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Jack Wills’ failure to ‘prep’ is why its future is in doubt

‘Preppy’ high-street retailer Jack Wills is in financial difficulties following a period of losses. In challenging times for retailers, the company has suffered with a weak pound and has been burning through cash. But consistently declining sales suggest the problem with Jack Wills’ is one of its own making.

To stay in business in these turbulent times, thriving retailers ensure their brand offers an experience that is highly relevant to their target audience. They adopt an attitude of constant reinvention that reaches from the marketing to product teams, keeps the brand differentiated and always authentic. This requires ongoing, real-time conversations with your customers. Look at Zara, Nike or H&M group’s brands, ever-evolving to encompass issues that shoppers care about, from hot styles through to social issues like production values and gender equality. Is your brand still relevant to the intended audience and their evolving expectations? Are you fulfilling their needs?

Back in the early noughties, Jack Wills was the brand of choice for well-healed British teens in the UK: a British Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F). It sourced young ‘Seasonnaires’ based on their good looks to promote the brand in ski resorts and at beach parties: successful brand experiences and marketing techniques at the time. But at the root of the brand was the cultivation of cliquey elitism: in education, looks and spending power. And like Abercrombie & Fitch, this would gradually grow to be unappealing to an evolving teen audience.

Abercrombie & Fitch positioned itself as purveyors of clothes to the teen market in the past. It was very clear what its brand stood for: its strategy was exclusivity. Then-CEO Mike Jeffries put it plainly: “Candidly, we go after the cool kids… A lot of people don’t belong in our clothes, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

In 2008, following the recession, sales slumped and the brand began to face other problems. Teenagers of the mid-00s grew up without Twitter storms, hashtag-led campaigns and social media. If the customer base of an adolescent-focused brand grows up, the next generation might not be on the same page. Now, American teens value diversity and equality more than before and are alienated by the unapologetic elitism of A&F campaigns.

In 2016, Jack Wills was still referring to themselves as ‘Outfitters to the Gentry’, with elitist, cliquey values in an increasingly egalitarian, post-recession Britain. It seems they had failed to check in with their teenage target audience, who were increasingly interested in technology and the access it gave them to the hyper-agile fast fashion houses offering ever-changing wares at far lower price points.

Casual brand Superdry has also been struggling with sales, as their early adopters have aged and the company has failed to replicate the excitement about their brand with the next generation.

How can they turn it around?

Perhaps there is time for Jack Wills to learn the lesson that Abercrombie & Fitch had to. In 2014, A&F finally accepted they had to change, and brought in a new team at the top. A new tone of voice, messaging and creative has made campaigns more diverse and aligned with universal activities, like travel and falling in love – a far cry from the scantily clad and provocative scenes of the past. They ditched the moose, and revived a historic monogram, emblematic of change within. The new strategy was rewarded with net sales up 5% year-on-year in 2017.

In order to win in times of constant change, it is advisable to embrace the change and harness its power. Brand should be a tool you can rely upon to help you make decisions for the future. You should not be purely customer-led, but should be considering what changing customer tastes or expectations mean for your brand. How can your brand be adapted to stay relevant for audiences whilst remaining authentic to who you are? By being clear on who you are and using a spirit of constant reinvention to interpret it in new and relevant ways all the time.