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Retailer insight: How to grow a brand with its 'community'

Tom Joule, founder and chief brand officer at Joules, explains how he has grown it from a Leicestershire-based rural accessories business to an international listed lifestyle retailer.

In 1989 I started selling quality socks, hats and jumpers that were sourced in the UK at country shows and equestrian events. Within five years I had taken over my father’s clothing shop in the then quiet town of Market Harborough, in Leicestershire, which sold womenswear and gifts. The contrast between high street ladies fashion and the clothing being sold at the country shows was drastic, and I quickly spotted a market in the middle.

Lifestyles and the consumer were changing. Enjoying the outdoors in all weathers was becoming a family activity of choice but this wasn’t reflected in clothing on the market. I used to ask myself: “Why do wellies need to be green?” I was the first to produce bright and printed wellington boots, and immediately they struck a chord with my customers: there was nothing else like them at the time.

We travel – not to leave home, but to bring our experiences home with us

Once you’ve spotted a gap in the market, you need to seize your opportunity and quickly establish your position to gain traction at that early stage. I brought in a strong and likeminded design team, and an agile and credible sourcing structure so that we could move quickly and sustainably. There were other brands with more established routes to market and stronger distribution networks that tried to emulate what we were doing. But they weren’t as close to our changing customers as we were. They weren’t as focused on the detail, the quality and the price that our customers wanted. It soon became clear that we and our customers were on this journey together.

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Joules autumn 17

Keeping customers at the heart of our identity has been central to our continued success. We understand their aspirations, and passion for the outdoors and for leisure time, and remember to always balance functionality with style. We give products personality to match those of our customers’ colourful and uplifting outlook.

This understanding of the customers’ identity, which was so central to our early success, has remained the backbone of Joules’ ethos and culture to this day. Nearly 27 years later, we are a thriving, listed company with more than a 100 stores, an international presence, and more than 1,500 employees. We are an ever growing organisation, but still the customer is what’s at our core.

I was born, brought up in and still live in Market Harborough. My creative director and head of concept were also born here. We all went to the same schools from primary onwards and we are as much this market town as this market town is us. [The company last month announced it had invested £4.4m in a new head office in the town.] This sense of community, and its values and identity, thrives up and down the country. At its most distilled, we simply convey what we live into what we create. 

Joules’ hometown

Part of what makes us different is that Joules has grown along with the town. We feel connected, in tune with and close to our customer base, which means we understand what’s important to them. We support the community and are privileged to have the community supporting us.

As well as having close contact to our roots we all live in a global age. We understand what’s trending on the catwalk, we take inspirational trips, and we trawl social media and fashion blogs. We travel – not to leave home, but to bring our experiences home with us.

Part of what makes us different is that Joules has grown along with the town

When the company was smaller, I had to spread my time and attention quite broadly across the business to maintain and support growth. But at heart I am a creative person and my focus belongs in connecting with our customer and to our product.

To maintain this focus, six years ago, I brought in a managing director, Colin Porter. We recruited a strong senior team to take the business forward and two years ago Colin became CEO, leaving me to concentrate on how our customers are living their lives, what their aspirations are, and what products they need for themselves and their family in the future.

Making this investment in resource and a continued investment in infrastructure shows the confidence we have in the brand. That entrepreneurial spirit – which kept me going through the rain and cold of the show circuit, when foot and mouth almost destroyed my business on the country and equestrian show circuit, and countless other occasions when I questioned which path next – is still with me. The difference now is that we are a big, extended family, and each and every one of us embodies that Joules spirit.

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