Then there is my friend Tony who, to everyone's annoyance, has remained remarkably fit. In fact, he is probably thinner now than when we were playing football together in 1989. Go out for a beer with Tony and you inevitably end up feeling like a fat, bloated heart attack waiting to happen. On one particularly rough night, I was actually mistaken for his father.
The lesson here is that everything is relative. This applies just as well to brands as it does to overweight columnists. Take Swedish fashion retailer H&M, for example. By most accounts the brand is in great shape. The problem for H&M is that it is inevitably compared to its major rival, the Inditex group from Spain, which owns several retail brands, including Zara, and recently overtook H&M to become Europe's biggest clothing retailer.
While H&M will add another 100 stores to its network by the end of this year, Inditex is opening one a day and will end 2006 with almost three times as many outlets as its Swedish rival. H&M can feel pleased with a share price that has increased by 25% over the past year - until it compares it with the 50% increase in the value of Inditex stock over the same period. The biggest headache for H&M is that its in-store sales were flat for the first half of 2006. Meanwhile, you-know-who saw its sales grow by 5% over the same period.
Go beyond the current numbers and the inherent superiority of Inditex continues. H&M has extremely efficient relationships with its suppliers that enable it to source fast fashion at relatively low prices. It is a distribution network that would make most other retailers green with envy - except for Inditex, which manufactures most of its own clothes in Spain. This cuts its costs even further, slashes the time it takes to get products to market, and avoids the tariff issues and import quotas that are likely to afflict H&M in the next year.
Then there is brand architecture. H&M is a classic 'branded house'. Everything is monobranded with the H&M logo. Even when Karl Lagerfeld or Stella McCartney have designed collections for the retailer, they were billed as working 'for H&M'. No sub-branding here. While a branded house confers focus and relative savings in brand-building, it can also restrict growth, diversity and risk-taking over the long term.
In contrast, its Spanish rival runs a classic 'house of brands'. Inditex is the parent company for a range of eight brands that includes Zara, Massimo Dutti, Lefties and Oysho. This allows it to target different segments, experiment with different approaches and also share the lessons across its growing portfolio of brands. The ability to manage multiple brands also opens up the possibility of growth through merger and acquisition in the future.
Perhaps the relative success of Inditex and its brand architecture are the reasons behind the bold new initiative that H&M recently announced. Next spring, the company will launch an upper-market brand that will retail high-fashion products. The as-yet unnamed chain of stores will open across Europe and, it is rumoured, include a flagship outlet on London's Regent Street.
It could be a recipe for disaster. A company used to targeting young, cash-strapped shoppers with accessible, low-priced products all monobranded with a single identity suddenly switches gear. From mass fashion to premium lines. From branded house to house of brands. Inditex was always going to look a better bet in 2007. H&M might just make it look better still.
30 SECONDS ON ... INDITEX
- Inditex has 3000 outlets in 64 countries on four continents. At the end of its 2005 financial year, 310 of these stores were franchises. Its consolidated turnover in 2005 was EUR6741m, with a net profit of EUR803m.
- The group employs almost 60,000 people. Its brands are Zara, Kiddy's Class/Skhuaban, Pull and Bear, Massimo Dutti, Stradivarius, Oysho, Bershka and Zara Home.
- Zara was founded in 1975 and now has 900 stores in 61 countries. It has a home-furnishings spin-off, Zara Home.
- Children's fashion chain Skhuaban (Kiddy's Class in Spain and Portugal) has more than 150 stores. Pull and Bear sells youth-oriented casualwear in 23 countries.
- Bershka, founded in 1998, targets the young female market. In 2002 it added men's fashions and it now has more than 390 stores in 22 countries.
- Lingerie chain Oysho has more than 170 stores in 10 countries.