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Ultimo going bust isn’t just a lazy pun – it’s lazy marketing

Launch marketing expert James Roles outlines the major business lessons from the collapse of British lingerie brand Ultimo.
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It might seem odd that I’m upset about a lingerie company closing down. Granted, Ultimo’s products weren’t really designed with me in mind, but the larger ramifications of the brand’s upcoming closure are genuinely sad. This was the Scottish startup that could.

The brand running streets ahead in terms of lingerie NPD, offering a dual function: to be wearable in your day-to-day while also looking great.

So Ultimo going bust isn’t just a shock or a lazy pun – it’s lazy marketing. The UK lingerie market was valued at over £2.5 billion last year, so it’s not exactly a dying sector.

All the power to those who don’t, but most people need underwear. So Ultimo’s downfall seems shocking.

The problem is that it rested on its laurels. Steeped in rich heritage, the Baroness Mone-founded brand has had the likes of Kelly Brook, Peaches Geldof and Mel B model its ranges in the past. It’s collaborated with the likes of Asda and Debenhams. But for the last few years, aside from its rehashed ‘real women’ campaign in 2014, it’s not done anything of note. It’s not Brexit’s fault. It’s not consumers’ fault. It’s Ultimo’s fault.

The same thing has happened to Claire’s and Toys R Us. They’re household brands, and they appeal to a certain demographic. But as the internet has crept up and unleashed a flurry of new marketing methods and opportunities, they’ve failed to keep up. Because, as a business, keeping up isn’t what you should be doing. You need to be staying ahead. Adapting.

The problem Ultimo had is that once everyone else caught up, it failed to reinvent itself and stay relevant. By the time the brand realised this, it was too late.

When you’ve got Ultimo on one hand, you have Victoria’s Secret on the other. Granted, VS has been around longer, but the way in which it has constantly relaunched its brand offering and products is incredible, akin to something like the Marvel Universe or Pokémon.

It’s established its own self-contained warren of ideas for customers to dig into; its fashion shows are iconic, prime-time TV mainstays, boasting guest performances by everyone from Harry Styles to Fall Out Boy and Taylor Swift; its contracted models aren’t ‘models’, rather they’re ‘Angels’; and the in-store experience is just that: an experience. As soon as people go in, they’re immersed in the brand, assistants offering friendly advice and number-crunching, highlights from previous Fashion Shows pumping out of wall-mounted screens. In a world obsessed with the digital customer journey, VS is still seen as a leader in its field because it offers customers something real, something to get stuck into.

Ultimo hasn’t really been able to compete with that, nor has it matched its second set of competitors: own brand lines.

And Ultimo should have seen this coming. It worked with high street retailers on their own brand products. The market became saturated, and Ultimo lost its USP. Lingerie that was affordable, practical, glamourous, sexy and figure-enhancing no longer counted as
innovation, especially when it could be bought elsewhere at a similar quality for even less.

At this point, Ultimo should have looked at how it could reinvent itself. Not at the first or second profit warning, but when it was at the top of its game.

Because reinventing yourself is an essential part of what keeps a brand at the top. Relaunching your offering to show that you’re relevant, but never leaving behind what made you great.

Look at Coca-Cola – it’s just announced the launch of an alcoholic drink in Japan. It didn’t
need to do this. The business wouldn’t have crumbled without it, but the move shows that Coca-Cola’s thinking ahead – much like its extensive venture into healthy drinks predated the UK sugar tax.

Every business can learn from Ultimo. You have to relaunch your products and offering to fit into 21st century life. You can’t leave it until it’s too late. Because at the end of the day, you can’t blame politics or customer uncertainty for your poor performance. Of course, these factors do come into play, but people are still buying lingerie. They’re just not buying Ultimo’s.

And it is sad. Workers will lose their jobs and the brand will become a relic, a Woolworths. Ultimo changed a game that it can no longer play.

And let that be a lesson to all businesses. Exceed expectations and embed yourself in customers’ everyday lives, so when tough times hit, you’ve already relaunched, you’re already stable, you’re ready to go and nobody else is.

Never stop innovating, never slip out of your customers’ minds, never think you’ve done your best. You can always do better.

James Roles is the sales and marketing director at launch marketing specialist Five by Five.

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