Pretty, posh and profitable

It’s a holiday weekend and the sun is out in Rock. Today, however, the teenagers staying in this Cornish resort are not heading for the beach but towards a newly-opened clothes shop, Jack Wills. Outside, there are flashes of bobbing colour – shopping bags in Jack Wills’ signature colours of pink and navy blue stripes. Every teenager is wearing branded Jack Wills clothing: denim mini-skirts worn over leggings, zip-up hoodies, vests, shirts and shorts. Some boys are wearing their trousers fashionably low, the better to display “Jack Wills” on the elastic of their underpants.

There is something cultish about its fans’ devotion to the brand. Visit any upmarket university, boarding school or resort town, from Edinburgh to Aldeburgh, and the affluent teens will be there, buying Jack Wills’ expensive preppy sports wear (£69 for a hooded sweatshirt and up to £19 for a pair of socks.)

Jack Wills (“university outfitters”) isn’t just on the high street. In March it hosted three nights of events for 2,000 students in Tignes, in the French Alps. It sponsors university balls (there’s one at Keble College, Oxford, this weekend) and puts on between-season “tours” in university towns (giving away bespoke T-shirts for each town, plus mugs, underpants and other coveted trinkets).

Even though Jack Wills is a rapidly expanding global business (in 2010/2011, it made a profit of £17.4m on sales of £92m, nearly tripling its profits from the previous year), you could be forgiven for never having come across it before. The company is one of a number of brands, including the more-established US label Abercrombie & Fitch, that target teens with money and sell them preppy or surf-inspired casual clothes. It prides itself on its stealth marketing and its very direct relationship with its consumers.

The company shuns advertising in favour of social media and organised events. About 220,000 Facebook and Twitter fans tune in to watch videos of its sponsored events. Among its 1,700 employees, there is a team monitoring followers’ tweets and replying to questions. “We get hundreds of mentions every day on Twitter and we reply to 90 per cent of them,” says marketing manager Freddie Wyatt. “People ask a question and we’ll tweet back an answer along with a video. It’s one-to-one contact.”

Jack Wills generates buzz for its collections by each year sending out four catalogues, or handbooks as they’re known, to a 400,000-strong UK readership to coincide with school terms. These books, featuring evocative images of youths gallivanting in the English countryside, have become collectors’ items.

The handbooks caused an unexpected stir last month when the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) received 19 complaints about four of the images in the spring term handbook, which tells the story of a group in high spirits taking a skinny dip. The problem shots included one of a soaking wet young woman, wearing only a pair of floral Jack Wills knickers and being embraced by a man wearing only a pair of jeans.

Jack Wills defended the catalogue saying it was aimed at over 18s but the complaint was upheld by the ASA. (Too late, it turns out, as all the catalogues had already been sent.)

The publicity and associated street-cred could have been a public relations coup for many companies chasing the teenage market. Not for Jack Wills. Its co-founder and chief executive Peter Williams says he was shocked by the publicity. “My aspiration is that we hide from everybody. It doesn’t feel comfortable being in the public domain,” he says. The 36-year-old rarely gives press interviews but has agreed to meet me in his Soho store in London. Tall, red-haired and gently spoken, Williams is wearing dark jeans, T-shirt, corduroy jacket and retro glasses. We settle on weathered leather seats in the basement as his assistant dashes to get coffee. “We’re a niche premium brand,” he says. “We have no interest in the mass. We’re all about viral. I want the brand to be discovered.”

He says, however, that his groundbreaking strategy happened by chance. “We didn’t have the money to advertise. If we had, we would have, so I can’t claim to be a visionary.”

The first Jack Wills opened in Salcombe, Devon, in 1999. Having graduated from University College, London, Williams, then 23, became fascinated with setting up his own brand. He chose Salcombe because “I’d been once in summer and it really just registered something. When I started thinking about a premium brand I dredged up this vision of what I remembered in Salcombe. I thought, ‘What if you could create a brand that could bottle what being at a British university was all about and all the cool amazing stuff that goes with that?’ It’s such a uniquely cherished part of your life. I thought if you could create a brand that epitomised that it would be very compelling.”

He joined forces with Robert Shaw, a university friend then working at a marketing firm, and they scraped together £40,000 of their own capital from savings, credit cards and loans. They set up Jack Wills (named after Williams’ grandfather, Jack Williams) as a summer shop on Fore Street (it’s still there and has expanded into the two neighbouring sites). They sold vintage-inspired T-shirts and sweaters bearing the Jack Wills lettering while sleeping above the shop.

The pair soon opened a second branch in Fulham, London, in October that year. That shop was ram-raided on millennium eve and was shut down soon after but they persevered and opened another store in the Suffolk coastal town of Aldeburgh. Early Jack Wills stores sold good quality basics. The tweed jackets and more fashion-led items, plus homewares, were much later additions and have become big business only in the past three years. Jack Wills went on to open stores in the smart university towns of Bath, Exeter and Oxford.

