Swanndri: Kiwi icon’s checkered road ahead

First appeared in Fairfax Unlimitedon October 29, 2013

In 2007, defending his decision to move manufacturing to China, Swanndri’s former chief executive Julian Bowden said that if any product deserved to be called a Kiwi legend, it was the Swanndri.

Dear beloved Swannie. Even after all these years of not living in New Zealand, I feel a warm fondness for the old checkered shirt. Swanndri turned 100 this year. Its history is built on a reputation of great quality, hard wearing and long lasting products for the rural man. There’s considerable value in the Swanndri brand. However, that same reputation has also been the company’s ongoing dilemma. What to do when a brand is tied so closely to its agricultural roots and core customers only needs to update their Swanndri every decade or two?

A business can’t survive on selling four products in a customer’s lifetime. Unless that product is a Bentley. Swanndri’s business had to evolve if it was to grow. Its main choices were either take the niche product into similar rural segments internationally or expand the product range to appeal to new types of customers.

Judging by Swanndri’s recent history, it’s tried it all. I can’t help but wonder whether it has fully committed to a single positioning and gunned for it. Clearly there is a desire to reach new customers and create a more fashion-forward and extensive collection.

Since 2006, Swanndri has collaborated with Karen Walker, experimented with concept stores in Wellington, Auckland and Queenstown and hired an in-house designer, who has since left. And now it has collaborated with Barkers in a rather nice looking “urban lumberjack” collection.

The Swanndri brand raises a number of challenges for its owners. It’s an icon with a niche market of rugged, no-nonsense blokes. So any changes need to stay true to the core customer. It’s also still a very Kiwi product, which is a disadvantage in as many markets as it is an advantage. In Australia, for example, we have our own blokes and iconic Aussie brands like Driza-Bone, Hard Yakka and R.M. Williams.

Without an additional, compelling point of difference, why would a quintessentially Aussie man buy a quintessentially Kiwi product?

It requires total ongoing commitment and investment to reposition any brand. In interviews over the years, Swanndri has been likened to premium European brands Burberry, Gucci and even Hermes. Those are big calls and apart from having a checkered print and functional beginnings in common, that’s where similarities end.

The collaborations are a move in the right direction and they are a proven recipe for success. In working with Karen Walker and now Barkers, Swanndri has chosen iconic New Zealand partners. But these two collaborations are 7 years apart. Compare that with H&Ms total commitment to working with guest designers from all over the world, generating desire in a multitude of international markets at once. The next range for H&M, due out in November, is with uber-cool French designer Isabel Marant and is guaranteed to be sales dynamite.

The issue for me is not that the Swanndri brand can’t authentically create cooler casual ranges for more frequent consumption. Driza-Bone recently launched a new look to appeal to a very similar market to Swanndri. Their new positioning is crystal clear from the website, with new packaging and evolution of classic styles that totally supports the marketing creative.

Carharrt is another workwear brand that has navigated its brand to successfully have wider appeal. Their product stands up equally well as rugged workwear and street fashion. It just feels like Swanndri is dabbling with decisions, moving on and off the path towards the right direction. I wonder whether there’s a strong follow up strategy that takes the great press from the Barkers collaboration and builds on it. Not in another 7 years, but next year.

Perhaps creative partnerships with international equivalents to Barkers and Karen Walker, for example Calibre here in Australia. The Swanndri brand could pull it off, with total commitment. I hope to come back to their website in a few months and be blown away. Off the back of the great Barkers line, I go to the Swannie website now and I’m just not feeling it.

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