22 NOVEMBER 1997, Page 32

Old pony, new tricks

TO SEE what happens when a business runs scared of its brand, study the moral tale of Laura Ashley. Ann Iverson, who was hired at great expense to revive its fortunes, has now been expensively fired, and the shares, like the stock, have been reduced to clear. Not long ago there was no stronger brand in its market. Everybody knew what a Laura Ashley dress or fabric was supposed to look like. The management was then informed that chintz and flowers were out of fashion and that Laura Ashley must mean something up-to-date and different. Easier said than sold. Some brands are like mines that yield gold until they are exhaust- ed. Then it is time to stop digging. Some, like Wedgwood and (for all its feuding) Lib- erty, are one-trick ponies whose act goes on as fashion changes. For management, the classic mistake is to panic and then try to teach the pony new tricks.