Business by Bench
Manila, PHILIPPINES -- By some accounts, Bench’s undisputed success in Filipino retail should come as a surprise. Their Chairman has a degree in interior design rather than an MBA. Their stores sell an improbable mix of items, such as bags of popcorn next to sports bras next to cologne.
Yet the brand continues to dominate the Philippine retail market with 132 stores nationwide and 14 stores internationally. They’ve won countless competitions for their marketing campaigns, and they are worn across the alphabet by every market demographic, whether by a fashionista who likes Bench Body, or a supermarket cashier who likes their jeans.
In the mid-80s, Ben Chan’s first venture was a home furniture store, Dimensione. He began designing children’s clothing for his sister and brother-in-law, Nenita and Virgilio Lim, who owned a children’s clothing boutique. The pieces proved so popular that Chan started a casual men’s line of t-shirts, slacks and denim, under the label Bench, which the trio operated together. A Filipino retail giant had been born.
Others within the industry agree. Each year, Bench executes several multimedia campaigns to promote the season’s leading product or concepts, racking up impressive numbers. A large billboard (50’ x 60’) along a major route like C-5 or EDSA rents for about P200,000 – 300,000 per month. Bench has many. A 30-second primetime TV commercial on a local network costs about P180,000. A full-page magazine ad in a monthly glossy? Around P70,000-100,000 – but most advertisers buy a package of at least three months in order to make an impact.
But money isn’t everything. Yvettes Ang, Rustan’s associate brand manager for upmarket brands Salt and Tumi, said Bench has a talent for choosing influential endorsers, a “knack for tapping people who will become big in the industry.” She mentioned Brent Javier, now one of hottest models in the industry – who Bench used as an unknown way back in 2002 in a Bench Body campaign. According to Ang, “That kind of recall doesn’t die out.”
In fact, Bench has become so successful at promoting itself that some customers have pointed out that the quality of its marketing exceeds that of its products, a charge that the company denies. Jojo Liamson, Bench’s advertising manager, says, “It has to be both [products and marketing]. The public might buy it once or twice, but they won’t come back if they don’t like it.” And Bench celebrating its 18th birthday this year proves that customers have indeed been coming back.
However, the criticism does reveal Bench’s incisive understanding of the Filipino market: while the company’s image is perceived as cutting edge – award-winning ads, slick packaging, fun concepts – the products themselves are not. Bench still sells everyday basics, like shirts, jeans and slacks. They are what Rustan’s Ang terms “bread and butter” products, things guaranteed to sell.
Furthermore, there is nothing new about underwear, cologne, or marshmallows. In fact, thousands of stores in the Philippines sell cosmetics, snacks, and accessories under one roof: sari-saris. Bench, however, has been the only retailer with the imagination – and bravado – to market corner grocery products under an apparel label, christening the concept as “Lifestyle”.
The Ayala group has worked with Bench since 1988, when it opened one of its first stores in Park Square One. Over the years, they’ve watched as Bench has introduced one new product or concept after another: cosmetics in 1990, HerBench and traffic-stopping billboards in 1993, international stores in Saudi Arabia and China in 1994, Bench Bytes in 1999, hair salons and an internet café in 2001, Jerry Yan’s presidential visit in 2003. According to Rowena Tomaldan, the vice-president for operation and business development for Ayala’s Commercial Centers Group, “that ability to evolve with the market has been one of the company’s strongest qualities. “[Bench is] very quick and responsive to the markets they are serving,”
In 2004, Ayala and Bench collaborated on another innovation: Market Market’s Superbench, which measures 3,000 square meters. A new format in the retail market, Superbench provides all Bench lines under one roof, serving as an anchor for the mall. It draws customers and other businesses – a role that conventionally might be filled by a junior department store. To understand the conceptual jump, transpose this achievement on the popular US brand GAP. Like Bench, GAP has its own fragrances and the GAP Body underwear line. Now imagine a line of GAP snacks sold in-store, GAP hair salons and GAP publications. Then imagine all those things in a GAP department store at the local mall. “This is the strength of Bench,” said Tomaldan, “its ability to go beyond their existing format, their readiness to explore new heights,” adding that the Bench family was one of “strong business sense and judgment.”
While most consumers only see the creative side of the business, Rustan’s Ang says that as a merchandiser, she thinks that Bench has mastered operations more effectively than some of the other local brands. “Timely deliveries are crucial,” she says, as are lead times for shipments, store organization, computerized systems. Success in these aspects result in a smoother shopping experience. Details like whether the sizing is complete for each style “are things that can irk a customer,” she says, and it’s “when you don’t see these things that you know operations are running smoothly.”
Chan earns these descriptions from his role in the creative process: design, graphics, merchandise and ads all pass through Chan’s hands. “If you’ll notice,” said Liamson, “there’s no middle management.” He adds, “That’s an exaggeration of course.” And it is, but it suggests that Ben Chan is the heart and soul of the company. While this hands-on involvement guarantees Bench’s trademark visual quality and innovation, this reliance on his creativity is unusual corporate structure for an organization whose current goal is international recognition. Then again, this wouldn’t be the first time Bench has successfully challenged expectations.