Viewed from abroad, many familiar UK brands appear unrecognisable to their domestic audience.
Whilst long-established shoe brand Clarks is seen as a sensible choice of footwear for British school kids, over in Jamaica the brand has considerable street cred and has long been celebrated in the lyrics of Dancehall music.
Clarks in Jamaica and the USA
Clarks, a family firm established in 1825, sells over 50 million pairs of shoes each year worldwide. In its British home market the Somerset-based company has had a reputation for reliable but not especially stylish shoes for several decades now. It’s tended to be seen as a comfortable and sensible choice of footwear for the very young and very old.
Very recently the brand has caught the eye of some fashionistas, with a fashion editors noting that both Rihanna and Florence Welsh have been buying pairs. Clarks hasn’t often caught the attention of the stylish in its domestic market. But in overseas markets Clarks has long been seen in a more stylish light. In Jamaica the brand name is frequently referenced in Dancehall music, with the first such reference thought to date back to John Dillinger’s 1976 tune “CB200” which was a huge hit in Jamaica.
Since then, Jamaican ‘rude boys’ and dancehall stars have continued to sing Clarks’ praises. In his eponymous 2010 hit, Clarks, MC Vybz Kartel not only attested to their durability and stylishness but he also included tips for keeping the suede looking tidy, including the use of a toothbrush for scrubbing the more hard to reach areas.
Clarks breathable footwear are a practical choice in the Jamaican climate and their appeal has been fairly enduring. In fact, they remain one of the most popular gifts for Jamaican record producers visiting the UK to take back home with them.
Clarks also enjoyed a revival in the 90s when RZA, a member of the hip-hop supergroup Wu Tang Clan, claimed to have over 20 pairs of Clarks Wallabees. Co-member Method Man rapped about being “the best thing since stocks in Clark Wallabees” in their hit single Gravel Pit, further adding to their appeal.
British-based Kangol – worn by British troops throughout WWII – enjoyed similar cachet, albeit for a briefer period, when rapper LL Cool J burst onto the rap music scene wearing one in the mid-eighties. The trend endured through the nineties when Oasis band members were rarely seen without one.
Superdry in Germany
Superdry has enjoyed higher levels of success in Germany than anticipated. The brand doesn’t advertise, and is often perceived to be Japanese rather than British in origin.
It’s especially strong in menswear and has been worn by British celebs such as David Beckham. It’s got a following among youngish men and teenagers, and is a cheaper alternative to other preppy brands such as Jack Wills. Whilst it’s seen in the UK as a vendor of jackets and hoodies, in Germany it’s seen as a fairly sporty label. Within 5 years of opening the first German store, there will soon be 30 in Germany alone. More are planned across the rest of Europe.
Guardian fashion editor Imogen Fox describes the clothes as “unisex, ubiquitous yet anonymous; sporty yet not technical; designed but not designer” and dismisses them as “sporty in a way that appeals to people who like the idea of snowboarding but who don’t actually go”.
Some of the reason for its success may be due to the fact that it’s hard to pin down exactly what the brand stands for – designs often reference both Americana and Japanese script and cover a wide range of styles. As a result it appeals to a wide range of people.
Superdry has been expanding across Europe over the last few years and is about to tackle China. It’s been helped by the fact that many off-duty celebs have been papped wearing Superdry to pick up their coffees. But it’s pertinent that these celebrities often appeal to a range of consumers. Starlets such as Justin Bieber, Vanessa Hudgens and Kylie Jenner, both recognisable to a teen audience, have been seen wearing the clothes.
The Superdry label is an affordable way for young shoppers to wear what these stars choose. But stars with more grown up appeal, such as Jamie Oliver, have also been seen in the label. Superdry is capitalising on its appeal to a mature demographic by a partnership with Idris Elba, a global star often praised for his sense of style. Whilst the brand has been criticised as not standing for anything in particular, the fact it’s hard to pidgeon-hole may be the reason why it has appealed to a wide audience.
