Brand profile: Woolmark – from flock to frock

This article was originally published as ‘From Flock to Frock’ in the April-May 2013 issue of Marketing.

It is a mark of quality, adorning more than two billion garments since its creation, and is one of the most recognised brand marks ever created. But since its inception more than 45 years ago, the Woolmark brand has experienced significant trials and tribulations. 

In the early 1960s an international competition was held. Australia’s industry body for wool, the International Wool Secretariat, needed a logo. The mark would be used as a visual representation of fibre content and a mark of quality for products made of wool sold all over the world. The winning design comprised five black bands criss-crossing to form the shape of a skein, a loosely coiled length of yarn. In its 2011 review of the top 20 logos of all time, Creative Review voted the Woolmark logo number one, ahead of the likes of Michelin, Apple, Penguin and Pirelli.

Erminio Putignano, brand strategy consultant and former managing director of FutureBrand in Australia, says it is quite refreshing to see a logo stand the test of time almost untouched. “In our age you often see even very important, iconic logos in need of going through some sort of refresh, very often. To see a logo like this that has been almost intact for 50 years really is refreshing. It shows how great the simplicity of that design approach was.” But it’s also versatile, Putignano points out, easily altered in subtle ways to denote wool blends as part of the Woolmark certification system.

Officially credited to designer Francesco Saroglia, legend has it that no such person ever existed. With no other works publicly credited to his name, some have suggested Saroglia was a pseudonym for one of the judges of the logo competition, Franco Grignani, who side-stepped protocol to enter, and win, the contest.

Whatever the true identity of the designer, he or she is responsible for one of the most iconic brands of all time.

The Woolmark was born.

The Woolmark being inked

A MARK OF QUALITY

Two hundred years of selective breeding has seen the wool produced in Australia become recognised the world over as the finest for producing garments. Around 80% of the wool used in apparel globally comes from Australia. Australia’s neighbour to the East, its islands no stranger to the wooly beast, also produces an enormous volume of wool. But New Zealand wool is of a much coarser fibre, more suited for use in carpets. If you’re wearing it and it’s wool, it is probably Australian Merino wool.

Implemented in the 1960s as a global icon to eliminate the range of wool symbols in use, another driving factor was the need to fight off the challenge of synthetic materials, new at the time. After launch, it took more than a decade to fully roll our the brand across the traditional retail markets for wool: Britain, the United States, Japan, Germany, Holland and Belgium.

Since its creation, the Woolmark has been stitched onto more than two billion products. In many markets it is a certification mark accompanied by a set of standards and testing procedures. In other, newer markets, such as China, it’s a trademark, and is rigorously protected. A product bearing the Woolmark logo has been independently tested to predetermined specifications as a high-quality woollen product with guaranteed fibre content.

But it’s more than just quality. It’s nostalgia. “If I go back in time and remember the jumpers I was wearing and the Woolmark was there, that really becomes part of my story,” notes Putignano. That’s a powerful connection to have with millions of people.

MORE THAN A MARKETING ISSUE

Beginning in the 1980s, the Woolmark experienced a significant decline – a slow descent into confused meaning, poorly co-ordinated application and the loss of its illustrious roots. At one point, there were more than 80 versions of the logo in use around the world.

Reduced marketing investment and the brand explosion of the 80s saw the Woolmark take a back seat to the hero brands used by designers and retailers.

Further, the Australian wool industry was in crisis. A decade of drought led to the number of sheep in Australia dropping from more than 200 million to current levels of around 70 million. At the same time, there was a radical decline in the cost of synthetic fibres. The wool industry of the world’s largest wool producer was in crisis.

There were also structural issues around the industry’s operations, with one organisation owning the intellectual property for the promotion of demand, and another being responsible for the research and development work.

“The wool growers, for that decade or so that we weren’t marketing wool, really weren’t earning enough money to sustain the industry,” says Rob Langtry, chief strategy and marketing officer at Australian Wool Innovation. “For the industry to be sustainable, we needed to get the price up over time.”

