Even after you have created a successful brand, it can take some time and experimentation to work out how best to use it. Shirt and suit brand Benjamin Barker has refined its brand presentation and promise through continuous experimentation and customer feedback.
The Benjamin Barker story was born from adversity amid the 2009 recession. Founder & CEO Nelson Yap and general manager COO Damien Tan were both studying in Melbourne, while Nelson’s parents sold discounted suits and shirts from a warehouse. When his father became seriously ill, Nelson had to return to Singapore to run the family firm. After 2 years of struggling to make a profit, he saw that the business model did not work and found it hard to make changes in a family business. Thus, he set out to start his own business putting in his own ideas and created a brand new label. To finance the exercise, Nelson’s mother remortgaged her home.
Inspired by the biblical character of Benjamin as a start, he knew he wanted an alliteration for a brand name that would go with the name Benjamin. It also had to sound “international”. After some time, the name “Barker” frequently came up during his search. A shoe brand “Barker England” as well as a furniture store “Baker” stood out. (It was a furniture store that he drove past every day on the way to work). He looked into the meaning of Barker and it had a meaning of “a tan of a leather” and “Shepherd”. He found the name meaningful as it was associated with craftmanship and his Christian faith. He started with a 62 square metre shop in Marina Square, which is still occupied by the company today, with a little less than a month of cash flow. If it had failed, the family would have been in even worse debt. But as Damien explains,
“The business took off from the first day, and it became clear there was a market for selling shirts.”
Four years later, Damien had joined the business too, by which time it had four stores. Since then, it has expanded to 10 stores in Singapore, two F&B outlets, and two more apparel shops in Melbourne and Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Recognising that the company is no longer a small business, Benjamin Barker has applied to register its name and logo as trade marks in all the countries where it operates, plus a range of others where it may seek to attract franchisees in future. The company is protecting both its name and its ‘BB’ device (in classes 25 and 35, to cover both manufacturing and retailing) in a wide variety of territories. These include Singapore, Australia and Cambodia, where it trades now, and other countries in the region including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
The company has also applied for protection in China, where its name but not its logo has initially been accepted.
“China is our end goal. I think it’s a big monster we are not quite ready to face yet! Indonesia is a market we are really interested in, but the process there is quite slow, so it is important to apply for brand registration well in advance”.
In the apparel business, it is difficult to create strong IP in the products themselves, as Damien explains. “We have a very unique fit, but of course, anyone can replicate it—they can buy our shirt and take it to a manufacturer who will copy it.” However, if that fit is consistent across different products, it can form a basis for building brand loyalty, as Benjamin Barker found when it first entered the Australian market.
“We adapted our styling because we thought that Caucasians were slightly bigger, taller, wider—but then we found that 90% of our customers still bought our classic Asian fit. We realised we had a demographic that was very supportive of our product because we gave them a shirt that fitted them.”
Today, Benjamin Barker’s chief designer is a Singaporean based in Melbourne. The company uses raw fabric from Europe, Hong Kong, China and Japan, selects all the trimmings and other detailing and uses its own manufacturer.
“None of these are exclusive to us, but it’s challenging to copy us because we do not repeat our designs—the fabrics we select may not be available again. Also, the factory manager has expressed that it takes twice the amount of time to manufacture our shirts as compared to an ordinary shirt due to its details. It doesn’t make economic sense for them to copy our shirts.”
This continuous stock-changing has other benefits, especially since Benjamin Barker has learned that men generally dislike ostentatious or very loud designs, preferring subtle design that can be hidden and classic designs. It means that some customers come back every few months to buy another white shirt because each one will be slightly different, even if it is a small detail like one of the button threads being a different colour from the rest.
“Once the season is gone, and the shirt is sold out, it’s not being repeated. That drives the customer—if they try on something that fits, they say ‘I’d better get it now’!”
Overall, in Damien’s view, it’s a distinctive look:
“I can recognise a Benjamin Barker shirt from across the street.”
Even though it is around 10 years old, Benjamin Barker still considers itself a start-up. One of the ways this manifests itself is in lots of experimentation around design, content and format. For example, the company identified that around 10% of its customers were women, who were buying smaller sizes and altering them down, so it has prompted an experimental women’s range.
Some of this is prompted by learnings gained from overseas markets.
“Our customers in Cambodia felt our standard ‘blue label’ shirts were a bit pricey. The brand equity has a certain value, and we do not want to bring the price down very low because it might just dilute the brand, but we also want people to own a Benjamin Barker shirt. So, we created a more affordably priced green label range for our shirts.”
Benjamin Barker is also increasingly moving into accessories such as soft leather goods.
“Our franchisees in Cambodia and Australia also felt our shirts and suits weren’t enough; they wanted a whole range of products. Here we sell more shirts than suits, but in Cambodia, they sell more suits and blazers. In Australia the ladieswear is selling so well, so we have to pick our stock from here and ship it out.”
The naming strategy for these products has been a source of internal debate. It led to the introduction of a separate ‘B’ brand:
“We didn’t want to dilute the classic ‘male heritage’ Benjamin Barker name with kidswear and womenswear. But then we tried polo shirts and they all sold out. People understand that anything associated with Benjamin Barker is of a certain quality. So now we feel that we can brand our T-shirts as Benjamin Barker—you have something for your work days, so you need something for your weekends too.”
While the experimentation is set to continue at Benjamin Barker, the company’s focus at the moment is very much on its retail component, as part of which it will be revisiting some of its brand extensions. These include its store at The Cathay, originally called the Assembly Store (to reflect the fact that it contains an ‘assemblage’ of merchandise from other, complementary manufacturers) and latterly called just ‘B Store’.
“We initially felt that it couldn’t be called the Benjamin Barker store because we aren’t just selling apparel, we’re selling a whole suite of other complementary products. But the story for the Assembly Store was not developed fully, and over the past four years we’ve realised that nobody really understands what a B Store stands for either—they are surprised to find it’s Benjamin Barker when they come in! So we now propose to have the name changed to the Benjamin Barker Lifestyle Store so that we can capitalise on the goodwill the brand has accumulated.”
Benjamin Barker also closed its B Burger concept store; not because it didn’t work, but because the company was not ready to be able to exploit it.
“Both of us are creative, and we can’t really sit still—both of us want to try new things. That venture took up too much of our capacity—we were trying to stretch too far, and at that point in time, we didn’t have the right tools or people to do it.”
Benjamin Barker realises that it has built up plenty of brand equity in Benjamin Barker over the years, and is now focused on monetising it – initially through franchising, but potentially via licensing as well. New verticals are also a possibility:
“At the moment we have apparel and F&B, but Nelson’s end goal one day is to have a boutique hotel. However, that’s for the future: we are still very focused on growing the apparel business first.”
In Damien’s view, the secret is to keep a ‘start-up’ mentality and not to become complacent about the company’s products and image.
“How to optimise the brand: make sure it is distinctive, recognisable, and is something that people trust—that’s the most important thing. We do everything in our power to make sure that it is a brand that people trust and that they will continue to support.”
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