Service industry

Sara Manuelli asks UK ceramics manufacturer Wedgwood how it managed to turn around a steep decline in sales, while Mike Exon maps out the current structure of the business

Imagine a brand, prominent for 250 years, and steeped in the values of heritage, tradition and craft. Sure, it produces precious and affordable ceramics, but why should consumers covet its products above other labels that are fashionable, exciting and quite frankly, more modern?

In 1998, Wedgwood faced a dilemma. The ceramics industry as a whole was going through a difficult phase, with jobs being cut in its production heartland, Stoke-on-Trent. The collapse of the once favourable Asian market – due to a strong Pound and the Japanese economic recession – plus a sluggish market at home, had led to a 5 per cent drop in Wedgwood’s sales.

New demographics and lifestyle changes revealed why the business was being hit hard. The decline in marriage rates was affecting wedding list sales. Even worse, the rise of an affluent culture of single consumers and the death of formal dining were revolutionising the market for tableware. People were earning more, spending more and eating out more. A fine bone china set could no longer sell just because of its exquisite patterns.

Faced with these daunting statistics, Wedgwood decided to shake off its old “blue and white” image, and reposition itself as a contemporary, luxury brand. It still wanted to exude a quintessential “Englishness”, but the way forward called for a more effective design package.

At the end of 1997, Jill Sharrock was headhunted by Wedgwood from her job at textile company Colefax & Fowler to become its creative director. Asked why she decided to swap her glamorous location in London’s Mayfair for a permanent base in the Potteries, Sharrock admits she accepted out of greediness. “I decided to say yes, because Wedgwood had a huge international appeal and it was so big. There was much you could do; nowhere else would I have had the opportunity to change a whole design studio, a whole briefing system, bring in things such as colour-trend tracking and work with sales and marketing,” she says.

Sharrock initially brought in Richard Eagleton, previously at luxury goods brand Dunhill, as her managing director. Eagleton in turn introduced her to Dale Russell, of Cambridge-based design consultancy Russell Studio. Russell, who specialises in concept, strategy and new product development, had previously worked with Eagleton at Dunhill. Her main job was to research the Wedgwood customer, identifying types across age, status and nationality. Sharrock commissioned her to create “a new design strategy and lead a team working on the major new product development programme, which would take the brand into the next millennium with an innovative mix of design, and traditional and contemporary lifestyle.”

“We had to understand the lifestyle philosophy, identify a design language and bring that through to the products,” says Russell. The question was how to create new products for existing Wedgwood customers. “Demand was slowly dying,” says Russell. The company had to change its offering and tap into the contemporary consumer’s needs. “We analysed changing demographics such as single households, joint mortgages and the change in rituals,” says Russell. Importantly, Wedgwood realised that it could reposition itself as a gift brand, since there was a whole consumer segment that still bought beautiful objects to celebrate events such as the birth of children, even without a religious ceremony.

Other considerations included “looking at the positioning of luxury [brands], new ways of working with materials, and [researching] our eating habits”, says Russell. British consumers’ increasing awareness of pan-global cuisine, the rise of gastronomes across the country, and a general hedonistic mood, meant that good eating was becoming a social and popular affair. Hence the bowl as an epitome of the new Wedgwood style.

“The bowl symbolises the many ways of eating, from cereal in the morning, to soup and global food in the evening,” explains Russell.

The global allure of the Wedgwood brand was something to consider carefully. The brand’s main three markets, the UK, Japan and the US, all had different requirements. “In Japan, where we compete with luxury brands, Wedgwood has the equivalent cult status of a Louis Vuitton bag,” says Sharrock. More importantly, Wedgwood is a gift and product brand that sells ceramics, cutlery and bed linen, as well as jewellery. A boutique retail concept further promotes Wedgwood as a lifestyle brand.

In Japan, Wedgwood thrives on its reputation for pretty, preciously crafted, dainty items. In the US, the brand is perceived as “an old history brand”, says Sharrock. Because of the country’s fascination with history and heritage, Wedgwood exemplifies glorious English style, explaining perhaps the puzzling choice of Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, as its official US ambassador. “Giftware is very different. They like bold, big pieces,” says Sharrock. Tableware is also culturally specific. “Americans like the formality of dressing the table with items like white damask tablecloths,” she says.

