The story of Clarks began almost 200 years ago when Cyrus and James Clark made a slipper from sheepskin off-cuts. At the time, it was "ground-breaking" and "a combination of invention and craftsmanship", according to the British footwear brand's own narrative.
But when one is almost twice the age of a centenarian, one tends to walk a little clumsily, or sometimes trip and fall over.
In its full-year results for 2017, the shoemaker's pre-tax profits, already hit by American tax reforms and Brexit troubles, fell from £63.7 million to £45.2 million (US$59.4 million).
Clarks closed all of its 25 outlets in Indonesia at the end of February, falling prey to high rents and import duties.
The family-owned company also gave its CEO, Mike Shearwood, the boot last month after his "conduct, conversations and expressions fell short of the behaviours expected of all its employees on a number of occasions". Clarks has named Stella David, formerly senior independent director, as the interim chief executive officer.
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While the lumbering Clarks seems to keep falling from grace, a company spokesperson, assisted by its PR agency Porter Novelli, told Campaign that the Clarks business across Asia is "actually growing strongly" and "seeing double-digit growth" with almost 500 stores across the region and an Asia hub in Singapore being established. According to Clarks, China is now its third-largest market, growing sales at constant exchange rates by 11.2% year-on-year in 2017/18, thanks to the success of its Tmall shop.
Clarks said it is attracting new customers through its sub-branding approach, which builds on the core Clarks brand: Cloudsteppers and Clarks Originals, and activating globally its latest ‘Comfort in your soul’ campaign, which features MMA fighter and model Mia Kang and was shot entirely in Hong Kong.
While our UK sister site also conducted a brand health check of Clarks coincidentally 10 years ago, we now speak to four APAC-based experts about what the brand should do to recover its footing in Asia.
Head of Strategy
Clarks is in a space where there is potential for growth but the brand needs to experiment with new methods of reaching their consumers. Internet retailing saw the fastest growth in the distribution of footwear, rising by a CAGR of 30% over 2012-2017, outpacing overall growth of footwear sales in Asia Pacific at 4% over the same period (Euromonitor). Clarks has made investments in digital transformation and it would be great to see those bear fruit.
To help the perception of the brand, the company should communicate its plans for both business and digital transformation. Consumers had issues not just with the misconduct of employees but with some of the values expressed through Clarks’ products, marketing and communications - as evidenced by the Dolly Babe debacle they faced last year.
The brand, with its nearly 200 years of heritage, cannot run the risk of staying out of touch. It needs a meaningful facelift and it's a journey I'd recommend they share with their customers.
It had, until recently, been enough to see them perform fairly well in a number of Asian markets. The 'Asian consumer' is becoming more discerning and brands have to look at building 'human-centred experiences' properly built (not adapted) and anchored in an understanding of the consumers they serve.
Country Manager, Greater China
Clarks is a brand with a long history. We all agreed that Clarks’ products and offerings are good from the comments of customers. Its major challenge now is how to maintain its classic image but show a difference in its style, and educate its target audience on its innovation.
Localisation in its brand building is needed as Asia Pacific is a complex region with varied cultures and languages. A well-planned brand management strategy needs to be formulated and executed in the region to tell target customers what Clarks is and what its values are. There are several classic brands doing great in the region that Clarks can learn from, such as Redwing.
It's all about how to put the right content in the right channel. Clarks’ communication in the region is mainly about sales and new product releases. Its major digital efforts in the region are also in the online marketplaces but not much on other touchpoints. It needs to enhance its content marketing strategy over different digital channels to reappraise their Clarks brand, especially focusing on how to make youngsters appreciate the brand.
Senior Partner, Asia Regional Lead
Clarks has unfortunately experienced a couple of missteps such as the misconduct probe and gender inequality in its school shoe line, but I’m not sure either is responsible for a slowdown in growth. From the outside, it appears that Clarks needs to modernise both its business and brand to compete in the highly-competitive footwear market in Asia.
- On the business side, Clarks needs to quickly evolve into an omni-channel player, moving away from its offline roots. E-commerce is driving a significant amount of footwear growth in Asia and those brands that have been slow to undertake a digital transformation (e.g. Clarks and Belle) have suffered.
- On the brand side, Clarks needs to develop a sharper perspective on who it wants to target and what it wants to stand for. Clarks struggles to balance its rich heritage with a desire to be more modern. It is always difficult for a brand like Clarks that has a rich heritage to walk away from its history. It is caught in the middle. Clarks’ modernisation effort is quite obvious through its product innovation (Trigenic series) and crossover marketing (Clarks x Supreme, Clarks x Star Wars, Clarks x Marvel, etc.). However, its brand messaging emphasises its two-hundred-year history (tagline: footwear since 1825) instore and online, which is against the efforts to become younger as it keeps reminding consumers of its legacy that causes confusion in consumers’ minds.
I do think that Clarks should look to other Western footwear brands that have been successful in Asia. A good example is Skechers. When Skechers first entered China, the brand was only associated with professionalism and comfort, and it had nothing to do with youthfulness and fashion.
Positioning-wise, over the years, it kept sharpening its focus to be around female-oriented, casual, sporty footwear instead of the professional sports gear space which was dominated by Nike and Adidas.
Pricing-wise, Skechers made it accessible for mid-to-lower tier income/city consumers who are eager to try international brands.
Marketing-wise, Skechers actively recruits local endorsers, creates buzz via sponsoring reality shows and contests such as 'Idol Producer' to build relevance with today’s youths.
Chief Strategy Officer
McCann Worldgroup, China
Today’s consumers in China are exposed to an environment where product options from all over the world are laid in front of their eyes. They have the choice to shop locally if tax isn’t an issue, or on cross-border commerce platforms from any desired country at their fingertips. When shopping is more convenient than ever, what stands out in this fiercely-competitive red ocean, has gone from pure functional or material benefits to emotional value.
When you look around for brands that successfully connect with consumers, both internationally and locally (e.g. Jiang Xiao Bai江小白, LeChun乐纯, BaiQueLing百雀羚, Nike, Adidas, Gucci, and Starbucks), you will find that they prioritise brand belief over product function.
For Clarks, whose product quality already has a reputation in the market, start thinking about what it believes in to make the world better, and gestures to put it in action. According to our 'Truth About Global Brands' study, 32% of Chinese consumers believe that brands have the capability to make the country and community they operate in a better place. It’s time for Clarks to reconnect with its audience on this. Most of Clarks’ B2C communication in this market has been around product benefits and never around brand beliefs. Consumers have a difficult time relating to the brand.
What 'moments' do Clark own in a consumer's life and can play uniquely to solve a certain problem? What does Clark believe in? Essentially, it’s a combination of value marketing + product marketing + service marketing, not one of the three.
There’s a couple of things a competitor brand, Ecco, did well in China. Ecco is firm with its brand image. It is not trying to be sporty or luxurious, but took up the 'atheleisure' category very early on. It worked with the hottest celebrities of the moment and is very good at riding on trends.
If I were to force a reappraisal or revamp of Clarks' marketing strategy, firstly, I would definitely sit down with the brand and crack its brand value proposition and purpose. Secondly, if Ecco owns athleisure moments, while Asics/Nike/Addidas/UnderArmor each owns a sports moment, what does Clark own? What is the white space to take over, or to be created by Clarks?
These must be thought through before any attempt of trying out new digital creativity in order to be cool. Consumers in today’s market are quite cruel; they know when a brand really studies and understands them, versus a brand that's just 'trying too hard'.