Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Laura Ashley blooms

Laura Ashley is doing better than expected. Shares are soaring.

Laura Ashley started with Bernard and Laura experimenting at home with fabric printing in 1953. Over time they produced more, got some retailers to stock their work, and expanded their family and products. By 1967 they were producing fabric in quantity and had opened shops. Their dresses were very much 'on trend' as minis gave way to romantic maxis in the late 1960s.

I remember visiting the Laura Ashley shop in Bath in around 1970/71. It was a dreamy place of gypsy style flounce and floral ecstasy. I bought a white scooped-neck cotton top, with little pin tucks and a bobbly edge around the neck. It tied at the waist with a bit of ribbon, rather in the style of a Victorian undergarment. I loved it. (Above, how I thought I looked, a Laura Ashley ad from the 70s)

Today, three quarters of their sales come from home furnishings. It's interesting to see how a brand, through various ups and downs, not least the tragic death of Laura in 1985, can subtly shift its centre of gravity to retain/regain success.

Through focus, a brand can build a meaning above and beyond its product deliverable. Brand elasticity has long been a measure of whether you have a real brand or just a great product. Would you buy an Apple chair? Sounds intriguing and cool. Apple have stretched beautifully from personal computer to music player to online media shop (at least). Virgin is a classic brand across markets (if a little rocky in places now). You can see brands standing for something more than - or at least different to - their core product. Sometimes, something visual becomes the trigger for the brand feeling. Paul Smith's stripes are now enough for me to think 'elegant British tailoring with a twist' - whatever they are on. And some brands have to use their bit of elasticity to shift. There's not a whiff of cigarette smoke around Dunhill now.

Laura Ashley was never really about buying a dress, there was a whole evocative depth of feeling as you slipped into your ditsy floral or linen underwear. This was eroded over time by management, design and outside fashion influences. But there is still an idea and warm feeling conjured up in the (right) customers' minds when they think of the brand. And for them the slight shift to a less ephemeral purchase, a more solid statement of style over fashion (with printed fabric at its core), is perfect for their slightly older, perhaps more considered, selves. So buying a lovely armchair or some elegantly coordinated cushions taps into the Laura Ashley thing, but represents a more reliable and, yes, profitable market for the brand. Good work.