston

August 22, 2009

KidstonOK, I admit it. I must have been asleep all this time. The first I heard was the media hullabaloo trumpeting her success as a businesswoman. Cassandra Jardine in the Telegraph hailed her as a post-feminist icon, and pretty much everyone else has piled in as well.

Because? The year-end figures for Cath Kidston’s private company had just percolated to the surface (God knows why now, the year-end is March) – and they were astonishingly good. Sales have leapt more than a third to £31.3m and profits soared a majestic 59% to £4.6m (£2.9m). This is no flash in the pan. The 50-year-old designer has been sticking to her knitting for 15 years. What we have here is a recipe for success that has clearly been baked to perfection in the worst recession in living memory.

Now it’s not cheap, the stuff she sells in her 27 shops; nor is it to everyone’s taste. Some would characterise it as upper-class kitsch, whose last great exponent was Laura Ashley. So wholesome, so mumsy, so floral, so…English. Yet there are few places the Kidston motif has not managed to insinuate itself over the years. We even have the stuff ourselves – some rather nice mugs my wife once unwittingly bought at Waitrose. “These can’t be Kidston,” she declared authoritatively. “They’re not floral enough”. The monikored assay mark on the base of the mugs cleared that one up.

Whatever it is – let’s settle on zeitgeist – Kidston knows how to bottle and sell it. In her way, she’s a domestic goddess. A more matronly, kindly one than the grasping, go-getting Martha Stewart in her pomp, and a safer, less threatening one than the glamorous Nigella. But like them, she’s peddling a kind of escapism: in her case, the illusory, nostalgic domestic idyll of the Fifties. And women of a certain sort – the kind that can afford her – are lapping it up.

I agree with JKR’s blogger that calling her oeuvre “Pinnie Porn” unfairly demeans her. You wouldn’t employ that sort of perjorative language describing the achievement of Sir Terence Conran in an earlier era, would you? Indeed not.

You may convict Kidston’s design aesthetic of being bland, smothering, a conceit that denies everyday reality. But porn? No. it’s much cleverer than that. Good luck to her.

And, by the way, we still use the mugs and they’re still in perfect condition.


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