In the world of marketing, fashion has traditionally not been taken very seriously. It’s been viewed as un-strategic, driven more by short-term fads and personal quirks and hunches than solid planning and strategic thinking. Concerned more with ever-changing appearances than building long-term brand essences.
Yet, some of the most profitable and successful brands of the past decades have been fashion brands. Armani, Burberry, Louis Vuitton et al. have set standards in building strong, globally understood and admired equities. They have grown quite intricate and carefully mapped brand structures across categories and tiers that put many classic marketers to shame. And they have often lead the way in establishing new marketing strategies and tactics, may it be Burberry and its innovative embrace of digital or Armani and its ingenious approach to brand architecture and distribution.
Which is getting to the point: Fashion is by nature forward – in-synch with if not creating trends. It can show us where our societies are heading, or at least what they’re currently lacking and will be desiring.
Not too long ago Hedi Slimane became chief designer for YSL and Raf Simmons was made the same for Dior. This might not mean a lot to the non-fashion involved, but it is actually quite remarkable. Mr. Slimane as well as Mr. Simmons are both known to be much more than great fashion designers, in fact neither is a classically trained tailor or fashion apprentice. Both are rather known as artists in a general sense, one an accomplished photographer and curator, the other a respected art consultant with an unerring eye for emerging artists, among others. The fact that two of the most venerated fashion houses are now betting their future on these cultural arbiters indicates how they see themselves: Not so much mere providers of well designed clothes but overall purveyors of a lifestyle, for lack of a better term.
A strategic shift that was started most prominently by Tom Ford for Gucci and has recently been taken to ever new heights by Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton. Cooperating with artists like Takashi Murakami or Yayoi Kusama, touting Sofia Coppola or Rachel Feinstein (wife of John Curin) as muse-models, or shooting with art photographers like Juergen Teller, Jacobs has not only built one of the most profitable fashion houses but a cultural force par excellence. Creating an aura around the brand as the epicenter not just of fashion, but art, entertainment and showbiz, our culture at large. Always at the edge, constantly surprising, eternally desirable – staying emerging and fresh despite the fact that there’s hardly a premium brand more established, ubiquitous and inflated than LV. They have, in short, managed to maintain the perfect equilibrium between longing and belonging.
And this is where classic marketers should take a close look. We are living in the age of the communication (or some say entertainment) economy, where brands, all brands and not just fashion icons, have to be their own medium, creating cultural resonance beyond consumer relevance. Beyond guaranteeing quality standards and adding emotional value they need to provide meaning and inspiration to fuel our collective discourse and our individual imagination. Moving from a psychological approach to brand understanding and management to a more socio-cultural one. Creating customer value by delivering innovative cultural expressions (Douglas Holt) that we can rally around or dismiss, but which can help us navigate the world, organize our lives and construct our fickle identities.
Now, if you think, “yeah, that’s easy in categories naturally part of our cultural canon”, think again. Apple, Nike, Method, Vitamin Water … they have all shown that it can be done in any category – higher or lower, more or less involved. They have opened themselves and not only developed an ever growing following and lasting acceptance. They have created entirely new marketplaces and opportunities for themselves. Simply by embracing what they are and should be – not just a commercial enterprise but a cultural entity acting and partaking and evolving in our world together with the rest of us.
In order to achieve this, it is of course important to understand your purpose and meaning, your “cultural code” in the words of Clotaire Rapaille. But it is as, if not more, important, to create an internal and external brand culture that is seamless, coherent – if not always consistent – and unique. A style, a way of thinking and doing things, that sets you apart and gives your stakeholders something to identify with – and aspire to. And this is what fashion (and beauty) brands have always understood and taken to heart – that the distinction between appearance and essence and the dismissal of the former can be outright dangerous. Because in a highly developed world where most functional needs are saturated how you do something is as crucial as what you do. Style and execution take the high ground right next to content and function. Because after all “only shallow people don’t judge by appearances” as Oscar Wilde famously said more than 100 years ago. Or, to quote his fictional contemporary Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey: “If you are tired of style, you are tired of life.”