Wedgwood, which has a total of about 200 ranges, usually tailors the design of a collection to a country. “Local differences can cross over trends, but then there are nitty gritty bits in each market,” she explains. “In an ideal world we would like to create a range that cuts across the world,” she adds. And when that happens, it’s big business.

With innovation as the way forward, Sharrock has put new design firmly back on the agenda. Design consultancy The Partners, which has worked with Wedgwood since 1994, was brought in to reposition the brand and create a new identity, launched in 1997. The consultancy is also responsible for Wedgwood’s advertising campaign, “Wedgwouldn’t, Wedgwood”, launched last September. Anne Ritchie was brought in as a design consultant for international colour-trend tracking, and Sarah Charles as Wedgwood’s display director for all the company’s exhibition designs. A dream team of designers, comprising Nick Munro, Paul Costelloe and Michael Sodeau, was commissioned to create new ranges, all launched between 1999 and 2000, with commercial success. Future collections by the same designers, and possible collaborations with other undisclosed, but well regarded names in the design industry, prove that the next year could be even more exciting.

Most importantly, Sharrock has restructured the design studio. A 1960s architectural folly sited in the Wedgwood grounds, pre-Sharrock era it used to be a claustrophobic, badly maintained structure. She has pulled out most of the “wedge”-shaped rooms and turned it into an airy, bright space, buzzing with production. “It’s important for visual people such as designers to work in a space like this – before we looked like gardeners working in a shed,” she says.

Today, the in-house design team contains 34 designers, headed by four senior designers – Sarah Barker, Simon Stevens, Keeley Traae and Louise Rosie – who are either trained in shape or pattern design. “Over the past five years, we totally restructured the way we do business,” Sharrock explains. “We changed the balance in age and skills within the team. We now work in creative teams and try to maintain a certain element of college experimentalism. Senior designers lead the four families. We use the diving term “buddying up”, so each external designer [brought in] is buddied with a senior designer and introduced into the design process. In this way we have a family absorbing the designer, constantly asking what he or she needs so they feel at ease, and at home, and are helped out. Sodeau became, for example, very close to Stevens. It helps to prevent jealousy,” adds Sharrock.

“We also changed the briefing structure,” she continues. “Now we liaise much more closely with the marketing team. It’s a day-to-day process.” The key to the change seems to be in a holistic vision. “Design is an integral part of the business. It’s not just a service to business. It’s about elevating the status of design,” asserts Sharrock. The in-house designers attend sales meetings, go abroad to research trends and meet inspiring people for the business.

Senior designer Barker, for example, has just come back from the US, where she met lifestyle guru Martha Stewart’s team, and celebrity wedding dress designer Vera Wong, to discuss possible future collaborations. Some of the Wedgwood ranges also carry the in-house designers’ names, most notably the Night and Day range by Stevens and the Sarah’s garden range by Barker.

In this way, it’s not only the Munros and the Costelloes who are basking under the light of the Wedgwood renaissance, but also the in-house design team. Sharrock is understandably proud of “her” designers. “These are [design] literate international designers,” she says.

In many ways, Wedgwood is a success story. Today, looking at revamps of “old fash” names such as Gucci or, indeed, Burberry, it sounds like perfect design management sense to promote the modern/ traditional mix as the ultimate lifestyle. But three years ago, to push a traditional brand to a design-savvy consumer, keeping its name, fundamental values, and still promoting its “modernity”, seemed risky. “History is both negative and positive,” says Sharrock. “You are affected by it but you can also be afraid of ruining it”, and that, she says, can “put this wonderful history in jeopardy”.

In an industry which is “very sleepy, by its nature”, failure to move forward for other companies has brought paralysis. “Ceramics is not keeping up with the times,” says Sharrock. “We must think beyond ceramics. Our competitors are all forms of product and interior design.”

The group’s latest foray into contemporary design, at London’s 100% Design show last September, can be also be seen as ground-breaking. The aim was to reach old and new customers, as well as new channels of distribution. The result is that it is currently dealing with over 200 inquiries. Sharrock recalls a visitor asking: “Is this the same as the old Wedgwood?”

And with hindsight, this is exactly the point. For Wedgwood’s turn towards contemporary design truly does reflect its heritage. “Josiah Wedgwood was an innovator,” says Russell. A mass-production entrepreneur, he used to have an artist-in-residence, and was grandfather to Charles Darwin, one of the founders of modern thinking. Russell adds: “We had to question what is innovation. The answer is to have faith in a very simple, beautiful shape.”

