Caroline Rolfe has over spent over 15 years working on digital and retail projects. She has led digital transformation and e-commerce businesses for brands such as GHD, Belstaff and Links of London. She is also a staunch Liberal Democrat.
With Caroline’s experience in running retail business functions and her love of politics I wanted her view on the impact of Brexit on brands. I especially enjoy our discussions as politically we are very different.
Leon Bailey-Green: We discussed a lot of things after the Brexit vote, but one thing which stood out was your concern as to how British brands would be perceived by European shoppers. Is it still a concern you have?
Caroline Rolfe: Absolutely. Since I have been working in retail one of the things I have most enjoyed is seeing the impact and success of the brands that I’ve worked with in markets outside of the UK. I am passionate about working for British brands and seeing them succeed globally and therefore my concern was that there would be a political impact on buyers that was in a sense outside of a marketeer or brand managers ability to influence. Ideally I want British brands to have the same fighting chance for share of wallet as their competitors from across the globe.
Many retailers are enjoying an export boost thanks to the pound’s value. Can you bring yourself to admit that has been a positive consequence of Brexit?
I can absolutely acknowledge that this has been a short term positive impact of Brexit but I think that its short sighted to label it as a positive consequence in the long term. The boost in export is largely down to the devaluing of the pound creating an incentive for those buying in euros/dollars etc to look to the UK to shop whilst things are favourable. The ultimate benefit is really only to the end consumer and therefore counters the drive behind Brexit and the protectionism of UK based retail and economy.
Richard Branson has been very vocal about his opposition to Brexit. He is now funding campaigns to halt the process. As a Brexiteer the Virgin brand now has negative connotations for me and I’m sure thousands of others. What are your thoughts on the impact of CEOs getting involved in politics in this way?
Richard Branson runs a global business and therefore I totally understand why he would be anti Brexit and campaigning against it as he is protecting against a projected negative impact on his businesses. I believe he is right to vocalise his opinions and personally have a renewed respect for him taking the bold step to share his opinions. But I can understand why if you are pro Brexit you would then question your brand alignment. My challenge to that would be that now that the referendum has been decided he will, like everyone else, need to adjust his approach and should be judged on how he leads his business to adapt to the changes vs. his initial opinions.
I am frustrated by people who would still like the UK to remain in the EU but won’t say so for fear of being called a Remoaner. Instead, they use legal challenges and cite ‘process’ as means to sabotage leaving. Be honest, if you had the power to stop Brexit would you?
Yes I would, 100%. But I realise I can’t do that and my support and campaigning for the Liberal Democrats won’t help towards that either as the ball has started rolling now. I still regret how the referendum came about in the first place and how it was campaigned for as the people of the UK were definitely not given the full picture on either side – and I think that’s because neither side knew the details about what would happen. You wouldn’t ever sign a contract without reading the T&C’s – and I believe that’s what we were asked to do with that vote. However I now think my value within the process is to get and stay informed about what is happening and ensure that the changes that come about, where they directly impact retail, are managed in the best possible way. I also feel that my involvement in the upcoming election is important as it will hopefully mean that the right people are in power to make the best out of a bad situation!
As retailing becomes very much an international game, how important do you think it is for brands to follow global political events?
Very important. Retail changes on a daily basis as technology and consumer behaviour evolves. Politics influences this fundamentally and the closer you follow change the quicker you are to adapt and learn. Retail is currently under a period of intense scrutiny as brands are closing physical stores but at the same time needing to optimise customer experience. Personalisation is key and that means adapting for the consumer mindset, which in turn is impacted by political events.