Synchronised sheeping

A NEW STEWARDSHIP AND A DIFFICULT DECISION 

Langtry heads marketing for Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), a government-created, industry-owned enterprise. “It’s a pretty odd bird,” he says. AWI’s owners are the roughly 30,000 wool growers across the country, and its key functions are research and development to improve productivity among growers, and marketing, to promote the purchase and use of wool in manufacturing. At the end of the day, however, what matters is price. “Ultimately, because we sell every kilogram of wool we produce, this is not a volume game, this is a game of influencing the price of wool,” says Langtry.

Throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties wool industry bodies, boards and commissions came and went, over time merging and morphing with new inquiries, reviews and acts of parliament. The International Wool Secretariat became The Woolmark Company in the early nineties, and has been under the control of AWI since 2007, when it purchased the rights to the Company and its famous mark and set about reviving the brand. But, it may never have been.

When AWI came to control the Woolmark five years ago, it had a difficult decision to make: put the brand out of its misery, or attempt to restore it to its former glory?

Key to the decision was a piece of research conducted in 2006 by Millward-Brown. 22,000 consumers were polled in 10 key markets and it was found that the Woolmark logo had amazing recognition scores: 95% of Japanese, 94% of Britons and 85% of Germans recognised the mark. Even after a 10-year hiatus of actively marketing the brand, “the levels of recognition of this particular mark were legendary,” says Langtry.

For Putignano, the most striking aspect of the Woolmark brand is this endurance. “Even though it is a brand that has not been nurtured that well – there have been long periods of absolute silence, of chaotic management – the fact that people throughout the world have been exposed to this brand every single day, because they could see it in their own garments, really gives this brand a special place in people’s lives,” Putignano says.

With the results of that research, the decision was made to revive the brand. The first step was to bring the developmental and promotional aspects of the wool industry under the one roof. “The marketing and R&D being split was a bit of an oddity,” Langtry explains, “because the Woolmark brand itself didn’t really have a source of income other than royalties and licensing fees, and it was really sitting at arm’s length from the wool grower.”

However, awareness does not equal perception, positive or negative. As Putignano points out, 95% is a very large proportion, but signifies great potential rather than being an achievement unto its own.

Digging deeper, Langtry says the company’s research revealed a rather significant gap between awareness and consumer benefit. People below 35-years old were aware of the brand because it appeared widely on clothing, but had no idea of the meaning behind it. A generation had been lost. “That really dictated a communications approach to us which said we need to overcome the negatives, leverage the awareness and start to do a very strong global education program,” says Langtry.

A mark of quality

A VERY LENGTHY SUPPLY CHAIN

An ingredient brand, marketing the Woolmark has evolved into quite a complex task. Stakeholders range from the growers that collectively own the brand and fund it through levies, to the manufacturers who license the mark, to the end purchasers of clothing. “You don’t walk into a High Street retailer and say, ‘Can I have a kilo of wool?’ You walk in and buy an Armani suit,” Langtry says. “We work right across

a very lengthy supply chain, and that starts from the grower base and building their confidence that there’s actually a market for the product, all the way through top making, spinning, weaving, and then into relationships that we build with key accounts.”

To put the Woolmark in context, think about ingredient brands in other areas of people’s lives. In consumer technology, think of Intel, Android and even the apps and other features of your smartphone. Putignano considers Woolmark to be one of the first pure ingredient brands, and says that ingredient brands have never been as important as they are today, “becoming a fundamental model of how brands today are created and managed, especially in technology.”

In managing an ingredient brand, one of the key challenges is maintaining control. Putignano cites the disagreement between Apple and Google over the ‘Maps’ app. Apple ultimately opted to take back full control of the app, rather than retain Google Maps as a fundamental ingredient brand on its mobile operating system.

In the Woolmark Company’s unique, industryowned position, providing transparency and a voice for its 30,000 owners is vital. Every three years AWI carries out the Wool Poll, in which it asks growers how they would like their money invested. Before the most recent Poll in November last year, the split between R&D and marketing had been 50-50.

