Creative Partnerships

From Catalogue to Clicks: Freemans' Journey into the Digital Age with MullenLowe UK

The brand's chief customer officer Richard Cristofoli and MullenLowe's Nicky Bullard talk about its transformation

By Creative Salon

For heritage brands, fitting into the digital age can be tricky, not least when you are a 118-year-old catalogue company. Like many businesses, Covid-19 was a moment for business transformation and Freemans sought out an agency that could help it to embrace its digital evolution wholeheartedly and proactively.

Freemans wanted to transition from a catalogue-based business model to a digital one and to do so, brought along Mullen Lowe UK for the ride.

2023 saw the agency shake off the gloves with a new mantra, 'Positive Dissatisfaction', and a call to do things differently, innovate and get people talking. It certainly did that with Freemans' rebrand, showcasing the breadth of the brand's e-comms offering and a campaign marking the online retailer's earliest-ever festive ad.

Richard Cristofoli, the chief customer officer at the commerce brand, and Nicky Bullard, CCO at agency MullenLowe UK, discuss the creative aspects of the partnership, including the "Made You Look" campaign. They also share the importance of adapting to changing consumer behaviours, understanding customer attitudes, and employing creative strategies to drive brand growth and relevance in the digital age.

How did you move from catalogue to digital?

Richard Cristofoli: Freemans Grattan Holdings (FGH) is a network of various brands. The business has a history of delivering growth by adding smaller niche catalogue brands to its portfolio over time. When I joined in June 2020, we were operating 11 retail brands. But it became very obvious very quickly that this model wasn't really fit for the digital age. So, we took some time to assess which brands had the most potential and where to focus our energy and efforts. In a digital world, transparency is key, and bidding against each other with a common product pool was chaotic.

The world was in a disruption and we decided to relaunch Freemans because it had the best customer awareness among our brands. Despite challenges then and now, it was one of only two consistently profitable brands. Its customer base, particularly Freemans' credit customers, was five times as valuable as the average FGH shopper, showing strong loyalty and frequency.

We moved quickly, relaunching the brand in September after developing a strategy. Though we weren't fully prepared for an agency partnership, we knew we needed clarity on our identity and to adapt to the disrupted world. Since then, we've tripled the customer base and more than doubled Freemans' size.

So we decided to reassess our brand's direction and seek a creative partnership. While our in-house team had been fantastic, we felt it was time for the next step. These discussions began a year ago, setting the stage for our next chapter.

Nicky Bullard: I remember our first chemistry meeting and that pitch process. I was the only one not in the room because I had Covid. I listened to the brief and heard how the brand had moved quickly to a new space, yet perception hadn't caught up. It took me back to my childhood when my parents had little money. My only access to anything stylish was through the Freemans catalogue, which my mum's friend used to run for all the mums. I remember the excitement when the clothes arrived. I got a Burberry Mac, though it wasn't Burberry. And I wore that Mac for about three years until the arms were halfway up mine, and my mum was probably still paying for it. But the joy she got from giving us access to fashion was significant.

This brand democratized fashion, which was important then and remains important today. We need to make people realize that. It's a brilliant challenge.

How do you balance attracting a new, younger audience while maintaining the loyalty of your existing customers?

Cristofoli: Having moved quickly to relaunch Freemans as a vibrant digital department store, we took customers on that journey with us. Just before creating the brief, about a year ago, we spent a lot of time doing two things. First, we conducted a significant piece of quantitative market segmentation, focusing on attitudes rather than age or demographics, as attitudes fundamentally drive choice in our categories of fashion, beauty, and home.

Second, we talked to customers from these segments, including potential customers and our existing customer base. What was encouraging was even our existing customers expressed a desire for us to be bolder, braver, and more modern. While we've made significant strides in modernization over the past three years, we still have room to grow as we're not only benchmarked against our past selves but also against our competition. This feedback gave us permission, so to speak, to push boundaries further.

I firmly believe that part of our job in transitioning brands is to give existing loyalists a sense of pride, almost as if they were ahead of the curve all along. It's about fostering a feeling of "I told you so" when they introduce their friends to the brand. Working in partnership with MullenLowe, we've begun unlocking this potential, although it's just the beginning of our journey. Over the past six months, the public has started to see glimpses of our progress.

Bullard: At the beginning of the pitch, we were thrilled by the extensive work already done on segmentation. We utilized our proprietary tool to analyze that segmentation, examining how those audiences interacted with the category, their propensity to buy, and their shopping behaviours.

