Aquascutum: The Missed Opportunity

Aquascutum missed

Aquascutum’s entry into administration has been treated with a surprising degree of alarm. Fashion reporters have called the decline of the brand a “travesty”; unions have slammed the red-button pusher Harold Tillman as ‘Aqua scum.’ However this is not the end of a brand recently thrown into financial turmoil. The reality is that Aquascutum has struggled to make a dime for years and has been declining for over a decade. The death has been one of agonising slow-motion. The writing was not only on the wall, it was fading and the wall itself gathering moss.

Despite this I still feel rather sad, as a Briton, at the demise of yet another historic British retailer. Of course, the Aquascutum story will go on. Before YGM Trading effectively agreed to purchase the stores and global brand rights a few days ago, there were more than 70 offers; scarcely surprising since 160 year old names don’t come up for sale every five minutes. Though some are disappointed to see a British brand no longer under British ownership, I have no doubt that whoever buys it will invest heavily in inventory improvement, marketing and product placement and association.

The really frustrating thing about the whole saga is how everyone compares their story to Burberry. The simplistic diagnosis is that Burberry won the rain mac war – and this resulted in ruin for Aquascutum. Well, not quite. Both companies are synonymous with rainwear and Burberry has undoubtedly been the more successful of the two companies in this regard, but Burberry did something that Aquascutum never did; Burberry went and got famous.

And not only did Burberry get famous, Burberry capitalised on its fame. When a brand becomes famous, opportunities for low cost, high revenue product lines open up. Most importantly, Burberry developed fame for the right reasons; after cutting off its rotten limbs (chav-tastic baseball caps and scarves) it delivered a clean bill of health to luxury buyers around the world. The message was serious; we’re big, we’re luxury – and you want us. Burberry became successful through fame because it marketed itself steadily as a high-end brand, with a history of producing the highest quality goods, sold in the highest quality emporiums with smart concessions and smart addresses.

Capitalising on its name came naturally for Burberry. Accessories (non-apparel) and licensed perfumes cost Burberry peanuts – and make them a fortune. Non-apparel made over £560m in revenue for Burberry in 2011 and is the highest growing product category in their inventory. Such revenues provide the support needed for elite lines such as Burberry Prorsum, which allows it to hog the limelight at high profile fashion events and maintain the exclusivity of the brand. While some of Prorsum is interesting and well-designed, most of it is fanciful (in conceit and price). But it doesn’t matter though; it’s ‘designer’, it’s Bond Street, it’s luxury and it gave Burberry the right image to expand the inventory into the traditional, line-‘em-round-the-block, money-printing areas like fragrance, belts and handbags.

Aquascutum had the basics right, a core offering and an historic product – much like Louis Vuitton – but, crucially, it did not have the right image. It was too staid, too English, not ‘designer’ – and not Bond Street. Burberry did not design the iconic mac; Burberry designed the iconic brand.

And what of it? Does the world need another Burberry? Most certainly not. Aquascutum might share some history with Burberry, but it should not focus on sharing its future. Aquascutum accessories of dubious origin languish in discount stores like the House of Hanover off Regent Street; more of the same, wherever it is made and whatever the cost, is not going to provide them with a sustainable business because people just aren’t buying it.

I don’t believe that Aquascutum should completely modernise but I think the new owners need to evaluate why it needs to exist; the best brands of today are those that people ‘want’ and elevate to the degree of ‘need.’ Apple is excellent at this and has managed to convince a huge number of people that they ‘need’ what it has to offer. Though detestable, Abercrombie & Fitch is brilliant in engendering a similar ‘need.’

To an extent, however cynical it might be, most people are in need of their “little bit of luxury”, their “day of designer.” I think that the thinkers at Aquascutum have known this for ages as the push for branding every line, using the (less) famous Aquascutum check and marketing in high-end media has been relentless – and ruinously expensive. The missing ingredient has been what Burberry almost lost in their period of association with low-end consumers, the sort of thing you’d think a brand worn by Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart should never lack; ‘designer magic.’