Williams and Shaw still own 70 per cent (Williams has the majority) and 27 per cent is held by a private equity company that bought a stake in 2007. In 2008 the duo launched Aubin & Wills, aimed at graduates of the Jack Wills tribe. There are currently six stores and two in-store concessions, offering a chic, fashion-oriented look.

George Wallace, head of MHE Retail, a retail consultancy. says Jack Wills has “created a very classy lifestyle brand with a very tribal following. They’ve got quite a narrow position – it’s very public school – but they’ve got that group to buy in to it in a very big way. They’ve created something that persuades parents to pay premium prices for reasonable quality, and at very high margins. The worry is if this very fickle group falls out of love with them. It’s such a volatile market. If they do, the fall could be spectacular, although I don’t see that happening any time soon.”

Will the creative team hit the jackpot again with Aubin & Wills? “I don’t think the concept registers as well. The trouble is, when you’re older you don’t want to be part of something in the same way you do as a teen. You’re more mature, you’ve got more options, and you don’t buy in to that fantasy in the same way. You don’t want to be part of a tribe.”

Williams has certainly been shrewd in focusing on teens. According to LSN Global, a trends consultancy, the teen market in the US is worth £133bn. In the UK there are now 7.5m teens, with spending power of £6.8bn annually.

Jack Wills also taps into the allure of “privilege” as a selling point. Mat Bickley, founder of retail consultancy, says: “Posh is cool again, it’s like the 1980s. If you look at all the celebrity endorsements, the bands, the actors and faces of Burberry even now, they’re all ‘society’ or public school educated.”

There are 44 Jack Wills shops in the UK and the brand has opened several stores in the US with seven more planned for this year. It is also expanding into Asia and the Middle East, with the first Jack Wills there likely to be in Dubai.

To help with this growth, Williams has appointed two retail experts to his board: former Body Shop chief executive Peter Saunders as chairman and Rose Marie Bravo as a non-executive director. Bravo, an American, was chairman of Saks Fifth Avenue in the 1990s and turned around the fortunes of Burberry. Significantly, Body Shop and Burberry are among the few British retailers that have been successful in the US market.

Williams is bullish about Jack Wills’ growth prospects, predicting it could eventually be a global “multibillion” pound company. Even so, “we’re still very grassroots about things,” he says.

Grassroots are at the heart of everything Jack Wills is about, and its attention to its customers – its community – is what sets it apart from other shops selling to teenagers. Its tweeds, vintage hoodies, and print prairie dresses are pleasant but they are not cutting-edge, individual or high fashion. Their same-ness reinforces membership of an exclusive friendship group.

Events in the real world make the brand, which even sounds like a friend, into a companion for the good times. Its Twitter feed hints that it will announce a 2011 summer festival next week but the Jack Wills’ Varsity Polo is the biggest event in its calendar to date.

Next month, teams from Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge universities, and the public schools Eton, Harrow, play against each other with 10,000 fans looking on. The company is the official sponsor.

Max Reyner, insight editor at LSN Global, says: “Events are key here and are taking over from social networking, which is still important for awareness but is seen as less cool to teens now, as parents join sites like Facebook. They used to be a private spaces. With the events they have a sense of ownership. The fact that Jack Wills doesn’t advertise also helps. Teens like the idea of discovery. The whole feel of Jack Wills is like you’re in a club and you’re shutting out the parents.”

One of Jack Wills’ key innovations is its “Seasonnaires” programme. The company recruits young people who are cool and outgoing. These “influencers” attend parties and circulate with guests, handing out free merchandise. This summer a group of Seasonnaires, who are paid and given free clothing by the brand, will travel to Rock and Salcombe and other resort towns, hosting parties on the beach and in local pubs, giving out free Jack Wills gifts.

The Jack Wills non-marketing strategy works in the UK, where the brand knows its market. But will it work internationally? “We’re more obvious in the US. We try to push the Britishness because we’re a new brand there,” says Wyatt, its marketing manager. “In the UK, it’s more about retaining the core audience. In the US, it’s about trying to find and build that tribe.”

Accordingly, the company planned to create its buzz well ahead of time in the US. Three years before the first Jack Wills store opened there, a group of eight cool young boys and girls were paid to hang out and drive around in branded Jack Wills’ Jeeps.

Williams has so far been able to crystallise the essence of a particular group and sell it back to them to wear at the beach and in the nightclub. And those customers seem very, very happy about it. “I first discovered it on holiday in Salcombe. I went to one of their parties on the beach,” says Isabelle, 15, standing outside the new Jack Wills in Rock, dressed head to toe in Jack Wills merchandise. “I like that Jack Wills feels British. I get the catalogue, everyone in my school does. I love their Facebook page too.”

Hayley, 15, says: “I love the catalogues. You want to look like them but it’s not just modelling. They look like they’re having fun.”

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