|STATE OF THE UNION
||FreshBritain | Glenn Kitson | Neil Bedford | Mark Smith
With a marketplace flooded with more choice than ever before,
the consumer has never had it so good. But the brands vying
for the attention of the public are finding it more and more
difficult to project their point of difference. Areas like the
Sports Performance market have become predictable, with a
procession of samey output that an increasingly homogenised
general public is happy to take a lead from. It seems people are
happy with the status quo. And nobody likes Status Quo apart
from ageing rockers in bad denim.
Bob Sheard fancies that it’s time for a little shake up. He
and his partner Sophie are the driving force behind a brand
consultancy called FreshBritain, which made its name helping
to revitalise some of world’s most well known brands. Through
this, FreshBritain has become a genuine authority and is
therefore in the best position to take things in a different
FreshBritain specialises in repositioning brands and making
the public think of them more positively. Since FreshBritain
kicked things off, they have helped about 70 brands, names
such as Renault Trucks, Nike and Nike ACG, Reebok, adidas,
Levis, Wrangler, Lee and New Balance.
Glenn Kitson spent a fascinating and funny couple of hours with
Bob. Here’s how it played out.
GLENN KITSON: So it’s the 80s, you’re a kid and you start to
become what we now call ‘brand aware’? Is that about right?
BOB SHEARD: Yeah I’d say pretty much. In the 80s you watched
Wimbledon and it was your only kind of vortex into something
special and romantic or luxurious and new. I would go to Jack
Lee Sports in Halifax and there would be Puma Maradona and
that was my connection to Maradona and South America. There
would be tennis tops from Sergio Tacchini or Fila; it was like
the cosmopolitan world that just visited Wimbledon once a year.
GK: A lot of people from that era remember it fondly but not too
many of them took that early period of brand obsessions and
made a career of it. What made things different for you?
BS: While we were at college, Sophie and I traded in vintage
denim. We would go to the rag yards up north and buy denim
in weight. We bought and sold Big E Levis and suchlike, and
we would bring the selvage denim down from up north to sell.
Levi’s were buying denim back from me, so they must have
been impressed because they sponsored me throughout my
We had a stall in Camden and a stall on Portobello market.
All the other stuff, we would sell at places such as Dewsbury
Market, Leeds Market and Halifax Piece Hall. I had my mum
selling them for £3 a pair! The rag merchants would only let us
buy half a ton at a time, so we could never earn more.
At one time we were earning 2 grand a week. I met Levis
though selling Big E’s back to them and they eventually agreed
to sponsor me though university helping me get an education.
GK: So after graduating, what did you do?
BS: I ended up working for Converse and enjoyed it. In a
company where there was a culture of blokes waiting for their
pension, I was over promoted.
GK: What do you mean by ‘over promoted’?
BS: Well it seemed to happen every two months. I was bald
back then so everybody thought I was older! Eventually, I was
made creative director of Converse Europe at 26. The bloke
who promoted me thought I was 35. I kind of knew the ‘right
things’, such as which shoes should be sold and how many,
and what colours they should be.
GK: Your next job was something a bit different was it not?
BS: It was a different type of job, yeah. Alessandro Benetton –
yes, that Benetton got in touch along with a guy called Andrea
Bonomi. I was basically head hunted by them to work for their
investment group. My job was with a brand called Karrimor,
based up in Accrington. Andrea wanted someone to go in and
turn this company around, with a plan to sell it in three years.
I was put on the board of Karrimor when I was 27; we turned it
around then sold it. And with the exit money, my partner Sophie
and I set up FreshBritain. We’ve since done successful work
with over 70 brands so we are in a pretty strong position to
have an opinion about the overall performance brand market.
GK: Everything’s gone a bit ‘Heritage’ this
last few years hasn’t it? How does that
affect the performance brand market?
BS: The trend for heritage has had zero
impact on the Premium Performance
Sector as defined by the Outdoor
Performance brands. However the
obsession with heritage for the mass-
market brands as defined by Nike, adidas
and Reebok has simply reinforced their
relative positions as “Lifestyle Fashion”
brands rather than “Performance” brands
with performance heritage.
GK: So what is the performance market
and what’s the current state of play?
