Interview: Guy Salter
By Josh Sims
Guy Salter is a brand guru, start-up consultant, luxury investor and chairman and founder of London Craft Week. He’s the man behind the resurgence of Asprey, the re-launch of Nyetimber and the creation of Duchy Originals – alongside many other brand successes – and on the side runs Crafted, his mentorship scheme for outstanding craftspeople.
A long-term champion of the British craft scene, Salter’s work focuses on what lies at the core of brands and culture: the craft itself. He was appointed the vice-chairman of the GREAT Britain campaign, and has deep roots in the world of luxury. We spoke to Salter about his work with businesses of all sizes, and zoom in on his view of “brands”, consumer behaviour, and his idea of the “discernment curve”.
ACM: You wear many hats – brand fixer, craft champion, luxury consultant. How do you describe what you do?
GS: Yes, it wouldn’t fit all on one business card. But basically when I get involved in a business the key value of it is that it’s a brand – I either get behind it when it’s still relatively new or it’s a business that’s fallen on hard times and got rusty and I do what’s required to take that business to the next stage. Along the way – going right back to when I first learnt how to create value around brands, at [UK high street brand group] Arcadia – I also always wanted some pro bono element [to my work] because it enriches what you do day to day.
You’ve worked with all manner of brands from Arcadia, as you mention, to the likes of Laurent-Perrier, Asprey and so on. Is there something that connects them for you?
Yes, I think they’ve all been brands with something real to them, at heart, and that realness translates into something the consumer gets. Go back to the early days of [pioneering UK high-street fashion retailer] Topshop and it was so clear what it was about, wasn’t it? That focus can be hard to get hold of. There has to be the truth there. People use all sorts of language – “brand essence” and so on – but what they’re really talking about is what the business does that’s better than most other similar businesses. Quite often people struggle to be clear about that. And when you’ve been doing what you do for hundreds of years, like Asprey, for example, that clarity can sometimes get lost.
You’ve worked with many start-ups. When do you find that some start-ups tend to go wrong?
The trouble often is where you start to get bigger, when you’ve got the bank’s voice, maybe minority investors, franchise partners, lots of different opinions from various overseas markets – and that’s just one pressure. But the bigger pressure is that of money, either the need to maintain a margin and to do so meaning you shave off X, Y or Z, or the opposite problem of having an investment burning a hole in your pocket and you’re not sure what to do with it, because now it feels like a new game and you don’t have the same kind of confidence as when you were doing it around your kitchen table.
Is there anything about the culture that makes start-ups more prevalent now?
I think the challenges are the same, but yes, the culture around the world is much more receptive to start-ups – not just to entrepreneurs who want to start a business, but also generally to people who are creative and just want to do something. That’s been a major change over the course of my career, even in countries [such as] Japan that are historically risk averse. Before there was a sense that “OK, you’ve started something, but we won’t be surprised if it doesn't work” – there was a sense of looking down on that [start-up founder] and certainly not helping much. And [that made it] hard to start again. But a lot of that has got much better. I do feel that if you look at social entrepreneurs or in the arts and artisan space there’s more a sense of “why not?”, that “this is what I love and I’m going to have a crack at it”. But it’s still very tough.
Big businesses have their own issues too, of course, right?
Oh yes. Look at significantly sized businesses and the thing that always worries me about their longevity is wondering where that spark will come from in future generations. How do you engineer in the “Elon Musk” kind of unpredictability? You can’t just leave that issue – you have to work at it and bring in whoever you need, do whatever you have to do. Apple is the classic example of where concerns arise over where the creativity will come from in the future. This is a problem for all businesses, but family businesses are well-placed to get it right, in part because they know that it could go so wrong, because there are so many examples of how it has, and in part because they’re typically more aware of the spark that the founder brought.
The next generation is very consciously given all the opportunity to think imaginatively about the business – that’s something non-family business executives don’t tend to get the chance to do, because in a big corporation the best choices often aren’t made until something forces the board to think again.