It’s now moving to 60-40 in favour of marketing, a major departure from the almost-nonexistent marketing of the preceding generation.

AN AUDIENCE DIVIDED

Another departure from history was Langtry’s decision to market the brand as just that, a brand, as well as continuing to use it as a quality assurance mark.

“We are in the process of putting together the next three years’ worth of campaigns,” says Langtry. “That increase in our marketing funding will essentially be to work on the key programs that we’ve already developed. We see our campaign structure as being one of consolidation of the five to six key platforms we have, and moving them increasingly to a digital basis… Where I think we’re now 60-40 digital-traditional, we’ll probably be 90-10 by the end of the three year period.”

With 30,000 stakeholders looking very keenly at how their money is spent, Langtry sees his role, and that of AWI, as custodians and investors of the growers’ funds.

“We do everything that you would expect us to do. We have traditional measures, we do the Nielsen tracker every six months, we measure shifts in brand equity, shifts in awareness, and shifts in perceptions across the attributes that are involved in our campaigns.”

The most important metric is the price of wool. “Apart from the other market factors, we take very close notice of what happens with the price of wool. Marketing is not the only influence on price – there are a lot of different factors in that – but as a trend line, the ultimate measure for us is the price of wool and what we call the Eastern Market Indicator, because that’s the price that growers are getting for their wool.”

As an ingredient brand, Woolmark counts among its target audience both end and trade users of wool. For the relaunch of the brand, Langtry says that after doing a fair amount of thinking and research, they initially set out with a trade-focused campaign, titled ‘No Finer Feeling’.

It was to be the thrust of the brand’s trade-focused activity, representing about 40% of a marketing spend of $120 million, with the main objective of putting wool back on the map for the fashion industry.

Second, it needed to kick off a long-term move to get consumers to look for wool when purchasing premium apparel.

“In the very first year, we deliberately set out to look like a brand that was working in the fashion space, even though for a decade we weren’t. Most of the reasoning behind that was not the direct appeal to consumers but was to start to rebuild confidence within the supply chain.

“It started as a trade-driven strategy, but with a very strong consumer sharp end. We started to form relationships with people who are strongly influential around fashion and apparel. So in that first year we looked like a fashion brand.”

Almost three years on from the launch of ‘No Finer Feeling’, Langtry says the brand is tracking pretty well. In the last read of its brand tracker survey, conducted with Nielsen, brand equity moves are largely positive. Additionally, Langtry is appreciating the warming of brand partners. “In that first year, after a decade of not being in the market, it was very hard for us to engage with brand partners to help tell our story, and in fact, the first two partners we had were Benetton and Missoni,” Langtry says. “This immediate season just past we had 32 of the world’s leading fashion brands, who were basically on our platform talking about wool and why they chose to design and produce apparel in it.”

AGENCY-LESS AND LOVING IT

About a year into the brand revival process, Langtry took the decision to not retain an agency. “One of the issues for us was that the wool story, depending on where you are in that supply chain, is told slightly differently, and it’s quite a complex thing for an external agency to get its head around.”

AWI has assembled an internal agency responsible for the creative thinking and production of content around wool’s journey from flock to frock. Now with a headcount numbering roughly 30, the team covers everything from the story on the farm to the runways of Paris, has strong video expertise (and professional enough for a day at the farm playing with baby lambs to remain productive), green screen facilities, graphic design, social media and digital expertise.

“We supplement that with external fire power,” says Langtry. “Take, for example, the ‘No Finer Feeling’ campaign, the ongoing creative thinking around that is done by a fellow called Simon Collins, who bounces between Washington and London… we use him a bit like an agency would use a creative director.”

Another example of external firepower, and another name you may have heard of, is Anne Geddes, one of Australia’s most iconic photographers. Interestingly, Geddes does not ordinarily engage in commercial partnerships. It’s understandable given the subject matter of newborn infants. “We’re very, very concerned when we get involved commercially with other people and I’m fortunate as a photographer that I can work to my own agenda,” Geddes tells Marketing. “But when the Woolmark Company approached me to represent them and be an advocate for wool, and particularly Australian Merino, it was just a natural synergy and it sounded perfect to me.”

