How do fashion brands exert power over consumers?
When my daughter was 16 she discovered fashion. Clothes were no longer functional items, they had meaning. Brands suddenly had an identity and they became her identity. The quality, the fit and the practicality no longer had any meaning to her. It was all about the brand.
So how did these brands exert such a powerful influence over her and how do they continue to exert such a powerful influence over millions of consumers worldwide. That is the question this essay seeks to answer.
Firstly we must be clear about what branding is. It is definitely not the same as marketing although the two terms are often transposed. According to Heaton, “Branding should both precede and underlie any marketing effort. Branding is not push, but pull. Branding is the expression of the essential truth or value of an organization, product, or service. It is communication of characteristics, values, and attributes that clarify what this particular brand is and is not.” (Heaton, 2011).
In the fashion industry branding is vital, it is what attracts consumers and keeps them returning time and time again. The first designer to understand the value of branding was Frederick Worth. In addition to haute couture garments he also produced collections which customers could view on models and then have made to measure in fabrics of their choice. He was the first designer to add labels to his clothing which served to reinforce his brand. Such was his popularity that he had to turn customers away.
It took the inspiration of Coco Chanel to look outside the boundaries of fashion garments to promote her brand. In 1919 she launched the perfume Chanel No 5 originally sold in small quantities to select customers. By 1924 the perfume was so much in demand that the bottle design was strengthened in order for it to be packed and shipped. Chanel promoted interest in the perfume with one of her famous quotes, “A women who doesn’t wear perfume has no future”.
Since that time fashion branding has gone from strength to strength. Currently on sale on the YSL website, in addition to garments, are accessories including belts, scarves, handbags, luggage and jewellery. Also available on YSL Beauty are 18 different perfumes, make up and beauty products. This demonstrates fashion branding at its best but as Okonkwo comments “Luxury brands didn’t happen by accident…….they have been uniquely crafted through consistent and diligent strategies…..” (Okonkwo, 2007 p11). YSL has built up its branding over several decades by constantly evolving and anticipating market trends.
Even today fashion houses need to be innovative with their branding. Tom Ford, who is widely acknowledged to be a master of branding and marketing, was quoted recently while giving a speech at the 2013 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards to emerging designers “Remember that our customers do not need our clothes.” (Frank, 2013)
Another aspect which fashion brands take care over are their stores. Despite huge online sales their flagship stores are the portals through which the consumer enters the brand and is enveloped in its ethos. Making a purchase from a brand is not just about owning a new item, as Tungate observes, “You don’t buy clothes, you buy an identity.” (Tungate, 2008 p2). Buying into a fashion brand means the consumer is also buying into the values of that brand, Okonkwo states that, “When people purchase a luxury fashion item, they don’t just buy the product but a complete parcel that comprises the product and a set of intangible benefits that appeal to the emotional, social and psychological levels of their being.” (Okonkwo, 2007 p2).
Designers must ensure that their brand appeals to new and existing customers and each one has a highly targeted customer base. There may be several different divisions within the brand, each targeting specific customers. For instance the Urban Outfitter group has three divisions:
- Urban Outfitters whose customers are educated, urban-minded individuals in the 18 to 30 year-old range;
- Anthropologie aimed at 30 to 45 year old, educated professional women who are married with children; and
- Free People for carefree, confident and curious young women.
They describe their stores as “an escape from the everyday; a source of inspiration and delight, where innovative merchandising, customer centricity and a curated array of products come together to create an unimagined experience”. As Labarre points out, Anthropologie “aren’t just selling clothes and furnishings. They’re selling a sense of adventure and originality – and the promise of self-discovery.” (Labarre 2002).
A question to consider is whether luxury brands deceive consumers by selling overpriced goods that are produced at a fraction of their price tag? The answer depends on where you place the value of a branded item. While the production costs of a garment may only be a small proportion of the retail price there are many other factors to consider. Importance must be given to the value of the brand but how do you place a value on something as intangible as the feelings evoked by the purchase of a favorite brand? Edwards comments that fashion “is an industry where customers’ perceptions drive everything…The entirety of the business rests on keeping shoppers convinced that the brand name alone is worth paying extra for.” (Edwards 2012).
So my daughter was not just buying clothes. She was buying into the history, the ethos and the values of the brand. She was finding her way in society and defining her identity within her peer group. She was demonstrating, as Black makes clear, that “[fashion] represents an expression of personal identity and difference, while also demonstrating belonging to a group…” (Black, 2011 p 17).
Since the days of Frederick Worth fashion has continued to be an important aspect of Western culture and has now spread out to developing nations such as China and India. Okonkwo points out that “Fashion is not only a matter of clothes and accessories but is also highly influential in structuring society’s culture, identity and lifestyle.” (Okonkwo, 2007 p8), and I have no doubt that this will continue to be so.
Black, S. (2011) Eco Chic The Fashion Paradox. London: Black Dog
Edwards, J. (2012) How the 10 Biggest Luxury Brands came to dominate the world. [Online] Business Insider Inc. Available from http://www.businessinsider.com/how-the-10-biggest-luxury-brands-came-to-dominate-the-world-2012-6?op=1 Accessed on 1/4/13 at 20.00
Frank, J. (2013) Learn from the Master of Branding Himself. [Online] Alexandria: Vogue Australia. Available from: http://www.vogue.com.au/fashion/news/tom+fords+14+tips+on+building+a+fashion+brand,28189 [Accessed 1/4/2013 at 16.10]
Heaton, J. (2011) The Difference between Marketing and Branding. [Online] Brooklyn: Tronvig Group. Available from: http://www.tronviggroup.com/the-difference-between-marketing-and-branding/ [Accessed 1/4/13 at 17.50]
Tungate, M. (2008) Fashion Brands, 2nd ed. London: Kogan Page Ltd
Labarre, P. (2002) Sophisticated Sell. Fast Company Dec 2002
Okonkwo, U. (2007) Luxury Fashion Branding: Trends, Tactics, Techniques. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan