5 Reasons Why Fashion Brands Fail to Thrive

Creating a successful new apparel, shoe or accessory brand is difficult. Keeping it consistent and evolving with the audience over the long haul is challenging. Repairing a flagging brand is nearly impossible.

Fashion brands are not just individual products. The products, marketing, multi-channel experience, customer service and corporate identity are all an expression of a greater deliverable to the consumer. A successful brand is a total experience that the consumer can identify with. Consumers express who they are or want to be, by the brands they choose.

Too Narrow a Niche – Every brand concept has an audience of a least one. The success of a brand will depend on the size of the audience for whom it resonates and can’t grow beyond owning 100% of it. Understanding the size of the niche is critical to setting growth expectations. The most successful fashion brands are a lifestyle and tend to reach a wide spectrum of ages. Classic American brands like Ralph Lauren, Coach or J. Crew have the potential to reach a wider audience, than smaller niche brands like Betsy Johnson, BCBG or Coldwater Creek.

Lack of Identity – All great brands need to have a distinct personality. What they are and what they imply is essential to defining the brand identity. Half- baked concepts and inconsistent messages are dead on arrival. Brands have to have a soul and authenticity.

Too Many Cooks in the Soup – Great brands are focused and have consistent storytelling. Compelling stories are not crafted by committees, but generally woven by creative and opinionated visionaries. Mickey Drexler at J. Crew and Mike Jefferies at Abercrombie are perfect examples of this. They both have a reputation for razor-sharp clarity of vision and have their heads in the details for their entire brand experience. They offer consistent products and take fashion risks within the context of their brand story.  Behind every great brand you will find a strong brand champion.

On the other hand, many wholesale or retail private brands are lackluster, because silos of management are allowed to tinker with the offer, and the brand becomes a spiceless soup.

Clinging to History – Fashion brands with the longest history often find it difficult to find a current relevance. Customers evolve. Staff can get hamstrung by the past and they rest their laurels on old successes. They keep regurgitating them. They often don’t understand what the brand promised to the consumer. They only see the brand in terms of the individual products that were successful in their best times. They don’t have the vision to tell the brand story through relevant products in a current context.

Talbots is perfect example of this. In their heyday, Talbots was synonymous with a monied, New England coastal, lifestyle. Their customers played exclusive sports and volunteered at non-profits. They had the luxury of choosing not to work. If they worked, they were professionals or women rapidly climbing the corporate ladder. If it wasn’t your lifestyle, shopping at Talbot’s was entre to the exclusive club. There was a definitive social status for shopping at the red-doored, suburban stores. They sold a lifestyle, embodied in their total experience.

Talbot’s today is sailing in a dead calm. It lost its personality and cache of the New England good life a long time ago. The series of CEOs since Mrs. Talbot, didn’t understand what they were trading away. They didn’t understand how the customer evolved and weren’t protective of the exclusivity, the implied status of the brand. They opened cookie cutter stores in bland locations with a gyrating assortment. The theater grew bigger than the audience for the brand. It wasn’t special to shop at Talbot’s anymore. It became synonymous with an aging customer and their boomer customers don’t want to identify themselves as old.

Coach and Burberry are great examples of classic brands that have evolved a long history, into even bigger success.

Traditional Marketing vs. Engagement – We live in a diverse, fast-paced culture with the added complexity of a splintered media. Traditional marketing on TV or print media don’t have the reach they once did. Creating brand awareness has become increasingly complex because consumers have so many shopping and entertainment options. Marketing has become interactive, no longer a one way street. They are bombarded with messaging and will filter to the most interesting and engaging experiences with limited personal time.

Brands have to be keenly aware as to who the audience is and engage customers on their terms. Social media gives the customer a big platform to create or destroy brands.

Dix&Pond is the blog of www.dixandpond.com                                                                                                                                                                    Creative and strategic consulting for retail and wholesale apparel, shoe and consumer product companies.

Take the brand quiz… Can you identify these successful brands?

Can you identify all of these distinct brands? See answers below.

Answers: A= Coach, B=Tom’s, C=Lululemon, D=Michael Kors, E=J. Crew, F=Vera Bradley

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Talbot’s – Luffing Sailor

I originally published this post in February of 2012. Yesterday Sycamore Partners agreed to buy Talbot’s in a deal for $369 million, including net debt. This is good news for Talbot’s but the massive work to restore this shipwrecked brand is yet to come.

February 2012

I had the good fortune of meeting Nancy Talbot,  or  I should say “Mrs. Talbot” as everyone respectfully addressed her. She was a woman with a point-of-view, opinionated and had a clear vision for the iconic retail brand she had founded. Talbots was synonymous with a monied, New England coastal, lifestyle. Her customers played exclusive sports, golf, sailing, riding and tennis. They volunteered at non-profits. They had the luxury of choosing not to work. If  they worked, they were lawyers, investment bankers or women rapidly climbing the corporate ladder. If this wasn’t your real lifestyle, shopping at Talbot’s was entre to the exclusive club.

The stores felt residential. Her brand was defined by a touch of whimsy and happy color. She assorted her stores from hundreds of creative vendors, but it had the consistency of  one discriminating eye. She was a visionary brand builder in the league of a Mickey Drexler (J. Crew) or Reed Krakoff (Coach), for her time. There was a definitive social status for shopping at the red-doored, suburban stores.

Can Talbot's brand ever be restored?

Can Talbot’s brand ever be restored?

Talbot’s as it stands today is a sailor luffing in a sea of retail sameness. It lost its hard-won personality. If you woke up in a store, there would be no identifying clues to where you were.  Long ago, it lost it’s  cache of the New England good life. The series of owners and CEOs since Mrs. Talbot, didn’t understand what they were trading away. They didn’t understand how the customer evolved and weren’t protective of the exclusivity, the social aspect of the brand. They now design all of their own products and even with this centralized control, they’ve lost that one-eyed point of view. They played it safe and didn’t take any chances. In a quest for growth and uniformity, they opened hundreds of bland mall-stores. In recent years they stole other retail identities and zig-zagged product. Sales proliferated and it became “common” to shop at Talbot’s. Authenticity can’t be faked.

The Talbot’s customer was also a Coach, Burberry, J. Crew and Ralph Lauren customer. These are some of the hottest apparel and accessory brands in the world today. They stand for something, they take creative risks.  The common denominator is each one of these,  is it run by a visionary brand builder, not a committee allowed to sterilize risk taking based on historical sales. At these companies, fashion leadership dominates over history, while brand heritage is respected and evolved. Other brands are thriving in the classic fashion arena, Kate Spade, Tory Burch, Milly, Hunter Boots, Sperry, Jack Rogers to name a few. The former Talbot’s customer loves them all.

Talbots is on the block again and will inevitably be picked by another optimistic bidder. They will shutter stores and cut expenses and search for the holy grail of retail CEO’s. We are still grossly overstored and only true leaders will thrive. The results will be the same once again, if they can’t create social status and demand for shopping at this once venerable brand. They have to find leadership that truly understands that fashion is show business and have to restore credibility to the total brand experience.

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