Design thinking with Fortnum & Mason … the beautiful reinvention of a British retail icon

February 28, 2017

In the early 1700’s William Fortnum was employed as a footman in the household of Queen Anne. In 1707 he and his then landlord Mr. Mason, established their grocery supply business. In 1761, William Fortnum’s grandson Charles, went into the service of Queen Charlotte and the Royal Court education and subsequent affiliation, led to an increase in business. Over the centuries anecdotes abound about Fortnum & Mason’s role in supplying the very best of produce to royalty, Britain’s armies overseas (and also sending fortifying beef tea to Florence Nightingale in the Crimea).  The 1922 Everest expedition, for example, simply couldn’t start without 60 tins of quail in foie gras and four dozen bottles of champagne (the appropriately-named Montebello 1915).

Fortnum & Mason is 310 years old. A heritage of this kind is a wonderful thing: proof that a brand can survive the constant buffeting winds of change to remain relevant for generation after generation. But longevity can also be dangerous. Customers may grow complacent, and presume that you’ll always be there even if they themselves don’t actually buy anything from you. It can also lead to a certain fustiness, with the brand appearing old-fashioned in comparison to the new, trendy operations on the block. Throw in the royal patronage that Fortnum’s has, and the way in which it has become a focus for anti-austerity and other protesters, and the latter problem increases in spades.

It is these challenges that Fortnum’s has been directly addressing in the last few years, since Ewan Venters joined the company as CEO and brought in Zia Zareem-Slade as Customer Experience Director. From the outset, the duo wanted to tackle certain perceptions that had settled on the brand and stuck.

In an interview with Creative Review she says “Fortnum’s is a prestigious, well-established brand but when you started talking to customers, they were like ‘love Fortnum’s, come there once a year for shortbread for my granny’,” says Zareem-Slade. “People assume we’re just for Christmas. So that’s a real challenge, to grow a business and change that perception. Then there were other people that were like ‘love Fortnum’s but it’s not really for me, it’s for the tourists’. There was a big perception that it was full of tourists and it was this stalwart of Britishness.

“I had probably similar ideas when I first started peeking my head around the door,” she admits. “But when you unpick it a little bit, you realise that at the heart of Fortnum’s is innovation and creativity, and a huge amount of energy.”

Zareem-Slade’s background is in digital, particularly retail and ecommerce, and during her career she has worked for brands including Tesco, Virgin Atlantic and John Lewis. She and Venters met when both were working at Selfridges and he approached her to join Fortnum’s when he moved there in 2012. “In his words, he says I ‘bang on a lot about joining the dots up for customers’. So he said, ‘come on then, show us what you’re made of and bring that point of view to Fortnum’s, a brand that is steeped in history’. He saw the opportunity to think differently about marketing communications, design and tech.”

Innovation isn’t something that automatically comes to mind with Fortnum’s but Zareem-Slade points out that its history is full of it. “It was one of the world’s first multi-channel retailers,” she says. “As soon as the telephone was invented, Fortnum’s was there…. Hamper up Everest? No problem. So if you think of innovation about responsiveness to market changes, it’s unlike any other business.”

She also highlights how Fortnum’s was an early adopter of ecommerce though admits that after its website was launched, it “got neglected from there on in”. Sorting this out, making the brand more outward-facing, and bringing more Londoners back into the Piccadilly store were therefore the most pressing quests for the team from the outset.

In the past four years, all these intentions have all been achieved, alongside significant other developments. To do it, Venters and Zareem-Slade have made very clever use of design and creative thinking but also bold decision-making.

Some of the changes from the outside look small. Zareem-Slade cites significant achievements with simply changing the packaging on products such as Fortnum & Mason’s confectionery to make them dynamic and unexpected, for example. But this was not as straightforward as it might appear. The new designs – created by Design Bridge and featuring illustrations by Timorous Beasties – ultimately “transformed the sales line” (with the product inside remaining exactly the same) though Zareem-Slade describes a long internal process to get them right for the brand.

“My own personal taste is probably more contemporary than people would assume the creative drivers of the business would be, and I worked very closely  with the chairman [Kate Hobhouse] on that particular project. It was tough. It was tough to get to a place where we were ‘that’s it’. We both have very different aesthetics but there was a point in time in the presentation room where we pulled out these ideas and we both went ‘that’s it’. We knew we’d nailed it – because the decorative detailing and sparkle that she loves was met with the bold, slightly more contemporary [look that I love]…. It is all that attention to detail and that care that has netted a result that’s been fantastic for the business and something that we’re incredibly proud of.”

The brand has introduced other playful, fun designs and product innovations across lines including biscuits, tea and champagne, which come together to give Fortnum’s a far more contemporary atmosphere than it had previously.

