European Business: With IKEA leading the way, Sweden has become a leader in furniture design whose products are found in many households all over the world. Is it the Björn Borg Group’s ambition to set trends in the sports apparel and fashion accessories market on a similar scale – and on a similarly global level?
Henrik Bunge: Well, that would be fantastic. We believe that our brand has the potential to become a global player in the future. However, we are currently focusing on making inroads in Northern Europe, so I think to compare us with IKEA, such an iconic company which has really changed an entire industry, is maybe a little too much at this point – even though I’m an ambitious guy.
Physical retail is not primarily a transactional place. It is much more a place of experience. Henrik Bunge
European Business: Besides running an online shop, the Björn Borg Group has also had an active presence with physical stores in many countries. What can retail with a physical presence achieve that online shops cannot?
Henrik Bunge: The main benefit of physical stores is the interaction with customers. When you meet someone in person, that individual can make an impression on you which could last a lifetime. This is very hard to emulate in an online experience. The major reason why people go into a store is not so much to buy a product, but to meet someone. They can buy the product anywhere, which is why the key to creating an inspiring atmosphere for your customers is the staff working in the store. Physical retail is not primarily a transactional place. It is much more a place of experience, where your staff and your team are the vehicles which allow you to give consumers something extra that they cannot get online.
European Business: The Björn Borg Group has always been known for the innovative ways in which it has communicated with its customers. What do you believe has changed about the way your company approaches customer engagement and which principles have transcended the decades?
Henrik Bunge: One dramatic change, which has occurred over the last five years, is the consumers‘ attention span. If they aren’t interested in what they see, they can look at something else with just one click. They’re not waiting for something to happen. If they don’t get that immediate feeling that they have found what they were looking for, they will go somewhere else. Of course, this puts massive pressure on us, since we have to make sure that our customers are actually looking at what we are trying to sell them, and to accomplish that in a way which won’t make them lose interest. Back when the Björn Borg Group started out, the time you had to address your customers was much longer.
One dramatic change is the consumers‘ attention span. If they aren’t interested in what they see, they can look at something else with just one click. Henrik Bunge
We also need to understand our customers and be up to date with current trends. Consumers today are shopping in a very different environment from what shops looked like many years ago and their behavior has changed considerably, so you have to make sure that you’re moving with the consumers, because to be relevant is to be where they are, and they are shifting dramatically, from physical retail to online shops and now to market places.
European Business: What does the Björn Borg Group’s brand want to communicate to its customers and how important is authenticity for its success?
Henrik Bunge: Our brand is very clear: We want to inspire people. We want to inspire you to ‘be more‘, and we want to achieve that through the products we create and through the stories we tell. We want to create a very authentic brand and we don’t want to be a facade. The world might not need more black t-shirts, but the world needs a brand that inspires you when you look at it, so you can get that feeling that you can be slightly better tomorrow, that you can run a little faster or do whatever you want to do that you haven’t done yet. I admit that it might be a bit idealistic, but we truly believe in it.
A lot of this feeling and atmosphere is derived from our heritage with Björn Borg, the tennis player, and his ability to always bring the best out in him – not because he was the biggest talent, but because he never gave up. That’s what we want to communicate.
We want to inspire you to ‘be more‘, and we want to achieve that through the products we create and through the stories we tell. Henrik Bunge
European Business: The Björn Borg Group‘s brand has long had an identity distinct from its namesake, the tennis player. How important does Björn Borg, the man, remain for Björn Borg, the company, though?
Henrik Bunge: From an internal perspective, the athlete Björn Borg still plays an important role. I believe there are two things that make us unique as a company: the people who work for us on the one hand, and our past, our history, our iconic story on the other hand. No one could duplicate or steal that from us, because Björn Borg’s story is ours and no one else’s.
From a consumer perspective, though, Björn Borg as an individual may not be very important at all, because most people buying our products right now don’t even know him. They are too young and weren’t around to see his athletic excellence. Sometimes we even hear funny stories about kids saying: ‘Did you know that that underwear guy also played tennis?‘ From the perspective of the end-comsumer, the brand Björn Borg is largely distinct from the individual Björn Borg.
I believe there are two things that make us unique as a company: the people who work for us on the one hand, and our past, our history, our iconic story on the other hand. Henrik Bunge
European Business: Many famous athletes struggle to turn their name and their professional triumphs into a lasting brand after their careers in sports have come to an end. What has Björn Borg done right which so many others have done wrong?
Henrik Bunge: In my view, it all comes down to people. I think that Björn Borg was lucky in the sense that he had the right team around him who had the stamina and the faith and the winning attitude to really push him, even though it was very hard at times. They turned his brand into something long-lasting and so much stronger than just the individual or his past.
When you’re an athlete or another individual who has attained a high level of fame and has created a massive success around their own name, it is very easy to pick the wrong individuals who will say yes for the wrong reasons and who only want to capitalize on your hard work, people who are only there for short-term gains and not long-term value creation. That had happened to Björn Borg as well, when he set up his first company in 1984, and he tried again with new companies in 1988 and 1989, and all of them failed until the right people came on board with an approach that allowed for long-lasting success as opposed to quick, but unsustainable gains.
European Business: So the story of the Björn Borg Group is also a story of not being afraid of failure?
Henrik Bunge: Absolutely. I think that is true for a lot of people: You will fail more often than you will succeed. But it’s not your failure that will define you, it is your ability to move forward regardless. Take Björn Borg’s tennis career: Look at all the things he went through at a young age. He had tons of reasons to pack it in and give up playing tennis. People kept telling him that he would never be as good as he wanted to be. But he continued to push forward.
You will fail more often than you will succeed. But it’s not your failure that will define you, it is your ability to move forward regardless. Henrik Bunge
The same holds true for our company: Of course, there have been numerous occasions where it would have been easier to give it all up, lock the doors and go home. But every time we faced such a crisis, we said to ourselves and to each other: ‘Hey, we’ll come back in tomorrow. We can turn this around!‘ This is why we feel it is so important that you need to build a working environment that brings the best out in people, which is the rationale behind our weekly Sports Hour where all our staff members work out together for an hour: I understand that it might be harsh to force people to train, but in the long run they will thank you for it, because they will have become stronger and better and happier.
Interview: Julian Miller, Pictures: Björn Borg Group