BS: The market for performance brands
at the minute is characterised by two
things, the first one is the homogeneity
that exists in the market the second one
is that the market is depressed. Talking
of the second one first, the sports market
is being dominated by the big three: Nike,
adidas and Reebok. Most of the brands
that exist in the performance market are
being sold in out of town ‘sheds’, whether
it’s Decathalon, JJB or Sports Direct. It’s
depressed. You have icons like the adidas
Superstar and the Reebok Classic being
sold for £19.99 in these ‘sheds’. It’s like
having Robert De Niro, James Woods,
James Caan and Al Pacino on daytime TV!
So what’s happened is where you used to
have these beautiful performance brands,
they are now depressed and ‘sold out’.
You then end up with this vacuum at the
premium end of the sportswear market,
which used to be filled in the 70’s and
80’s with Ellesse, Fila, Lacoste and what
not, and it’s gone now. As the market is
depressed the vacuum is now filled by
outdoor performance brands such as the
North Face, Norrona and Patagonia.
GK: You mention everything being the
same, that homogeneity?
BS: Yep, the other characteristic is the
homogeneity of it all. They don’t seem
to want to break the mould. There are
brands whose starting point is the clothing
designer, the second point is a commercial
imperative that they should be providing
a certain specification. For instance, a
three layered jacket with four pockets and
pit-zips for 250 Euro. The third imperative
is that the product should be validated by
an athlete- a mountaineer for example.
The fourth imperative is that the athlete
must validate the product in the North
Pole, the South Pole, the Himalayas or
Yosemite… somewhere like that. Or if
they’re slightly more creative the big walls
on Baffin Island. Finally, they all select
from either Gore-Tex or Polartec.
GK: What’s the way forward then?
Collaborations seem popular at the
BS: The brands that fight this depression
seem to have two options. One of those
options is limited edition. But then in an
attempt to be different, everybody does
them and limited editions now seem
to be unlimited. The other option is
collaborations, which used to be special
and unexpected. The first collaboration I
remember was a Nike Waffle racer with
the Swoosh taken off and replaced with
a Louis Vuitton leather swoosh that had
been cut out of a Louis Vuitton handbag.
It was not an official collaboration but
it was fucking brilliant and totally
unexpected. Now it seems systemic that
everybody does collaborations. So there
isn’t anything unexpected as it is now the
norm. Again, at the mass-market end it is
GK: Someone must be trying to make a
BS: There are only three brands at the
minute that are bucking the trend and
doing things slightly different. One is
Arc’teryx, the other Rapha and the next
one will be the running brand that we
are working on with one of our clients.
We learn from other industries for the
performance industry to succeed. The
industry that is posting the best results in
this recessionary recovery environment
is the luxury one- Louis Vuitton posted
double digit growth across all categories;
Hermes has just posted 26% growth. This
is because they honour their customer,
they treat their product with respect,
they don’t discount and they serve their
brands incredibly. The two brands (in the
performance sector) that are reflecting
what is happening in the luxury market are
Rapha and Arc’teryx. These are the only
lights in the tunnel.
Look at Patagonia; it used to be defined
by Yvon Chouinard. There is that fantastic
story where he fell off a climb and his
trousers ripped when he got to the bottom.
He did a recall on all the trousers that
Patagonia sold and had them all remade
so that they would not rip. Patagonia used
to stand for newness but what was then
the beacon for innovation in the outdoor
industry has now been surpassed by what
everyone else has done. It has become
part of the homogenised delivery.
GK: You mentioned Arc’teryx?
BS: Yeah, if you look at Arc’teryx their
product defines it. When Arc’teryx first
came out with jackets like the Sidewinder
at the end of the 90s their product was an
evolutionary leap frog. It was great and
totally different. You would go to a trade
show and you would see everyone doing
a new zip or a new pocket, Arct’teryx
had a totally new dynamic fit. They had
evolutionary new zip technologies and
they would also colour match everything.
When everyone else was doing black
shoulder pads and copying The North Face
they went for a very beautiful clean look.
