Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen
Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen
A view from Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen

Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen on cracking China: five marketing lessons from the designer

Interior designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen offers key observations about launching in challenging markets, as well as some more general lessons learned during the past two decades running his design business.

It is – unbelievably – 20 years since Changing Rooms (the BBC TV home-makeover programme) ended. Since then I’ve been running my design business, House of Laurence, with my wife Jackie. Recently we’ve seen how successful some British brands, like Paul Smith, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, have become around the world, and we decided to launch a range of lingerie and our homewares products in the extraordinarily challenging markets of China and Mexico.

Be true to yourself

With a personality-based brand, you have to be stalwart about defending who you are

This is the most important lesson I have learned on this journey. With a personality-based brand, you have to be stalwart about defending who you are. There have been plenty of companies out there that felt that if they made me a little more ‘beige’, I’d sell better – and I have proved the reverse. If I’ve done something that’s a bit quiet in order to be commercial, I’ve found that people are not very interested. They like to buy something that reflects who I am, something that’s a little bit naughty, a little bit ‘punky’.

Have the confidence to express what your brand is all about

This is difficult when you’re British. We were born with a 'Hugh Grant attitude' that means we’re always stuttering and stumbling about what makes us special. Actually, one of the things that I learned in Asia was that anything that is branded ‘British’ is considered to be extraordinarily desirable. It’s thought to be witty, clever – even democratic. It’s something that they really don’t have in their own market. So actually, not hiding your light under a bushel is a really important lesson. We’re just not good at going into a room and saying how lovely we are – unless we’re David Walliams.

Get compromise right

Your brand DNA needs to be immediately apparent; but there will be times when the product itself has to be re-tailored

This, again, is difficult because, yes, your brand DNA needs to be immediately apparent; but, inevitably, there are going to be times when the product itself has to be re-tailored. I always like to think of it in terms of music: the original idea – or in my case, the design – is the tune, which can then be re-orchestrated in a number of different ways, from a symphony to an irritating advertising jingle. As long as you have kept that kernel of truth within the mix, you can afford to bend and stretch and shape the product in a much more flexible way for different markets.

Make sure the brand identity is right for you

The real turning point for everything I’ve ever done is the point at which I waded in and took control. It’s a temptation to think that there are people out there who will be able to come up with something wizard, but actually, packaging is your shopfront. It’s the thing that people will judge you by. There is always a risk that you become over-impressed by an expert who will tell you that that’s not going to work or it’s not right for now. Actually it has to be right for you. If it’s a rather preposterous 'olde English' Tudor typeface, and that’s you, then do it, for God’s sake. I fought furiously to keep my dragon right the way through the minimalist 90s, when that was thought to be far too post-modern and I should just have a line or a wiggle instead, but, to me, it’s a very personal symbol and something I’m very proud to still have as my masthead.

Enjoy it – it should be a blast!

If you live your life as your business or your career, it’s a wonderful way of keeping your excitement and energy alive

I’m really, really lucky. I don’t have a worklife, I don’t have a play life: it all merges into one. That’s quite 18th-century, I suppose. I live above the shop, and that can mean that we’re very busy and ‘worky’. I may be in Singapore, or I may be talking to China at 6am on a Sunday, but it can also mean that on weekdays, Jackie and I can slope off to a restaurant. Or go to our house in Cornwall. If you live your life as your business or your career, it’s a wonderful way of keeping your excitement and energy alive. That kind of emotion communicates itself to people. I think people buy my things because they can see what I’ve put into them. The names are a little bit irreverent, everything’s a little more 'panto', but that’s what you buy from me. If you want 'good-taste beige', then go and shop with Kelly Hoppen. If you want something that speaks of Twankfordshire, then shop with LLB. Ten shops in China can’t be wrong!

The BBC2 documentary Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen: Cracking China will be aired in mid-July.