Is This China’s Worst New Brand? Cambridge University Clothing



In a recent blog post, I discussed how and why Chinese brands are not just holding their own in China, but winning against global titans like P&G, Nike, Unilever, Coca-Cola. A big reason is that there are Chinese entrepreneurs with a great feeling for what kind of brand messaging works best in China. 

But, of course, success is not automatic. China can also produce its share of Edsel brands, clunkers that seem from the start preordained to fail.

One such case has some special resonance for me. There’s a new retail clothing brand in China called “University of Cambridge”. It was just launched a few months ago, and there are already about ten stores across China, including one in the Shenzhen shopping mall closest to where I live. The parent company is also based in Shenzhen. 

I was more than a little surprised to see the Cambridge clothing shop open. For one thing, my guess is that I’m one of probably fewer than fifty graduates of the English university living in Shenzhen (Cantab. M.Phil 1985) . So, the “captive population” is going to be very small. What’s more, from a quick look around, I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing any of their clothing , best described as a slinky, polyester mélange of “Ye Olde England” and futuristic Chinese design. 

But, the bigger reason I was surprised to see the University of Cambridge store open is that I can’t believe the university would grant a license to a Chinese retailer to use the University of Cambridge name. Yet, on the walls of the store, as well as on the label of the apparel, it says that this company does, indeed, have the official license from Cambridge. Also, stuck into a lot of the clothing on display are pins emblazoned with the Cambridge emblem: cantab2If anyone can verify that this is legit, that this university did give this Chinese entrepreneur a license, I’d certainly like to know. The store is so brazen in claiming to have the license it’s hard to believe they’re making it all up. But, it could be. 

The store claims they are the first ever to get this kind of license from the university, and that it was granted in 2009, the 800th anniversary of Cambridge’s founding. They also say they have big plans for global expansion. If they don’t have a valid license to use the Cambridge name, then of course any such plan is going to fail from the outset. 

But, if they do have the license, I’d suggest someone at Cambridge should be doing a better job controlling how its name is being used. The clothing is really atrocious. If it were just t-shirts and sweatshirts with the Cambridge logo, it would be one thing. But, the store only has its own designs, both men’s and women’s, and nothing that really connects the styles to the university. 

The store is not without its sources of amusement. In describing the university, it provides a list of famous alumni, based on various categories. My favorite among these: “Politicians: Charles, Mandela, Lee Kuan Yew”.  I’m guessing they mean Prince Charles, though it’s clearly a stretch to describe him as a politician. 

I’m a particularly bad “one man focus group” to evaluate which brands are going to be successful in China. On most things, my tastes are way out of whack with those of the host population. But, I’m pretty confident the Cambridge University retail chain is going to sputter and die. Associating yourself with a famous European institution is not a bad idea by itself, and lots of successful Chinese brands look to capture a kind of European cache. But, this stuff is just too ugly, and too expensive, to catch on. 

The target market seems to be very affluent middle-aged Chinese of both sexes. They have much better, safer and more tasteful choices in the same mall: including Ralph Lauren, Zegna, Lacoste, Louis Vuitton, Canali, Gucci.

Ford marketed its Edsel brand for two years, before killing it off in what is still the biggest and fastest failure for any mainstream auto brand. My guess is that University of Cambridge retail chain won’t survive even that long.