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Jim Thompson—The Asian Silk Brand

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The Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company from Thailand is one of the well known Asian brands with great potential to emerge as a strong international lifestyle brand. Known for its silk fabrics, apparel, accessories and lately home furnishings, it has been one of the few brands endorsed by the Thai Royalty and celebrities for its quality, designs and the Asian feel. The brand has come a long way since the company was established in 1951 by Jim Thompson, an American soldier who settled in Thailand.

The company operates 50 retail stores in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Dubai, Brunei and Japan. The company employs 3000 people and the brand has its presence in 30 countries across the world.

Evolution of the Jim Thompson Brand

When Jim Thompson resigned from the American armed forces and decided to settle down in Thailand, he spent his initial days traveling a lot around the country. It was during one such visit that he came across the fledgling Thai silk cottage industry. Though Thailand had a strong silk industry in the very early ages, it had deteriorated very badly by the early 19th century as cheaper fabrics from Japan and the west were forcing traditional weavers out of business. Jim Thompson came across the Ban Krua community that was renowned for its hand woven silk fabric. Jim Thompson strived to revive this declining Thai silk industry and the result of this effort was the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company founded in 1951.

By establishing very personal and close ties with this weaving community (the weavers still hold a small stake in the company), Jim Thompson was able to produce some world-class silk fabric. It stood out from the rest in the market as it had the charm and feel of being hand woven and the quality was far superior that any other silk product. For example, Thai silk is different from Chinese silk. Thai silk is inconsistent and has “humps and bumbs” and iridescent colors (changing colors depending on light). Also, Thai silk is not good for garments but ideal for home furbishing materials.

To ensure 100% control on the quality of the output, Jim Thompson is vertically integrated in their production. Though in 1967, 100% of materials were hand-woven silk, today only 50% are hand-woven silk and the remaining 50% are of other materials.

The founder Jim Thompson was successful in taking this Thai silk beyond Thailand by leveraging his contacts in the United States and other countries. It gained international recognition in Vogue and in 1951 it was featured in a Broadway production. The company also benefited a lot from the personal charisma and personality of Jim Thompson. Though his efforts to set up the Thai silk company proved to be a major profit earner, it also single handedly revived the almost dead Thai silk industry. This gained him a lot of respect and adulation. In 1967, Jim Thompson disappeared mysteriously in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands and was never found again dead or alive. His previous connections to CIA gave rise to many theories about the sudden disappearance, and it has since then added tremendously to the legend of the brand and created a strong myth.

Today, almost 56 years since its inception, Jim Thompson continues to grow with the same kind of zest and passion. Though it started out with just silk fabrics, by leveraging its brand equity and the Thai heritage, the company has now diversified into many other related product lines, the latest one being home furniture. In 2001, it signed up renowned London-based Thai designer Ou Baholyodhin, known for his very clean designs strongly influenced by Asian cultures, to craft the new furnishing line.

Jim Thompson’s strategy going forward is to focus on finished products for the home. Given its brand equity in different markets, the company is focusing on retail products in Asia where it has very strong brand equity. As the brand is strongly linked to the Thai experience, buying Jim Thompson products for tourists relates to taking back home a piece of Thai culture. This is the reason why 40% of retail customers in Thailand are Japanese who buy gift items when returning from Thailand. Even in Singapore and Malaysia, 80% of sales are for Japanese.

But on the other hand, in Europe, where the company is building its brand, this connection with Thailand and the direct experience with Thai culture may not be possible. Therefore, the company is focusing on finished products for the home which are distributed through local distributors.

Jim Thompson also collaborates with Ed Tuttle, a leading American designer. Through this collaboration, Jim Thompson provides custom made fabrics for his architecture and design projects which include Amanresorts and Park Hyatt Hotels among others. As design is a vital part of the company’s success, these collaborations with external consultants also provides external views on the latest and upcoming trends from the West.
The Brand Philosophy

The company has built its brand primarily on 3 pillars. First is the myth surrounding the founder Jim Thompson. Second is the unique blend of Eastern (Thai) tradition and heritage with the Western contemporary designs. Third is the elevation of the brand from a mere cottage industry product to a lifestyle concept.

Jim Thompson has built a story of the brand surrounding the founder, his origins, his contributions to the Thai silk industry and his eventual mysterious disappearance. Jim Thompson’s journey to revive the Thai silk industry and his drive to involve the weaving community as strategic partners in the business itself is a legend in Thailand. By leveraging this connection, Jim Thompson has been able to blend into the social fabric of the country.

Jim Thompson has been successful in differentiating itself by uniquely blending the Thai tradition and a feel of western contemporary designs. The brand has collaborated with leading designers to develop appealing and up-market designs, colors and fabrics.

Finally, Jim Thompson has created a lifestyle concept centered on silk and contemporary designs. Though the company started out with silk fabrics, it has successfully expanded into home furnishings and even into restaurants with three restaurants operating in Bangkok and one in Kuala Lumpur. These two brand extensions have enabled Jim Thompson to create an emerging premium lifestyle concept.

These three brand pillars have enabled Jim Thompson to maintain its differentiation in the market place and build a strong brand. Jim Thompson Brand Growth.

Well known for its quality, design and Asian feel, Jim Thompson has been widely acknowledged by leading brands in the hospitality industry. The brand’s furnishing materials have been widely used by many of the luxury hotels including The Oriental, Amanpuri, the Regent, Conrad and the Sukhothai. In Europe, the Park Hyatt Paris and Park Hyatt Milan hotels among others have been attracted to Jim Thompson’s furnishing materials. The Park Hyatt Paris has used 9.000 square meters of furnishing materials alone.

As is usual for a strong brand to leverage its brand equity and diversify into related market segments, Jim Thompson has also followed this path. Today, its portfolio consists of many additional product lines apart from mere silk fabrics. It has scarves, handbags, textiles, apparel, and accessories for home furnishing. In fact the home furnishing line that consists of sofas, armchairs, dining chairs, dining and coffee tables and lamps has become such an important part of the whole business that it contributes almost 30% to the total business and 90% of the total exports.

Brand Communications

Jim Thompson has selectively used mass communication channels to build its retail brand. The company employs other communication channels like uses fairs and exhibitions to create awareness about it professional brand. It showcases its products during these events and generates considerable interest in the brand. By leveraging the unique designs of its retail stores where it showcases its entire product portfolio, the company offers a comprehensive experience for its customers.

Many resources are spent on internal marketing which involves educating the channel partners about the brand, the product features and benefits. Jim Thompson also maintains a list of its 55,000 customer names in Thailand for local promotions. As all of these 55,000 customers have already purchased Jim Thompson merchandise at least once, they also act as strong word-of-mouth marketers.

Finally, as the brand is strongly associated with its founder and with Thailand, it has preserved the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok as a private museum open to the public. The Jim Thompson House belongs to the James HW Thompson Foundation. It displays Thai art and craft along with the entire product portfolio of Jim Thompson. On peak days, it has more than 1.000 visitors adding significantly to the promotion of the brand to foreign tourists including keeping the myth around Jim Thompson’s disappearance alive as part of the brand story.

This not only helps build awareness among its prospective customer base but also reiterates its strong link with Thailand’s heritage and culture. Jim Thompson is one of the Asian brands which will make a great contribution to the global scene in the years to come.


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