Recent design history

1994 The Partners starts collaborating with Wedgwood

1997 Jill Sharrock is appointed creative director

1997 Anne Ritchie is brought in as a design consultant for design colour-trend tracking

1997 The Partners designs the new corporate identity and brand positioning

1997 Tayburn is appointed to create the print and digital consumer communication

1998 Dale Russell is brought in as a design consultant to define Wedgwood’s customer

1998 Sarah Charles is brought in as display director for all exhibition display design

1999 The Weekday Weekend range is launched

2000 The Contrast, the Nick Munro, the Paul Costelloe and Simon Stevens’ Night and Day ranges are launched

2000 The Partners develops the first advertising campaign issued by Wedgwood for three years

2000 Tayburn Design creates the latest product brochure – which covers the brand’s Classic, Contemporary, Traditional and cutlery ranges

2000 Wedgwood launches a new range by Micheal Sodeau at London’s 100% Design Show. It also shows one-off pieces by Katy Holford

2000 David Adcock, partner at Adcock Clayton Associates, is appointed to develop a retail concept to be launched next year

Wedgwood business structure

Wedgwood is a 250-year-old English business that now sits inside Tony O’Reilly’s Waterford Wedgwood Group. Wedgwood’s Irish chief executive Brian Patterson joined the business in 1995 from Waterford. In that time, he has undertaken a fairly mammoth restructuring of Wedgwood’s manufacturing base, product lines and brand positioning with the help of Wedgwood’s executive committee.

This board of directors – manufacturing, logistics, finance, human resources, sales and marketing, and brand (not design) – sits above a larger steering group set up by Patterson 18 months ago. The Luther Group, named after Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ epithet, is described by Patterson as Wedgwood’s attempt to banish the figures temporarily and collectively adopt a ‘right brain’ approach to the business. In addition to the executive committee, the Luther Group includes creative director Sharrock and The Partners managing director Aziz Cami, and is chaired by Wedgwood brand director Gavin Haig. This key group has taken recent decisions on the aesthetic direction of the company.

Pattersen says that over the past five years more than £100m has been invested in specialised manufacturing to assist its hand-crafting process. Costs have been significantly reduced, owing largely to the closure of five of Wedgwood’s nine factories.

The UK market for ceramic tableware is ‘challenging’, according to Cami. This roughly translates as having rather outdated traditional rivals, (doing what Patterson calls ‘the blue and white stuff’ that your grandmother owns), alongside a string of newer, contemporary players diversifying their brands from other sectors. On top of this, the chief Wedgwood rival, Royal Doulton, seems to be playing hardball with a fierce discounting policy. All this has so far kept growth ‘flat’, according to Patterson.

‘On the brand side, we have shifted the needle in the UK. People have taken notice of the new “authentic English style” positioning of the Wedgwood brand,’ Patterson says. ‘The brand is probably at its strongest in Japan.’

Internationally, Wedgwood’s products are distributed through the parent group business that dominates the national market. ‘Whichever company is dominant in that country becomes the distributor for the Waterford Wedgwood group,’ explains Patterson. The breakdown in terms of sales for the three key markets are 20 per cent in the US, 20 per cent in Japan and 40 per cent in the UK, with continental Europe (particularly Germany) and the Far East (particularly Taiwan) making up the remaining 20 per cent. Patterson says brand values are flexible enough to be adapted by the customer behaviour and retail distribution of each local market.

On a group level, Patterson likens the structure of Waterford Wedgwood to that of French conglomerate LVMH – a house of brands ‘in the game of acquisitions’. Chairman O’Reilly’s vision of building a stable of luxury home-lifestyle brands has prompted the new direction for Wedgwood’s product lines and its recent collaborations with designers.

There are ‘four plus one’ profit centres within the group – Wedgwood in the UK, Waterford Crystal in Ireland, Rosenthal and ceramics brand Hutschenreuther in Germany and recently-acquired star kitchenware brand All-Clad in the US. Each profit centre has in turn its own chief executive, its own brand policies and its own business strategy. The US territory is the final – plus one – profit centre.

Indications are that the future efforts of the Wedgwood team might look at defining customer segments by region as the melting pot becomes more diverse. But plans for an umbrella identity for the brand seem remote at this stage.

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