Do you think there have been improvements in addressing these kinds of issues?
I certainly think the very wealthy inside-family businesses are now quietly working away at these issues in a way they perhaps weren’t even just 20 years ago, with a whole ecosystem making a very good living off the back of their worries. It goes beyond just keeping a business creative but looking at how, for example, addiction issues or mental health issues in a family don’t derail the entire family’s finances. The financial stakes are much higher now. If you can find space for all the offspring within a business, then great, but there might occasionally be the one who just doesn’t fit in.
Hermès is an example of how it’s been tricky over the generations, with so many heirs, to keep everyone happy and on board. But it has more or less achieved that. The luxury sector really has been forced to figure out how best to get the balance between creativity and refreshing things, and being stable and risk averse. You are better than your last collection – but only just.
You created the Duchy Originals brand for the Prince of Wales. How did that come about?
This went back to a time when the Prince of Wales had a lot of tenant farmers who were unconvinced of the hassle of going organic and [he] wanted to demonstrate to them there was a premium in doing so by creating a product using organic oats. But the Prince was also being pulled in so many directions by the various charity projects he worked with, which he was passionate about, but which all needed money – and the main way he could help them was by doing a fundraiser, effectively. But there was a limit to how many of those he could do. He did one in New York and, of course, many of the [wealthy people] in attendance had a trust fund because it’s so tax efficient there, so the thought arose [about] doing something that would allow for the creation of his own foundation.
Having his name attached was both helpful and a problem. There was a lot of unease internally in the royal household. Externally there was almost too much enthusiasm, such that keeping control of everything became a challenge – some supermarket groups offered to fund everything and, with mounting costs, [that was tempting]. I was a bit of a lone voice saying “Hold on, let’s not just say yes to the first person that comes along…”
What’s the difference between a heritage brand – “heritage” being another of those phrases bandied about in recent years – and an old brand?
I think heritage means something. There’s some cultural value there. And in that sense, you stand for something more than just what you’re doing, because over the years you’ve provided something valuable to the locality or city or region you’re in and so become precious in some way to that community. You’re a small part of a bigger tapestry of identity. That’s why not every old brand is revivable.
And there’s still a lot of fluff around many of these brands, isn’t there?
Well, I mean, everyone is being sold a story – and it’s interesting the way marketeers have become quite blatant about it and actually talk about their “story”, which I think is a great mistake. You need stories, but saying to customers, “We know you like stories, so here’s one” doesn’t seem right to me. What matters is that the stories are real and reinforce what you do as being real. Nothing is worse than someone seeing through a weak, thin or embellished story that just used too many big words – “crafted” and “luxury” being among them, the use of which steers me away from those brands. I think their use shows that you don’t respect the brand, the product or the customer enough.
Do you think we’re wising up to brands somewhat over-selling themselves?
I do think there’s an increasing number of people who are like me. Let me give you an example. I recently decided I needed to get a meat slicer and once you start to look into it becomes apparent very quickly that, well, yes, there’s how much things cost, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re that much better. You have to decide what the key things are that really matter when it comes to a meat slicer. And when you do that all the puffery becomes very clear too.
Do you think we’re getting smarter as consumers?
I think the last 25 years has seen a movement towards more [product] knowledge. Pre-WW2 there was a tiny group of luxury consumers who had a relationship with luxury goods that meant they knew enough to be in dialogue with the maker, so what emerged had a bit of them in it. Jump to the 1960s, 1970s [and] 1980s and all the millions of new consumers came from a position of very little knowledge at all. That was the transformation of luxury to what it is now, with money spent on marketing because marketing meant you could indicate to those consumers who you couldn’t know individually why they should buy you. But after they’d bought a few things, a lot of those consumers fell out of love with the brands and learned a lot more. It’s true there are always those people who do a lot more research just as there are those who care very little and just want the kudos from buying this or that [brand]. But I think brands under-estimate that growing knowledge at their peril. With the over-expansion of flagship stores and logos and all that, no doubt there was a backlash. We’re in a more subtle world now with people passionate about individuality. And how they buy into household name brands, or not, is a much more subtle process too.
