Manufacturers With out That means Are No Longer Important
Retailer J. Crew announced a bankruptcy filing last month that may close its nearly 200 stores and that of its sister company Madewell. The problems for the company have been piling up for years: unbearable debt, fit and quality problems, a misguided push towards higher-income consumers (who alienated their core customer base) and extreme discounts. However, the real problem with J. Crew is that the company means nothing to anyone. There is no thematic reason to be.
The challenge in creating a successful product is to take a product that is essentially meaningless – say a t-shirt – and give it meaning.
Brand identity, relevance and a changing media landscape – referred to as a line of error by J. Crew in the New York Times – are all just game aspects – such as style, fit, quality and choice.
If you as a consumer mean nothing to me, I don't care.
The truth is that meaning is created through history and J. Crew has no plot or narrative spine to keep everything together. No pattern of meaning, no mythology. Where are you from? What do they stand for? No rites of passage or solemn gatherings. Even skater, surf, and street brands have a myth they stick to. (Yes, especially skater, surf, and street brands.) The brand has not created any heroes worthy of elevation. (J. Crew stakeholders tried to introduce brand thinking by hiring legendary GAP champion Mickey Drexler, but he missed today's post-traditional marketing methods.)
And unlike skate, surf and street brands, J. Crew didn't give us anyone we could hate. Nothing bitter, lively or solid. The company remained firmly in the middle of the vanilla street, with click funnels attached. At the cost of building long-term human relationships.
J. Crew has fallen and they will not be alone. The entire fashion industry is guilty of believing that they can put together an outfit, hire a photographer, attach a celebrity, and call it a “brand”. Meanwhile, consumers call it bullshit.
Try this at home: remove the labels from a pair of pants and tops and try to put the correct label back on the goods. (For a fun game while it's being quarantined. Run to your closet. Seven items are fun. Twelve make it hysterical.)
Build your brand narrative
Brand identity, relevance and a changing media landscape are all part of the same whack-a-mole story. Confused identity and watered-down sales go together like polo shirts and khaki pants.
The solution? Design your strategic brand narrative and then distribute it across the omnichannel spectrum of social, digital and traditional media. Look at Rhiannon, look at Gwyneth, look at Baby Kardashian. They all create media ecosystems that are so seamless, graceful, and seemingly at will that they make the process seem everyday.
J. Crew was born in the age of Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne and Donna Karan and jumped on the train with the person without a person. There was no male or female J. Crew. J. Crew made a promise to be as authentic as Warby Parker (another imaginary figure). But they never showed up to make the statement.
Today's equivalent could be the runaway cult of ampersands trying to follow Dolce & Gabbana, Zadig & Voltaire, or Rag & Bone. There are Mark & Graham, Scotch & Soda, Black & White, Kopper & Zink, Crafts & Trade, Côte & Ciel, Cutler & Gross, Dimissianos & Miller and more. How many of these companies are already Dead & Gone? (Kit & Ace is gone. H & M just announced that sales have dropped 57% since March 2020.)
Beware of your success
Marketers can become victims of their own (or another) success. If something works, they do it over and over again – about the point of effective differentiation, an increased percentage, or anything that is important. This will memorize marketing. The world after COVID-19 will not afford this luxury to anyone.
The response times are now measured in days, hours and moments. Anyone who cannot adapt in real time becomes perishable. Note the oversupply of tired "unprecedented times" that are taking place. Over.
Empathy and compassion will prevail. If the heart and soul of your company are passionately driven by write-ups, you tend to make mistakes.
There will be some catching up to do for things we could not do during quarantine: noisy restaurants, grocery shopping, spontaneous friendships, hugs, moisturizer for the skin.
Paradoxically, there will also be pent-up self-loathing. We learned that we have too many pillows, candle holders and clinkers. Not enough hobbies, time for me, poems, downtime. The miracle of old things – and not the sparkle of new things.
The words "shopping" and "therapy" are never added again. The spontaneous shopping is rethought. Pent-up regret and self-abuse become a pragmatic idea – what if I had a bracelet that I really loved rather than a jumble of drawers?
(Next is the existential follow-up. WHAT is the only thing I really love?) Gap, Saks, Neiman Marcus and H & M are already feeling this backlash.
A recent study on brand intimacy shows that 38% of Apple owners can't live without their iPhone. 32% of Amazon customers can't live without a box delivered to their door. 26% cannot live without Disney. We got along without J. Crew before Covid19, we'll get along without them afterwards.
Contribution to the Branding Strategy Insider by: Patrick Hanlon, author of Primal Branding
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