Zareem-Slade has also taken the store out into the wider world. The brand has a franchised shop in Dubai and small outposts at King’s Cross Station in London and Heathrow Terminal 5, but has also hosted pop up events at venues including Somerset House and the Port Eliot festival in Cornwall. Some of the pop-up mentality has also come back to Piccadilly, with Fortnum’s hosting events and cookery classes, and even a major British art exhibition last autumn. The latter featured works from the collection of Frank Cohen and saw £20 million of British art – from Lynn Chadwick to the Chapman Bros – displayed in store.

While the emphasis of these projects has been on surprise and delight, there have also been elements of serious rebranding at Fortnum’s too. The Fountain, a restaurant attached to the Piccadilly store, has been converted into a standalone offering. Designed by Martin Brudnizki Design Studio – who has also designed restaurants across the Ivy Group – and communications and design studio Otherway, it has been transformed and renamed as 45 Jermyn St.“The brief for everyone was old school  glamour meets contemporary London and that is what it does,” says Zareem-Slade of the restaurant. “It feels like it’s always been there but you get young men and women in there for a cocktail, you get our regular customers who used to come into the Fountain and have their Welsh rarebit and cup of tea and it works really well.”

If you’re a fan of Fortnum’s as it is though, fear not, for not everything will change. “There are things that we’d be silly to try and mess with,” says Zareem-Slade. “One of the big conversations is always carpet. Food and carpet naturally don’t feel like they’re bedfellows. But actually the carpet is there to slow you down, it’s that thing that subliminally makes people [relax] and changes the pace and actually does a huge job for us. Because it makes you calm down, slow down and it feels different…. Now, obviously I’d love to re-lay the carpet and sort the colour out a bit and make sure the density on it is different, but it’s a big beast.”

Otherway is a regular collaborator with Fortnum’s, working with them across a wide range of projects, from window displays to packaging, and founding partner Ben Lewin cites Zareem-Slade’s mix of boldness plus attention to detail as being crucial to the success of Fortnum’s recent changes. “We always say we want to work with smart and fearless clients, and she’s that all over,” he says. “Somebody who’s got the balls to drive things through but also constantly checks why you’d want to do something, so it doesn’t come out as fake.”

Zareem-Slade’s remit is wide, meaning that all creative decisions are channelled through her. From the outside, it seems a daunting challenge for one person to pull off, though her creative direction has certainly allowed a more singular voice for Fortnum’s, in its many forms, to come through.

“It’s a big remit,” Zareem-Slade admits. “However, it’s a big brand but it’s a small business. It’s double the size it was when I started, but it’s a small business. So I can affect change.”

Zareem-Slade’s confidence and savvy with digital also allowed the redesign of the website to take place in a way that sounds positively maverick for a major retail brand. “We approached that in a really innovative way,” she says. “You can call in all the normal tech companies and I went through that process. [But] Fortnum’s is about innovation so we’ve got to do it differently. So I scrapped that whole process and then found a small, boutique software development house – Red Badger – and in a weekend they did a hackathon with open source technology, scraped our entire site and gave us a working prototype. And then once we had the confidence that it could stand up and do what it needed to do, we developed the entire site from start to finish in eight months, which is unheard of in the industry.”

The site now represents over 30% of the sales business, and the new, more playful side of Fortnum’s also comes through there, via products such as The Tea Post, a tea subscription service developed with Otherway. The product was inspired by looking at how US brands are using subscription services, b and subscribers receive different loose tea varieties each month, in a box specially designed to fit through letterboxes. “People view the product in a different light even though essentially it’s still Fortnum’s amazing tea,” says Otherway’s Ben Lewin. “There’s a whole new appreciation for it.”

Design thinking is at the heart of all of Fortnum’s new approaches, though this, like innovation, has in fact long been an element of the business. The Fortnum’s archive is vast and rich, containing artworks and designs from well-known names such as Edward Bawden, Rex Whistler and Oliver Messel, alongside many others.

The archive is seen as both an inspiration and a challenge by the internal team and the design studios it collaborates with. “You go through the archives and they were either so smart that they got to such an amazing point of view, or they just didn’t care!” says Lewin. “They were really pushing what was relevant for that day – the illustrators they worked with, the writers that they brought in were pretty innovative. I think what Ewan and Zia want to do is bring that innovation back to Fortnum’s.”

Fortnum’s has drawn on the archive at times – particularly in its recent cook book by Tom Parker Bowles – but Zareem-Slade is extremely protective over its use, and is keen to focus on the brand’s design future rather than its past.

“We look at the archive a lot but what I find with a lot of people is they want to rip it off or they do a bad imitation, and that’s why I’m very protective of it,” she says.

“With any design partner that we work with, the challenge to them is to get good enough to put it into the archive…. I want someone in this seat in 60, 70, 100 years’ time going ‘well, that was super clever’. It’s too easy to rip it all off. It would be the lazy route through.”

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