Twenty or so years ago you came up with the idea of the “discernment curve”. What do you mean by that?
Look at different luxury consumers in different markets, some more mature than others, and what you see is a growing interest in knowing more about the brands and their substance, but also very strong cultural influences. We came up with this notional watch that had all the attributes of a highly complicated Swiss-made watch, but this one was made in China. The luxury consumers in the UK and France, for example, showed some interest, but the ones in China gave it a big thumbs down. I think if we repeated that now there would be quite a bit of interest in China. At that stage I predicted that the discernment in the luxury market would overtake the increase in wealth – the wealth would be the fuel you put in the engine [of the luxury market], as it were, but the discernment was the chips in its electronics, and it’s now very much the chips that drives the market. Even the big brands are having to think about what they need to do to appeal to these little groups and sub-groups and not get it wrong.
I feel there’s a world coming – we’re not there yet – in which the iceberg of creative talent, all the people not well known but doing things just as well if not better than the well-known brands, [will become more visible]. And that if you can somehow make that iceberg more visible, I see a future in which – as long as you can feel confident that the quality of the unsung hero is good – the market will [gradually] become more and more fragmented. It’s democratisation if you like, the third stage of luxury.
Are we all somewhere on that discernment curve?
No, I think there will always be those people who couldn’t care less. But the thing about even those people is that they’re driven predominantly by peer pressure and the need for kudos. And if we get to the stage that you get much more kudos for having found, say, a relatively unknown but brilliant furniture maker, and that actually you look silly to have gone to Gucci Décor or Ralph Lauren or wherever, then even the group that doesn’t care now will be influenced. That’s all good news for craft makers.
Is craft still a muddied concept for many consumers?
I think “craft” [and] “crafting” are difficult words, especially in the UK – less so in France, Italy and Japan maybe, where the words don’t get in the way so much. In the UK, “craft” still has some connotations of knitting in the parish hall and people making second-rate homemade stuff. And likewise there are people in the contemporary craft space who see themselves as modern artists who hate the association with the word “luxury” because it sums up all they’re not about, while the reality is we’re all broadly in the same space. And that includes things like food and drink that have a much easier time of it, partly because things cost less. Someone can be passionate about their local potatoes and doesn’t feel they’re being precious in caring a lot about them, but it’s really the same thing and they’re likely paying a premium because they’re happy to support the local grower and so on. But I think this interest in beautifully made, beautifully designed things and the willingness to support that ecosystem is all hugely positive.
You’ve written that “we’re hungrier than ever to search out special things, people and experiences”. Why do you think this?
In part because most of us are lucky enough not to be living in Ukraine or in circumstances in which we have to deal with the really elemental things in life. And the minute you get beyond quite a low level of affluence actually the challenge is leading a satisfying life. That might be through buying things, or your home and what you put in [it] and the meaning it has, or because you take it a step further and want to start being more creative yourself.
I do realise that all this can seem so superficial, but actually I don’t think it’s superficial at all. As long as we’ve been around, the second we got beyond just surviving, human beings have wanted to create. There’s huge pleasure in that and for those exposed to it.
You run a mentorship programme for craftspeople. Is it a stereotype that craftspeople are not that good at business?
I think more often than not that’s actually true. If you’re an artist in Norway you get a grant from the government to do specific projects – how incredible is that? But in most parts of the world if you decide your passion is for making rugs, the fact is that it’s very hard to make a living from it. And more often than not you put your energies into the skills side and tend not to think about the money side or even marketing – because “surely everyone will see that what I’m doing is so special”. But we all know that’s not the case. Most of the time nobody even knows that’s what you’re doing.
Our thanks to Guy Salter for sitting down with us for this interview. Photography by Ollie Grove.