Aquascutum, venerable maker of stylish raincoats for over 150 years, is in administration. As this is the second time in almost as many years that it is in stormy financial waters, it may be said that they are better at shielding you from water than they are at protecting themselves. At time of typing, YGM, the Hong Kong based owners of Aquascutum’s Asian rights are exploring the possibility of buying the entire brand.
Sadly, one suspects this may result in downward pressure on quality in order to restore margins, and a general exploitation of the brand. As an owner of Aquascutum raincoats and overcoats, I would personally regret such an outcome. But are there any other possibilities? And why has Aquascutum been unable to be profitable?
The latter issue is fairly easy to understand. Aquascutum has always been an mid-to-upper market player, heavily focused on the rainwear segment. That is the model that kept in business for so many decades but it is no longer sustainable for two very simple reasons; fewer men wear raincoats regularly and the middle-market in general has been squeezed in favour of a polarisation of sales towards either niche high-end luxury brands or bargain basement low-cost retailers. This reflects the current development path of our societies in general. Aquascutum has been stuck in a no-man’s land.
It has tried various strategies to escape this trap, but they have been highly contradictory and poorly followed through. For instance, it spent a lot of money developing non-rainwear lines, but never marketed them aggressively. And it attempted to position itself as a luxury brand while having more discount outlets in its portfolio than it has proper shops, not to mention the less-than-stellar concessions it has in too many middling department stores.
It has never been able to decide what it really wants to be, diluting the brand’s identify in the eyes of consumers across the world.
A rescue strategy will have to make some fundamental decisions: do they want to take Aquascutum upmarket? Or do they want to make it a mass market brand?
In my opinion, it would find life as a mass market brand impossible. Theoretically, production could be aggressively offshored, more lines added and an attempt made to milk any latent value in the brand to the general consumer by having a small halo line of top quality products above a large range of far less impressive merchandise. This is the Burberry school of brand development. It has worked for them (more or less), but it is expensive and risky, especially with Burberry already a large presence in the same marketplace. I fear Aquascutum has simply left it too late to compete with them in this arena.
It would be better served by shrinking and focusing on a pure luxury identity. Keep production in England, focus on rainwear/outerwear/related items, drastically reduce the number of discount outlets & department store concessions, and ensure the one or two full retail locations that remain exude quality, brand pedigree and personalised service. Turnover would be a lot lower, but margins could be restored and the brand might have a fighting chance. Aquascutum now needs to be aspirational luxury to survive.
Are there any other options? Has Aquascutum simply left it too late? And is there life left in the middle class, mid-market segment generally?