In Part One of this essay, we discussed some of the recent and dramatic changes that have set the concept and practice of brand loyalty on a dramatically new course.
It’s still an ongoing shift, but the edges of the curve of the new pathway are becoming clearer.
In plain terms, what is changing, and by extension changing how companies market their wares, is that basic level of customer loyalty to a brand is becoming fragmented and layered. A simple statement like, “I like Ralph Lauren” is now more of an, “I like Ralph Lauren polo shirts, but I like J. Press oxfords. And I prefer vintage jeans.” The cache of a single brand defining a customer’s life is fast fading.
Combine that with a collapsed economy and gutted luxury market and you have a rapidly evolving landscape when it comes to telling all your potential customers exactly who you are and why you matter. And speaking of numbers, don’t expect to see the like of 2008 sales figures until at least 2012. From couture to watches and handbags to footwear, the overall luxury market has significantly retracted. And that directly affects the related mass luxury and aspirational markets.
Another factor is the quality issue. With purchases being scrutinized by customers like never before, those labels that grew at a global scale and licensed out all their branded accessories may face the wrath of buyers tired of sub-par quality for the sake of the name. It’s fair to say that smaller brands with tight controls on design, production and quality – and who actually make things people want to buy – will win out in the coming loyalty game. Luxury again is going to mean exclusivity.
ALL ABOUT THE GUYS
Not all is totally bleak, however. Menswear is faced with another, albeit happier, wrinkle. All those men who for generations did not care much about this season’s Pantone color or whether summer scarves are “in” are not only becoming active in their fashion choices but actually becoming market movers. Across the spectrum of retail, men are taking a more active role in outfitting their own wardrobes, carefully selecting accessories and fussing over things like quality and provenance. Retailers quickly took notice and have both broadened and deepened their menswear selections.
The reasons are myriad, but many men have shaken off the stale myth that they don’t care about style, fashion, luxury and looking good. When Off The Cuff hit the web way back in 2006, most of the sites now listed in OTC’s blog roll did not even exist. Today however, guys are looking for help and advice on all matters sartorial. Men now actively seek out information and feedback about products, brands and trends that interest them.
More to the point, they are also looking for validation and community about the brands that they like. The brand itself is not enough; they want to be part of a sartorial tribe, if you will. To be sure, there is also a strong desire to stand alone, to be unique. We all want the one thing that sets us apart from the herd – but not too far. Most of us want to stand out just enough to let the others know that we are our own man, but not be a jerk about it.
For example, I’ll be writing shortly about Kobold watches. The upstart high-end adventure watch company is now 10 years old but still a niche brand and many of its adherents like it that way. To them it adds a layer of respectable obscurity to something most men consider a key marker of status and personality. In a sense, its unique personality increases its value.
As the concept of what exactly a brand means and who decides if it’s worth something becomes more decentralized, defining who you are is becoming more personal and individual. And with men educating themselves about style, fashion, etiquette and luxury, brands that heretofore could consider themselves one-stop-shops will have to change their approach.
Some large brands are trying to address this issue. J. Crew, a company that now intently focuses on its male customers, developed the Liquor Store men’s shop in New York’s SoHo to highlight limited edition wares. J. Crew also produces a regular men’s only catalog that stresses unique product collaborations with specialized partners.
This approach allows the overall brand to remain whole but provide customers with a sense of individuality and more importantly, the feeling that these specialized products meet a higher standard, like Red Wing boots for example.
It all boils down to a growing customer base that simply does not need to be told who they are or what they really want or what kind of life they should lead. They may read lots of fashion and style magazines and check out yours truly on blogger, but they are the ones who decide what their “look” is. The brands need to meet their approval.
The Panerai Marina
Let’s say I like Panerai watches (who doesn’t?), and maybe I want to buy one. I look through the company website, of course. But I also check out the blogosphere and look up feedback on specific models. Who’s tested and reviewed one, and if so which one? Any tweets? Where can I find one on the secondary market, and what does Watch Report or Hodinkee say? All this before I ever get close to a salesman or company representative.
IT’S ALL ABOUT ME (AND YOU)
In my own case, there are several brands that right off the bat fit my own self image: J. Crew, J. Press, Drakes London, Michael Bastain, Ralph Lauren and Slowear for example. But it’s not only clothing. When I think of my personal brand, I also think of Monocle magazine, Filson bags, my favorite Omas 360 pen, Moleskine notebooks or the sterling silver money clip from Tiffany that was a gift from my wife. Even the waxed cord from the hang tag on my Jack Spade bag connects me to that brand just a little bit more. I wear it on my wrist.
All of these outside brands are part of my own personal brand, but I am not a whole-cloth adherent to any one of them. Basically, I’m vetting the brand to see if it meets my standards and fits into my life.
Since people now have multiple sources to learn about style and fashion, history, culture, craftsmanship and etiquette – all the things that go into one’s sense of personal taste and style – a “brand” is now more about the customer than, well, the brand.
The brand needs to fit who I am, not the other way around.