British men: popular abroad
Snaggle-toothed British men also seem to be a thriving export from Britain to the States – with UK talent snatching some of Hollywood’s best roles. The trend for British actors to be disproportionately represented in Hollywood was first spotted in 2004 after an unshaven Hugh Laurie became a slightly unexpected heart throb (and the highest paid small screen actor) for his role in TV drama House.
Although female actors don’t seem to be quite as successful across the pond, British men have recently filled major superhero roles. There’s been an English Spiderman and a Welsh Batman, and the most recent Superman was educated in England. That’s especially surprising when you consider that British men used to be Hollywood’s nationality of choice when it came to casting screen baddies, such as Alan Rickman’s memorable roles in Die Hard and as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Kevin Costner’s 1991 Robin Hood.
With Daniel Day Lewis portraying Abraham Lincoln and David Oyelowo playing Martin Luther King some of America’s biggest heroes have recently been portrayed by Brits. This trend is due to continue, with Hackney-living Michael Fassbender (whose mother is from Northern Ireland) playing US tech legend Steve Jobs in an upcoming biopic. Some Hollywood figures have started asking why home-grown actors haven’t the skills to carry off major dramatic roles.
But the most serious export success the UK entertainment industry has achieved in recent years has been by the music industry. British boyband One Direction has succeeded where many other UK bands have failed by making a huge splash in the States. They were the first British band to go straight in at number one with their first album; something that other high-selling UK acts such as Westlife and Boyzone just couldn’t manage.
Other UK acts such as Adele have also sold extremely well overseas. Music industry aficionados generally attribute the success or failure of British entertainment exports to the state of competition in the US. Whilst previous boybands weren’t able to compete against US versions such as N Sync or the Backstreet Boys, it’s thought One Direction’s huge sales in the US could be related to the teen market tiring of Justin Bieber.
Hollywood is questioning whether its home grown actors were receiving rigorous enough acting training, with Spike Lee suggesting that British actors were being taught better skills than their US counterparts. British actors also seem to have a particular talent for US accents, with many pundits praising Idris Elba’s Baltimore accent in crime drama The Wire and some suggestions that this is due to vocal training.
Another viewpoint was recently put forward by actress Helen Mirren. In a recent attack on the culture of the Hollywood film industry, the veteran actress complained about the unrealistic body standards with many male actors spending hours in the gym to achieve an unreal body shape, and many female actors being cast on their looks. Possibly it’s a desire for ‘authentic’ British looks that mean many male actors such as scrawny Tom Hiddlestone and the jolie laide Benedict Cumberbatch have become unexpected heart throbs to a US audience.
There may be a lesson in these entertainment industry successes that apply to wider British businesses. London-based brand expert Allyson Stewart-Allen, originally from the US, suggests that brands that can embody British stereotypes, including personality, character, craftsmanship and eccentricity, will be the ones that achieve most traction overseas.
She points to the success of traditional-sounding British names such as Charles Tyrwhitt in communicating a sense of tradition and quality, and design quirkiness from sources such as Vivienne Westwood. Authenticity and a lack of obvious polish may perhaps be some of the reason for the success of many British exports to the US. But this is coupled with the knowledge that British firms are known to have a strong track record of quality and innovation, and to operate within a stable legal and political framework.
The power of Brand Britain
A recent piece of research published by Barclays identified that consumers in developing economies were prepared to pay up to 7% extra for goods made in Britain. At least half of respondents in eight UK export markets surveyed said they perceived British goods to be of good or very good quality. What’s interesting is that this cachet was attached specifically to Britain: goods specifically identified as English, Welsh or Scottish scored less well.
Barclays also identified that emerging markets are particularly interested in quality, which Britain was seen as being especially adept at supplying. According to a study by Deloitte, 65% of Chinese and Indian middle-class consumers showed evidence of wanting to buy more British-made products. By contrast, only a third of French and German consumers showed the same interest in UK exports.
This suggests that many British brands are managing to convey desirable qualities amongst middle classes in emerging markets – even if they are perceived in a different light at home. The key to capitalising on this success is to develop a unique brand proposition based not only on local culture and the desires and preferences of local consumers but also on brand perception in these markets.