There was a time when iconic American fashion brands put the right kind of effort into establishing their worth in the mind of consumers. In more recent years, many of them have sold out for short-term gains – particularly, poorly planned expansion and scale at the sacrifice of customer experiences and product quality.
As a result, they have decreased their investment in longer-term consumer resonance programs that help set brands apart and maintain their stature. The outcome has resulted in very little product and brand differentiation. This is not a profitable place for a brand to be in.
The "Way Forward" for Ralph Lauren
One of the most iconic American fashion brands is Ralph Lauren. Although Ralph Lauren is having a bit of a struggle currently, the brand once held enormous significance among consumers for its timeless, unique, high-quality fashion products.
The brand’s collections created a frame of mind and persona. A walk into one of their stores transported the customer into a world that embodied the brand’s personality and aesthetic -- saddles, rope and other decor told a story for people to connect to and be part of. It’s through stories that brands create the context and relationship consumers need to locate themselves in a larger experience – knowing fully that this is ultimately what makes products sell.
One visit to Ralph Lauren’s website and you will understand why the brand is struggling. The merchandise in their online store mirrors what one can find on LL Bean, J Crew, Gap, Banana Republic, and dozens of other brands and online retailers.
If all products look alike, the consumer will skip brand for price -- there isn’t logic to spending top dollar for what can be found for less elsewhere.
Ralph Lauren today has a lack of story around its product. Its online merchandising and styling is flat -- leaving no way for the consumer to feel a connection or envision the relationship.
It’s not a secret in branding or business that consumers are driven by emotions – but the common denominator among companies that have sustained iconic brand positioning is that they recognize that brand transcends the product.
In most categories, product innovation or product performance by itself is not enough. With the addition of storytelling, products can become powerful vehicles for helping people meet their emotional needs, live their ideal lives, and accomplish their goals.
This is where the layers of a brand story have value – and this is where Ralph Lauren today is missing an element.
Turning Around Tiffany & Co.
Tiffany has been hard at work with its turn around efforts. Most recently, they hired ex Vogue Creative Director, Grace Coddington, to lend her creative prowess and proven track record to the struggling brand.
Coddington took a page out of the most basic plays in the playbook -- launched a brand campaign featuring Hollywood celebrities.
The advertisements were product centric and product focused. Somewhere on the ad would be the words “Legendary Style” and one of the Hollywood stars modeling a piece of Tiffany jewelry.
Not only is “Legendary Style” mostly meaningless, it is also reminiscent of something you might see on a city street billboard advertising some mall brand. In fact, “mall brand” is exactly what Tiffany had become and what has led to their decline in U.S. sales.
Tiffany decided to expand to shopping malls and massively and globally scale the brand. When a high-end jewelry store puts itself in every mall in every city across the world – it cheapens the brand making the people that actually can afford to shop it, lose interest. The options that are left include:
- Lower the price points in order to attract new customers that the brand actually appeals to.
- Continue to scale as massively and rapidly as possible until every last ounce of brand prestige has been sucked dry by un-loyal consumers who no longer consider Tiffany a status symbol. Then go and have a panic attack because you no longer have any customers.
- Increase and improve the intangible value and earn back respect.
Longing For Levi’s
While Tiffany failed to stand on its brand and chose scale and presence to compete, and Ralph Lauren stopped evangelizing the lifestyle – Levi’s really hasn’t done much at all.
Levi has certainly made a great product and wields a fan base that has carried it for more than a century. But, just because it holds a position doesn’t mean it will forever stay there. This can be seen in the decline of its relevance among female fashion consumers – in an era where women’s denim is one of the hottest apparel categories.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Levi’s classic jean was the pair that stylish women reached for.
With 80% of the company’s revenue driven by men’s pants sales, this may or may not be considered a problem. But, it must be hard not to find a way to capture the 27% of the denim business that is exclusively women.
The company has made multiple efforts to court the female consumer over the years – none that have really worked. Levi's product is certainly of good quality, and the range it offers encompasses what women today like to wear.
Levi also has a great brand story – it’s the iconic company that invented denim, put denim on the map and made it an American staple. A sexy, stylish staple that signifies power, reliability, and an effortlessly cool factor.
Yet none of this story is woven into the Levi’s brand for women – and in many ways, never was.
What Levi needs to do to grow its favor in the female fashion category is to truly introduce the female lead in its brand story. The woman that used to steal Levi’s jeans from her husband or brother over 80 years ago, before Levi’s created the first-ever women’s jean in 1934. Or the woman who drove the innovation of the zip jean in 1947 because she didn’t like the original button fly.
Now that’s a brand story that stylish, genuinely cool women would want to be part of.