So in terms of Arc’teryx versus their
competitors you get a feeling that the other
brands are working seasonally rather than
trying to evolve and improve. With Arc’teryx,
rightly or wrongly, you get the sense that it
is a kind of relentless pursuit of perfection,
so when the product is correct it is ready
for the stores.
Going back to Rapha, they are better than
everyone else simply because of their
customer treatment, they give more. If
you scratch the surface of the way Rapha
communicates to their consumer it’s
not just an endorsement, it’s about really
unearthing the spirit of cycling. It is about
unearthing the mythologies that exist
within cycling. It’s romance but not in the
normal bullshit lifestyle way, it’s about
uncovering different meanings within
cycling that allows their consumer to
engage with it. What they have achieved is
GK: In terms of communication, how has the so-called
blogosphere changed things?
BS: All blogs and digital communication are new media. By that
they change where brands communicate, not necessarily what
they say. Brands get into trouble when they confuse the message
with the media. There is little point in investing in social or digital
media unless you have some idea of the conversation that you want
to have. Rapha has that spot on.
GK: So it’s about tone of voice and authenticity?
BS: Absolutely yeah. Most people can sense when something is not
quite truthful. Brands have to have authenticity, and be founded on
truth. This is the basis of their authority so they can talk to you with
a degree of meaning. If you look at a brand like Levis right now,
Levis product exudes truth. Its original core product emits truth
but their advertising and communication is so conceptual that
it’s almost like they have no confidence in their products. I think
people see through this kind of thing.
GK: This pursuit of authenticity seems to be more difficult for
some brands does it not?
BS: Look at Nike; their snowboard department is in Hilversum,
which is 8ft below sea level. The people who usually run these
brands have usually got a double first in Zoology from Harvard or
Oxford or Cambridge. They are process driven and very effective
people but they rely entirely on their endorsers to deliver the brand
credibility and authenticity. People see through this. Wayne Rooney
is sponsored to wear a football boot, and paid a lot of money. What
brands need to do is make their designers be the sportsmen,
make their marketers be the sportsmen. Not as endorsers, but in
much the same way method actors get into character. This is what
we do at FreshBritain. When we first got the job to reposition New
Balance, the first thing I made everyone do is train for and run a
marathon, so we knew what it was like to get to mile 23 and get a
blister. I hit the wall at about mile three! [Laughs]
GK: How important is Knowledge to a brand?
BS: It is classic “Art of War” stuff, we tell brands to know your
competition, know yourself and know your marketplace. And that
knowledge is very powerful, but the problem is when brands get
the knowledge and it becomes their practice. They work on what
they know their competition do, they practice what they know
market place does and they rehearse what they’ve always done so
you end up not treating knowledge as knowledge but you treat it
the way you should practice things and therefore end up with that
homogeneous product again. You must understand the knowledge
but not convert it into practice, instead convert it into input. This
is the really important thing and it is where the other elements
can be factored in. So once you have the knowledge and accept
you have the best knowledge of yourself, your competition and the
market and then apply to that technology, and then craft. If you
look how consumer relationships have changed to brands such as
Apple with the iPad and how people instantly relate to it, they have
raised the bar with how their product interfaces with the consumer.
We should look to these sectors as well as our own. It is all about
the process. For brands to succeed there is an industry standard in
the process of design and communication that has to be reworked.
GK: You mention the process and how it has to have credibility.
What are the mistakes people make?
BS: Most brands start with a design and the price point they are
aiming for. It may be £200 delivering a margin of 66%. To me this
way of doing things is self-defeating. At FreshBritian we will put
an industrial designer in the process instead, to look at it from a
non-clothing point of view. It helps change the conventions of how
you design clothing because you re-engineer it. We will factor in
different people in each stage of the process and we will use the
right talent, from the best pattern cutters to the best garment
Another mistake that brands make is also another reason why the
performance market is suffering. If you look at any footwear or
clothing brands, their range always starts with the best product
first. You can probably guarantee that all their best designers
will be designing the £400 jackets. They will spend all their time
designing it and then spend about a week on the rest of the
collection. As a consequence, they might ‘take a few bits off’ to
get to the £300 jacket, and then more ‘bits off’ to get to the £200
jacket. It’s the same with footwear, you’ll have a really good Nike
Air Force 1 and they will gradually take it down until you get to the
‘affordable’ Air Force 1.