Our goal was to lower the target age slightly, bringing it down to the mid-40s from where it was previously indexing higher. We identified and enhanced two distinct segments: 'Style Maximizers' and 'Statement Makers'. These are women who find joy in shopping and are highly stylish, seeking recognition for their style in both their wardrobe and home decor. This discovery was crucial and led us into the creative platform.

What strategies were employed in developing Freemans creative platform?

Bullard: In the briefing, one of our main goals was for viewers to see Freemans with fresh eyes. Throughout the pitch process, we explored several ideas, but "Made You Look" stood out. It not only resonated with our vision but also with the brand's essence of wanting to be memorable to everyone.

We aimed to prove this by showcasing the products in the best light possible. The visual and tone of voice guidelines were developed simultaneously, ensuring consistency and evolution. We started with accessibility, refining the colour palette for maximum impact without sacrificing creativity. Every product presentation was designed to catch the eye and evoke excitement, whether it was fashion or air fryers. Sound was also a priority, with digital sounds enhancing the overall experience.

Cristofoli: One of the aspects we appreciated about the MullenLowe approach was the comprehensive 360 approach outlined in the brief. It wasn't solely focused on a traditional TV advert, which wouldn't align with our digital-first brand ethos. Instead, it emphasized viewing everything through a digital lens first and foremost, even shaping the soundscape of our content.

This approach fostered a seamless collaboration between our internal team and Nicky's team, creating a shared partnership dynamic. The energy our team gained from the copy workshop Nicky and the team led was palpable, and they've since embraced and expanded upon it. This partnership has been incredibly enriching for me as it transcends the typical tensions between internal and external creative teams, fostering a healthy and productive working relationship.

Going forward, what are the shared ambitions?

Cristofoli: We're fully aware that we're on a journey. We just haven't reached our destination yet, not by a long shot. Over the past three and a half years, we've made significant progress, but there's still much ground to cover. Freemans has transitioned from being moderately recognized to gaining better traction, but there's more work to be done. As Nicky pointed out, our customer experience (CX) still has room for improvement. We're currently undergoing a major tech re-platforming exercise to streamline and enhance efficiency moving forward.

We're a restless bunch, always onto the next challenge. However, we also understand the importance of celebrating our successes and acknowledging how far we've come, both for our own well-being and that of our team.

Looking ahead, one of the exciting developments on the horizon is the launch of a new, more modern financial services product.

As an organization, we operate on a dual-income model: retail and financial services. Financial services have always been part of Freemans' DNA. We've heard countless stories from customers who credit Freeman's for enabling them to afford things they otherwise couldn't. However, we recognize that the world of financial services has evolved, prompting us to introduce Flexi3. This new product offers three months of interest-free credit, with no upfront payment required. This speaks to our commitment to democratizing fashion and style, making them more accessible in a responsible manner, especially in the current climate.

But this is just the beginning. We're committed to further developing our financial services offer and innovating our product proposition. With a new chief merchandise officer leading the charge, we're focused on providing tangible proof points to support our communication efforts as we strive to build a bigger, brighter, better Freemans.

Bullard: From our perspective, there's a constant drive to elevate the brand while keeping it relatable. In everything we shoot and all the work we do, we strive to evoke that gasp, that sense of astonishment. I recall sharing one of our Christmas shots with someone, and they mistook it for Harvey Nichols. If you had told me that a year ago about Freemans, I might not have believed it because people tend to put us in a box. I want us to break out of that box and create something entirely unique, something that keeps astonishing people, making them say, "Wow, that's Freemans." They proudly wear our clothes and showcase our interiors. The beauty aspect is equally important. So for us, it's a continual journey of elevation while remaining relevant and relatable.

As Richard said, "Let's keep elevating but also stay grounded." We've achieved that with our recent shoots for Christmas and Autumn/Winter, ensuring diversity in our casting. We cater to our target audience while also embracing diversity. In our recent work, we featured a diverse range of women, including a fashion model, an average-sized woman, which for the UK is size 14, a woman of colour, and a woman in her 50s with a vibrant past. It was incredible to see how they interacted and blended together, sending a clear message: we don't put anyone in a box.

If you love style and enjoy shopping, Freemans is the place to be. We must always direct people online to our digital department store.

Watch the whole interview from MullenLowe and Freemans below:


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