The Interview: Tom Duncan, Group Brand Director, Brand Machine Group
UK-based global licensing company Brand Machine Group’s acquisition of heritage US outdoor clothing brand Penfield in December, 2020, signalled a shift into brand ownership for the group. Former Commercial Director at Lyle & Scott, Tom Duncan, has been brought in as Group Brand Director, along with other new additions to the team, to lead the new strategy and the Penfield brand relaunch.
There’s even a new Penfield collaboration limited edition capsule collection with British designer Neil Barrett for AW21, though Duncan admits it will be 2022 before any real changes will be visible to the mainline offer, with new categories added – all keeping with Penfield’s strong DNA as an outdoor clothing specialist. A long-time fan of the brand himself, Duncan reveals what attracted him to the newly created role and their plans for Penfield going forward.
How would you best describe Brand Machine Group?
First and foremost, Brand Machine Group (BMG) is a manufacturing group which is predominantly known for its licensing business which has been going for 35 years this year. It was originally and specifically childrenswear, operating a number of licenses – including Nike and the Jordan brand, which it held the global childrenswear licenses for, as well as for Converse. It has very much been the silent partner on childrenswear globally for some very big businesses over the years. It runs childrenswear licenses with the likes of Lyle & Scott, Jack Wills, Ben Sherman and a number of others. Aside from childrenswear, it also runs an adult clothing business through U.S. Polo Assn. BMG is a privately owned business, owned by Boo Jalil, with offices in King’s Cross, London, and Hertfordshire.
What was the real appeal for you to join BMG as Group Brand Director?
I got to know Boo during my time at Lyle & Scott, as BMG was my childrenswear licensee for approximately seven years, so there was already a long-standing working relationship. Boo is a real product person through and through. We’d remained in contact since I left Lyle & Scott in April last year, and Boo’s plans to grow the group - even in the current climate – sounded like a great opportunity, especially as BMG was planning to take on ownership of brands. It bought Penfield from Four Marketing just before Christmas last year, which was also when I joined BMG. It’s a very interesting and viable step for the group, especially given the skill set it has in-house from running successful licensing businesses globally for so long. Another reason I joined BMG is while it was excellent within the field of childrenswear, Boo wanted to bring in someone with a balanced experience of a wider menswear business. The acquisition of a brand like Penfield also hugely appealed to me. I’ve always enjoyed the times I’ve had working with heritage brands, so it ticked the box from a creative point of view, as well as from a market point of view. Before Lyle & Scott I’d spent 10 years at G-Star as Country Manager for the UK and Scandinavia, and then as Head of Retail.
How do you see your new role?
Taking brands on the journey, looking at the international markets and globalising brands, as well as increasing turnover in the process, is something I have really enjoyed doing. To take that remit and broaden it into more of a marketing and brand based role, and to be able to really shape and form strategy and direction, was something that was really appealing in this new position at BMG. From a product point of view, we’ve got every confidence given our experience of making great product, and we’ve got relationships with great people to do that. From a marketing point of view, it’s no surprise that the world has moved to being more digitally motivated, and digital content is now so dominant for every brand. So, that will continue to be an important part of what we do. At the moment, given the restrictions forced by the pandemic, what we’re finding really difficult is being able to orchestrate seasonal campaigns and shoots! Having such strict travel restrictions in place is proving quite a challenge.
What was your take on Penfield before joining BMG and your take on it now?
There are many brands that you grow up with, and those that really resonate with you because it’s product you might have bought in the past and grown up wearing. You have a real affinity with them and, for me, Penfield is one of those brands. It was a brand I’d always thought I’d like to work with because it’s got such great stories to tell. What’s really interesting for me are brands that are built from circumstance. Penfield was founded in 1975 in Hudson, Massachusetts, by a gentleman called Harvey Gross who saw a real need for outerwear suitable for the harsh New England weather. He couldn’t find what he wanted anywhere, so he went out and started manufacturing it himself, building a reputation for making quality down-filled jackets, fleece and outerwear fit to stand up to the conditions. The equity is in the roots and the heritage. An American outdoor brand also has a specific appeal, and 40% of Penfield’s sales still come from the US market. If you really get the US market right, the potential for growth within a market of that size is huge. So often you look at European-based brands trying to break the States, so to take on an American heritage brand that already has an established US market, and a brand that really just needs a recalibration, is a real opportunity.
Would you call it a relaunch of Penfield then?
Yes, I would. We’re going back and looking at the core values of the brand, it’s history and the story behind it. There’s very much a customer out there that we’re really looking to get to know a lot more, because there’s only so much you can get from data in the eight weeks we’ve had access to it. We’re looking forward to really getting under the skin and finding out more about our customer but, ultimately, we’re looking at it from the bottom up, with that real manufacturer’s view on product. As opposed to just product design, we’re looking at it more from a product innovation point of view and asking what the product development cycle needs to be, and what the quality and build needs to be. One of the things that I’m really keen on getting across is that the business was founded in an outdoor industry. It was born from a technical requirement to make insulated jackets. If you look at the product proposition from us taking it over, it’s very much a lifestyle proposition. There is outerwear and products currently in there that can be used outdoors, but they are not technically focused. I want to bring that element back as well.
What else forms part of your brand strategy going forward?
What we want to do is threefold. Certainly, we want to continue with the lifestyle proposition that the brand has and is well known for, and we want to invest in the quality of that product. But, in 2022, we want to relaunch its technical outdoor product, with outerwear that can really deal with extreme weather conditions – from where the business was born. It’s also about putting product in to the market that is right for activities that people do, such as a lot of walking and mountain excursions. It’s looking at that outdoor market sector by product and function, whether that be for cold winters, or warm summers. In terms of the brand’s heritage, it covers the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s and Noughties, so there’s a lot of influencing factors. I want to go back to that provenance. I think there’s a place for that heritage product and a reason to look at a made in U.S.A product again, for our top tier product that is. So, a heritage archive line, going back and looking at something quite niche. That might be in the form of collaborations, or other stories that we can look at telling by going back in to the brand’s history.
Why the new collaboration with Neil Barrett for AW21?
The aim was to take our provenance in the outerwear category and put the brand into a very different environment of luxury menswear. Price points are higher with RRP’s of £499 - £700 and, for us, it was about elevating the brand and also creating some really interesting products in a category we are known for. Key pieces are an MA-1 style loose bomber jacket and a really special overhead puffa jacket.
How do you view now having brand ownership?
The good thing about ownership of a brand is it’s a long-term project. There’s no rush, it’s about doing things correctly. When you look at brands with heritage, like Penfield, the important thing for me is make sure what we do is authentic, and I believe authenticity comes from detail
Is BMG ready for a more digitally focused fashion business world?
The group has worked digitally for some time, well before the pandemic struck. Over the past three to four years, showrooms, wholesale and trading mechanisms had already gone digital as we realised there were better and easier ways of harnessing technology to administer a season. We’d already operated our wholesale seasons through the NuOrder B2B online platform, so being able to sell wholesale ranges digitally is a hurdle that had been overcome.