After coming out of a tough transitional phase, Danish fashion brand Noa Noa is taking off in the UK under the stewardship of franchise development manager Søren Kok Jacobsen
Founded in 1981 by Danish brothers Harald and Lars Holstein as a wholesale fashion brand, Noa Noa has become an international retail franchise with a presence in 20 countries. After expanding into nearby Sweden and then other European countries in the 1980s, it adopted the franchise model in the 1990s to enable an even bigger global push. It also moved away from its wholesale roots to create its own line of clothing that its retail outlets stock exclusively. But while Noa Noa’s name may mean ‘simple and harmonious’ in Tahitian, the franchise’s journey hasn’t been without a few bumps in the road.
When Søren Kok Jacobsen joined the company in 2014 as franchise development manager, Noa Noa was in a state of flux. Since 2006, it had been under the management of a private equity firm but when private owners bought the business in 2014, it underwent some big changes. “It’s a huge advantage having private owners because they’re more engaged with the business,” says Jacobsen. “The transition allowed us to return to the heart of what the brand is about: being true to yourself and allowing women to express their personalities rather than chasing what’s in fashion.” To this end, Noa Noa hired a new head designer who was charged with capturing a feminine, romantic look that’s both bohemian and modern. And in keeping with its ‘be true to yourself’ philosophy, the brand also developed a stronger sense of its own unique style. “Rather than designing things based on what we see elsewhere, we have more confidence in our own designs,” Jacobsen adds.
Unfortunately, steering Noa Noa through these changes has meant Jacobsen was forced to watch as both franchisor-owned and franchisee-owned stores were closed. Under the previous management, there was an emphasis on rapid growth but unfortunately not all the new stores were generating a healthy profit. The new private owners knew that the situation wasn’t tenable and the stores that weren’t performing had to be shut. Two franchise outlets in the UK have closed shop since 2014, along with others around the world. “Saying goodbye to our franchisees wasn’t fun but it was necessary,” Jacobsen reflects. “Although it was tough, it allowed us to do some clearing up and have a fresh start. We now have a healthy turnover.”
And while having to admit something’s not working is never easy, it has allowed Noa Noa to fine-tune its strategy and identify which areas it could improve. For one thing, it invests heavily in identifying the right franchisees and then giving them the training they need. You don’t have to be clad in designer togs or be a fashion expert: you just need a decent understanding of the fundamentals of business and a willingness to learn. “We recognise that the whole point of a franchise is that franchisees can expect to get help,” Jacobsen says. “It’s almost impossible to find the ideal franchisee so we’ll always help them where it’s needed.” To achieve this, the franchise creates a personalised support package, based on a person’s strengths and weaknesses. So if they don’t have much experience in the fashion industry, for example, they’re given help with hiring staff who do and choosing which pieces from the collection to stock in their shop. To help with this and keep franchisees in the black, a new local sales manager for the UK has been hired to regularly travel across the country and visit stores.
Noa Noa has also become a lot pickier when it comes to the location of shops. “There have been times in the past when we’ve not chosen the right place so today we’re really strict about where we open,” says Jacobsen. “Things have changed in retail as well: whereas ten years ago people might have been willing to go a little out of their way to find an independent shop, these days you have to be very close to where the customers are. Location is a much bigger factor now than it ever was.”
Acknowledging that the British high street is a tough place to operate right now, Jacobsen believes that as well as a strong location strategy Noa Noa has something else in its favour: its Danish roots. Whether it’s the national obsession with the concept of hygge, binge-watching The Killing or an interest in the country’s fashion labels, Brits seem to have an insatiable appetite for Danish exports. “We haven’t done much to localise the branding,” says Jacobsen. “We’ve picked up on the interest in all things Danish and, as a nordic brand, we find that we’re relevant all over the globe. We only design one collection that’s sold in all markets.” As for what’s behind international interest in his culture, Jacobsen can only hazard a guess. “Perhaps it’s because Danes are generally very relaxed and people see that in the products we create,” he says. That being said, not everything that sells well in Denmark works in the UK so franchisees get total control over what items from the collection they stock.
What’s more, while many of the large high-street retailers are falling over each other in a race to copy the latest catwalk trends faster and cheaper, Noa Noa is happy to sit things out and do its own thing. “We deliberately don’t follow fashion trends and customers like that,” Jacobsen says. He points to the company’s production standards as one example: Noa Noa’s clothes are made in factories that pay workers fairly and it’s proud to be a member of the Business Social Compliance Initiative, which encourages sustainable supply chain policies. “We can’t compete with big chains that mass-produce clothes and we wouldn’t want to,” he says.
And this strategy appears to be working. “Now we’re in this new phase we’re looking ahead and have some very exciting plans,” Jacobsen says. Globally, the franchise opened five shops in 2015, four in 2016 and is well on track to add 14 more to the network by the end of this year. In the UK, it has nine franchised shops up and running, having just added the ninth in Edinburgh in June. At least two more UK shops are set to open this year in Inverness and Colchester and Jacobsen believes that ultimately the network could have as many as 50 franchisees on these shores. “Even if we reach that target we’ll never have a huge market share but being small is our advantage as it allows us to offer something unique,” Jacobsen concludes. “There will always be a place in the market for brands that are a bit different.”