Redefining legacy: why fashion brands need to focus on meaning and values to win

FashMash Live

#FashMash Live

The way the fashion industry approaches innovation today is akin to leaving the house without trousers, said Pia Stanchina, former industry manager for fashion and luxury at Google, now independent start-up advisor and consultant, at the inaugural #FashMash Live discussion held at Huckletree in London last week.

It’s an oft-used analogy, but one that seems highly appropriate to a market primarily driven by PR headlines over lasting returns. To explain it in more depth, Stanchina said: “Most fashion brands think of innovation the way that women think of earrings – they do the sort of things that are really jingly and sparkly, offering short term wins, when what they need to do is think of the sort of strategy that’s like the trousers of the outfit – the long term business objectives. The point is, you can leave the house without earrings, but you can’t without trousers.

“Most brands are leaving the house without trousers… they’re saying look at this amazing campaign that we have, but actually there’s no real meaning to it and it’s not unlocking any sort of value for the brand.”

Of course the fashion industry is not alone. A recent study from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising showed that campaigns with a short-term goal grew from 7% to 33% between 2006 and 2014. This idea of short-termism, where the aim is to activate sales over less than six months, is considered significantly less effective than those with long-term, brand-driven growth in mind.

Coupled with that increasingly narrow view is the advent of ad blocking. Nowadays, consumers are increasingly able to tune out and turn off. The most recent survey from the IAB UK, for instance, shows 22% of British adults online are currently using ad blocking software – a rise from 18% in just late 2015.

In other words, advertising at large is currently focused primarily on quick wins and doing so in such a saturated market that the audience is increasing looking for ways not to have to receive them.

The average consumer sees 6,000 brand messages per day, Wendy Clark, CEO of DDB Worldwide North America (and former CMO of Coca-Cola) said at this year’s Cannes Lions. “If that’s the case,” she added, “more [content] is not an option. It needs to be more good.”

FashMash Live

Rachel Arthur, Nicolas Roope and Pia Stanchina speaking on the #FashMash Live panel

In an age of too much noise, marketers need to be thinking about the sort of long lasting messages that achieve cut through, she added. They need to be building legacy in order to create brand equity. So they need to be thinking about trousers, more than earrings, to return to Stanchina’s reference.

And if trousers are strategy and legacy, then the belt to them has to be relevancy, and that’s also something often missing in fashion marketing.

“Most people in luxury brands today haven’t really thought about what makes them relevant anymore, it’s always harking back to where they came from, and not to what people who buy from them actually care about today,” Stanchina explained.

She used the example of heritage – something that many brands have latched on to in order to try and achieve storytelling. We see countless videos of craftsmanship in the ateliers of big fashion houses, showcasing the little hands, or “les mains”, at work for instance, she explained. But this is becoming a tired view, not to mention something that doesn’t work for digital as much as the industry seems to hope it will.

Take Chanel’s couture show in Paris just last week, which was set inside its atelier, showcasing the couturiers as they constructed the garments. “It was probably an amazing experience if you were there… really magical,” Stanchina commented. “But if you were watching it on Instagram, it was really dead. It was a complete anti-climax. It didn’t translate well to digital at all.”

Stanchina also talked to the idea that luxury has long traded on friction in order to create desire – from limited distribution to high price points. Both of those things would have once been considered pillars of the industry (along with craftsmanship), she said, but they’re crumbling away; they’re not relevant anymore. What is, of course, is still that sense of desire, but it has to be done in a way that is more meaningful, she added.

When it came to meaning and value, Nicolas Roope, who joined the discussion from creative agency Poke, where he serves as both ECD and co-founder, said this has to be baked in from the start in order to be successful with digital today.

“The reason [brands like Ted Baker, Reformation and Redbull] are digital first is not because they sat down and decided they were going to be digital first, it’s because they have that natural spirit and they’ve built their business and the way they operate around it. They were perfectly ripe for becoming digital because they were already clear about what they stood for from the start,” he explained.

Indeed the technology, or setting the platforms up to enable full digital integration, is the easy part, he added. “The hardest thing is to help [brands] to understand being digital first is about having clear direction; something to offer that’s really valuable and that’s defensible.”

Stanchina agreed, adding for those just starting out in the industry: “We’re in a very specific moment in time when starting a company is easier than it ever was before, but it’s also the most competitive time it’s ever been to do that. [Success] is about understanding what it is your company is doing, what you create, what makes you defensible and different in the marketplace, why there’s a need for your company in the first place, and then really going after it.”

For those back in established brands, Roope noted how difficult it can be to drive change or indeed value tied to digital if there isn’t yet full leadership support internally behind it.

In a bid to seek a pair of trousers that have long lasting value, over that pair of sparkly earrings, he advised brands to try and find a middle ground – a low risk environment and some steady gains to prove the change you can effect through innovation done in the right way. “Most organisations are very respectful of success, so how do you get to success in the smallest, cheapest, most risk free way is your aim, and once you have it think about how to celebrate it and build momentum around it to move it upwards,” he added.