This is the wrong way around. The customer is being disrespected
again. What we should do is invest our time and talent with
the mass-market product and “add to” it to get to the marquee
product. It is a “bottom up” psychosis.
INTERVIEW [PART 4/4]
GK: What about technology. How important is that?
BS: Well, as far as technology is concerned it is to define the
best manufacturing technology, the best material technology
and the best construction technologies. But it’s wrong to only
consider technology in a design sense. You can use technology to
enhance communication, information and to reduce travel. If you
are able to get better communication, high quality information
and less travel through technology it means that you can reduce
your product administration time and expand the time you take
on creativity. There’s only so much time that you may have in a
product development cycle, a lot of it is either spent travelling or
communicating or gathering information. Use technology to reduce
the time employed getting those things right so you can enhance
the amount of time spent on pure creativity. It’s about thinking a bit
more laterally and considering technology in a wider sense.
GK: The age-old question. What is good design?
BS: Not an easy one to answer but I’ll try. If you go to the V&A
nothing in there was a classic, it was an innovation that became
a classic. And one of the key characteristics of a product design
becoming a classic is it’s ability to decay gracefully and gracefully
forming a relationship with the user. These jeans are my jeans,
they have my marks on them, they have faded with me and have
my anatomical usage and have become a classic.
GK: Going back to the heritage thing, there’s a lot of talk right
now about craftsmanship. Is that valid in the sports performance
market and if so, how?
BS: With regards to craftsmanship you have to read and respect.
Craftsmanship is a respect of the product that you are designing.
It’s a respect for experience and talent. Today we should all be
aiming to innovate a classic for tomorrow. That can be applied
to most things, not just heritage or premium sport performance
brands. In addition you must have respect for experience. It’s all
very well having the latest Billy Whizz from St. Martins or the latest
Billy Whizz graphic designer from Tokyo, but ultimately to create
a timeless product it comes down to experience. Years and years
of experience. And that isn’t always found where we expect it, it
could be an old pattern cutter in a factory in Laos or a garment
technician in a Chinese factory. There is some amazing talent in
the far east that have been working on the same product for the
last 40 years and who know far more about it than we do, yet we
don’t even look there for people who have this experience and
Craftsmanship for me is about respecting the product, respecting
experience and respecting time. We need time for that creativity to
develop and to learn, it is very important.
GK: You mentioned the Far East. Do you think they get a bad press
BS: Again, people should probably put aside their prejudices.
It’s absolute nonsense that we should not be celebrating the
craftsmanship that exists in China, Taipei, Laos and wherever.
These people have been working just as hard as we worked for a
good living and they’ve built it and made it happen. Many years ago
I did a job creating a particular product for Karrimor, we had them
made in two factories in the north of England. The day before we
were due to launch them they came back to us from the factories
and every jacket had the chest logo stitched on below the left
armpit. This wasn’t intentional. The people in Far East have just
as much validity in calling themselves craftsmen or artisans as
anyone else. Just because their daily rate is less than those in the
west does not mean they are any less of a craftsman, it just means
the cost of living is lower.
One of the responsibilities when handling a brand is to harness
the best talent wherever it might come from. If the best solution
comes from a Chinese pattern cutter with 30 years of experience
of working in a performance factory, you have to open your eyes to
this solution. If you put the right process together with the correct
team then the design will take of itself. Then you can figure out the
price. Don’t try to find it at the beginning, find it at the end.
GK: How can things be made better?
BS: The designers to design the basic product first, making the
best they can do. Make the best £50 trainer you can do with the
technology limitations you have to work with. Design the best
£100 jacket you can on the same basis. Spend your time creating
the most powerful platform and then add to it to get to the
other products. What’s needed is a ‘bottom up’ design process
rather than a ‘top down’, investing in the best equipment, the
best commercial platform and then combining to it to get to the
Henry Ford said “I will give them the most I can possibly give them
for $5”, this is not new. It just needs unearthing.
GK: Finally, you keep hinting at a special project you are involved
in, would you care to elaborate more on this?
BS: No but watch this space! [Laughs]