Brand Health Check: French Connection

LONDON - The retailer is still struggling to see off fast-fashion and supermarket competition.

French Connection's split with its designer label Nicole Fahri almost mirrored the break-up of the relationship of the fashion chain's boss, Stephen Marks, and Nicole Fahri herself, some years previously.

Although French Connection has narrowed its losses on last year, Marks was forced to take drastic action aside from selling the Fahri label, which had been part of the group since 1982, to private-equity group Open Gate Capital. Declaring 2009 a 'tough year', he also closed the chain's loss-making US stores. Marks said the disposals would provide 'a solid base from which to develop the retained brands'.

Nonetheless, despite an improvement in its womenswear sales, up 4.8% on a same-store basis, the chain's menswear lines continued to underperform last year, raising questions over its long-term brand health.

It seems timely that French Connection recently launched its first brand ad campaign since 2006. The lightweight activity, created by Fallon, uses black-and-white imagery and highlights the characteristics of men and women. It marks a dramatic shift from its long-running and slightly daring, if latterly rather tired, FCUK campaign that, arguably, came to blight the brand.

However is this enough? What other action should Marks take to see off the competition and avoid the need to dispose of any more of the business?

We asked Adrian Thomas, head of retail at integrated agency Billington Cartmell, and Nick Gillett, managing director of digital agency Tangent One, who has worked on the Boots account.

ADRIAN THOMAS, head of retail, Billington Cartmell

The young are fickle; their attention span limited. They want to discover things first, or at least be credited with rediscovering them.

While the original impact of FCUK worked, customers grew up and moved on. Yet, as the seasons passed, FCUK remained the dominant force and the new generation was not turned on by yesterday's brand quippery.

Wearing a T-shirt proclaiming a mock profanity in block capitals wasn't cool anymore and the brand itself meant little else. It was no longer new and exciting -no longer a relevant way to talk to the audience.

French Connection needs to put the FCUK brand firmly behind it, look back to its core brand and rediscover itself. It claims some great values: quality and affordability (surely solid cornerstones at the tail-end of a recession?), design and innovation - essential to stay relevant and retain fashion at the heart of what the brand does.

FCUK is about only those four letters. French Connection, however, is bigger than that.

REMEDY

- Lead the way, not just by creating the must-have clothes season to season (or at least a showcase piece which really demonstrates the brand values), but engaging a new audience with a new, relevant message in a new, relevant way.

- Be brave enough to lose FCUK and reinvent the brand with an expression rooted in the French Connection heritage.

- Make a real connection. Deliver a 360 degs experience of a clear, credible, brand proposition through a fully integrated approach to everything from cinema to store.

NICK GILLETT, managing director, Tangent One

Once, French Connection was a maker of simple, elegant, mid-priced clothes for men and women. With the help of Trevor Beattie, the brand discovered that its trademark looked a bit like a swearword, and so was born a revolutionary period in the brand's history as it transformed itself from tidy niche player into mainstream monster.

Its previous understatement was replaced by ranges of logo-on-the-outside clothing, playing on weak double entendres and putting it in direct competition with titans like Top Man. This was a much tougher and more ruthless high-street market and one it was poorly equipped to take on.

Although French Connection pulled it off for a few years, its single stroke of advertising intuition and a bit of naughty copywriting weren't enough to sustain a business. Despite distancing itself from the positioning and a return to calling itself French Connection, its success waned rapidly, leaving a damaged company with a weakened brand.

REMEDY

- Product really matters. Good advertising works for only so long on its own; a return to honest, well-made clothing will go a long way.

- Its former edginess looked contrived and tired. Rather than attempting anything as extreme (and prone to divide opinion) the brand needs to rediscover its heritage - possibly something involving a connection to the French?

- A good way to create an impression of openness and authenticity is to use social media. A community dedicated to non-flashy clothes that don't fall apart neatly captures the mood and is an antidote to the sweatshop-made, self-destructing tat sold by certain other high-street fashion retailers.

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