One of Geddes images for Woolmark

In fact, it wasn’t even particularly uncharted territory for Geddes, who notes that when one’s main subject is sleeping babies it’s important to make them comfortable. “I looked back over some of my old images and I hadn’t realised how many of my images I had actually shot with wool before I worked with Woolmark.”

Geddes says she was, pleasingly, given freedom by Woolmark to be creative. “It was a pretty good brief because Woolmark said ‘do whatever you like’. So I came to them with all these images,” she says. “The Woolmark logo image (pictured opposite), was all about just sitting down and letting the mind be free and trying to think of a great idea, and I looked at that logo and thought that a baby could go right in the centre of that – it is just perfect.”

THE INTERNATIONAL WOOLMARK PRIZE

At the half-way mark of the twentieth century, the International Wool Secretariat started awarding an annual prize to emerging talent in the fashion industry. In the same year, 1954, two young men on the winners’ list were Karl Lagerfeld, in the coat category, and Yves Saint Laurent in the dress category (pictured above). Last year, AWI decided the Woolmark Prize was too valuable a proposition to let go. It’s especially valuable today, Langtry adds. “Really iconic global designers are becoming less critical, and there’s quite a democratisation of where design comes from. In that sort of environment, young designers don’t get an easy track through to retail.

Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Lauren both won a Woolmark Prize as young designers

“Young emerging talent won’t have an innate knowledge of wool. We can go to them as the wool industry, and as Woolmark, and we can connect them through a global competition to retail off-take. And we can do that without us setting ourselves up as a fashion judge, but really using our connections in the leadership areas of the fashion industry to help these people.”

The current judging panel for the Prize (after regional judging has taken place) includes the likes of Donatella Versace, Diane Von Fürstenberg, Victoria Beckham and Franca Sozzani, editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia and L’Uomo Vogue.

“Those winners, apart from winning a very healthy cash prize, also are connected directly with a number of the world’s leading retailers, Harvey Nicholls, for example, or 10 Corso Como. It’s a really solid leg up for what would be an emerging brand into that commercial space,” Langtry explains. “It’s quite exciting for us. It fulfils a strategy primarily of using the Woolmark as a device to discover emerging talent, and of using our connections and what we are to help that emerging talent find markets and create markets for its product.”

The winner of the 2013 International Woolmark Prize was Christian Wijnants, a 34-year-old designer based in Antwerp. His connection to Woolmark, and Merino as a material, will last throughout his career.

THE WOOLY ROAD AHEAD

So what’s next for the Woolmark brand? Is Langtry happy with where its sitting? “I’ve been in the brand marketing business for 35 years, and anyone who ever says they’re happy is probably resting far too heavily on their laurels,” he says. “I think it’s really challenging. I think we’ve made really positive progress. We’ve demonstrated that we can get a return, but we’re in a highly complex market that, if anything, is an early adopter of technology. So we’re having to be very light on our feet.”

And the marketing team has learned some key lessons along the way. “We’ve evolved in our main campaign, ‘No Finer Feeling’, from looking like a fashion brand to really having fashion brands talk on our behalf. That’s an evolutionary step,” Langtry explains.

“It took a couple of years to get there, but that’s genuinely starting to build a lot of traction for us now.

“We’ve been learning as we go. Are we happy with it? I think we’re happy that we’re progressing. Have we reached the point where we can’t do any better? Definitely not. Will we be required to adapt very quickly and very frequently? Absolutely yes – the category and the marketing environment out there dictates we have to.”

But what of the mystery surrounding the original designer of the mark? “Legend has it that of all the competitors in the world, the person who actually designed the logo, and whose name was on it, might have been a front person for a more famous designer,” he says.

Creative Review speculates that, with no other work attributed to Saroglia, the true artist is Grignani, whose other works include similar styles. The Woolmark Company, however, is content for the mystery to remain unsolved.

Creative Review