Frank Underwood helps sell handbags to Asia8th Mar '17
Although her business is only eight years old, Julie Deane’s vintage-style satchels have a massive fan base in the East. And it’s growing
Company: The Cambridge Satchel Company Trading in: Korea, China and 120 other countries Sector: Luxury goods
Even by the staggering numbers China generates daily, it was big. When The Cambridge Satchel Company took part in China’s Singles Day – the world’s largest online shopping day – in November last year, it set a goal of selling 2,000 bags. “In the end, we sold 8,000,” says founder Julie Deane OBE.
Singles Day is – in effect – a shopping festival on 11/11. It is said to have been started in the Nineties by students in Nanjing consoling themselves at being single by buying gifts. The ones in the date represent single people.
With sales of around £6.5 billion, Singles Day outshines the US Cyber Monday, which pulls in £1.4 billion. The 2015 event had the added encouragement of President Frank Underwood from House of Cards. In a special commercial, Kevin Spacey as Underwood exhorted Chinese consumers to hit the shops. They duly obliged.
Asia is fast becoming a big deal for The Cambridge Satchel Company, which started on Deane’s kitchen table in 2008.
Now the organisation has 150 staff and a turnover of £13 million. China is its third-biggest market after the UK and US, and Deane travels there at least four times a year.
“I have never talked about ‘isolating my export market’, I just sell to where my market lives”
A brand space on TMall, China’s online marketplace, was opened in 2014 and it enjoys a rapidly-growing fan base there and in South Korea. “South Korea picked us up first when we appeared in a soap opera there,” says Deane, “and I sent several badly auto-translated emails to South Korean bloggers.”
Customers in South Korea tend to track down the company’s products on social media. The approach, she says, is organic. In China, it’s a bit more proactive. Julie Deane first visited in 2013 as part of a delegation with David Cameron, the Prime Minister, and developed a relationship with Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group, which operates TMall.
The Cambridge Satchel Company then appointed digital agencies to help with dedicated Chinese social media campaigns, including free message app WeChat and microblogging site Weibo.
“We work with a PR and digital agency in China who help us to engage brand-appropriate key opinion leaders, bloggers, media and celebrities,” says Deane.
Enthusiasm alone, however, has carried the brand a long way. “In the early days, before we had these agencies on board, we experienced huge support from bloggers across the world who saw the bags gracing the catwalks of New York and London. This support was entirely organic and hugely appreciated.”
The Cambridge Satchel Company has eschewed paying brand ambassadors to endorse the product. “We work only with those who choose to wear our bags and don’t pay ambassadors to wear them. We want fans to be reassured that any celebrity wearing our bag is an authentic fan who chooses this bag from all the options.”
The company also works with select retail partners such as I.T, Lane Crawford and Galeries Lafayette in China to enable consumers to see and hold the product. It sells through its global website, as well.
“We have worked to develop our offering for Chinese consumers on our website,” says Ms Deane. “We use renminbi currency, certain pages are translated, there’s tailored content on the home page and various content pages for visitors from China.”
Deane also spoke at Alibaba’s first Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship in Hangzhou last year, explaining to more than 800 women how she started the company and her tips for success. She was mobbed outside by people wanting her to sign the bags.
So do Chinese tastes differ from those in Britain? “We see our reds working best in China, across all styles, along with classic vintage brown,” says Deane. “For spring and summer 2016, we have launched a pastel range and are seeing good feedback and sales on these, too.
“The key to our success in China is our British heritage. Despite only being created in 2008, The Cambridge Satchel Company is seen as a ‘heritage brand’. The Chinese consumer responds well to our classic British design.”
Deane says China remains a key market, but the business has seen organic growth in other Asia-Pacific countries.
Despite her success, Deane’s vision has never been complicated. She says: “I have never had an export strategy. I have never talked about ‘isolating my export market’, I just sell to where my market lives.”