New brand strategy? Let’s go!

This morning, Harvard Business Review (@HarvardBiz) tweeted me a link to an imaginary business scenario.

A talented, new business leader, Augustin, is revolutionising the brand strategy of a hundred year old fashion company which has, over the years, developed a decidedly matronly air. Things are not going to plan. My summary (cutting it short) is:

The brand, Emilia, is being given a younger, cooler direction. The old, destructive pricing cycle (inflated prices followed by heavy discounting) is being replaced with a more enlightened, transparent policy of fixed, every day pricing.

Young people seem to love the new store ambience & style that’s gradually being rolled out to all stores, but they aren’t buying. Existing customers are buying less too, so sales in the new format stores are falling. Should the board continue to roll out the experiment or change tack fast?

My view? If Augustin joined Coca Cola at a tricky time, he’d no doubt update the font of the logo, put a forest on the can and try to sell to organic, whole foods enthusiasts instead.

We’d wish him well in his brave new world – but it’s a drastic step to completely dismiss your loyal customers. It’s usually the sign of a brand in financial meltdown, often fronted by a completely new management team, with their backs firmly against the wall.

It’s crazy to think you can completely overturn the values and preconceptions lovingly layered up in 100 years of brand culture without the risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

And it’s a big ask to get fashion-conscious young people proudly wearing an old-fashioned label. It does sometimes happen, when influencers naturally start championing a brand on the back of a stunning new collection, perhaps after a creative – and probably cripplingly expensive – PR and advertising campaign. But it’s rare.

If I had employed Augustin, I’d celebrate his vision and give him his own flagship store in a major city plus a few poorly performing stores in fashion-conscious areas of the same country, with the promise of more to follow as soon as he could show the right kind of sales results.

He would have the freedom to create a completely new, independent brand to reflect his younger target customer. I’d want him to continue to push his ideas further to make the experience of in store shopping irresistible; more social. Working on a smaller scale, it would be much quicker and easier to learn, adapt and experiment.

And, of course, he’d create an intriguing, portfolio-style online store for his new brand (perhaps something like Touchfolio in style and content), backed by the most convenient and secure payment transaction technology. A site that’s original, with an intelligent design that would seamlessly translate to a smartphone or tablet.

He might try out personal stylists, to flesh out the sizing and fit information online. Not an insistent, obtrusive gremlin that thrusts and wiggles itself in front of whatever you’re interested in, the moment you arrive – far from it. Real help from real people.

His website designers would carry out A/B testing to refine all the main aspects of the site and would have a plan to keep it vibrant and relevant.

A social media specialist, based inside the flagship store, would help create interest and desire, with inventive posts, tweets and pins. The team would be steadily building up evergreen content online too: setting out their brand values and providing features and tips that people searching for fashion ideas will love.

But let’s go back to the remaining stores under the existing brand ‘Emilia’ and suggest some lines of action and enquiry there. It’s usually best to think of evolution not revolution when dealing with an established brand that’s underperforming.

It’s pretty clear the company hasn’t spent enough time asking their customers – and customer-facing staff – what they feel is missing from their current shopping experience. I doubt many customers would have asked for louder, trendier music in store, rather than a discount, somehow. They should start a dialogue with the people closest to the brand – learn from them, educate them.

I suppose almost anything could be going awry, without facts and figures to look at, but as a woman, I wouldn’t mind having a wager on something to look at.

Though the clothes on offer are said to be beautiful, there’s little talk in the scenario about product design, quality and fit – I’d want to take a long, hard look at that.

Don’t assume that more mature women want to look matronly. They’d like to look great. They’ve made fashion mistakes, and they’ve learned about their bodies. They don’t all have the same shape, and they can probably pretty much tell at a glance whether the clothes you’re offering them are more likely to fit or to tear at the seams.

If that rules out all the styles in your store, more fool you, no matter what fashion dictates.

My advice to Emilia’s business leaders?

Don’t waste time educating older women that they have different shapes – they know that all too well – instead, challenge your designers to translate the latest trends more deftly and inclusively, so that more people feel confident they can wear them. That’s what being creative is all about.

You might fall for the cynics’ belief that selling is all about PR and trends, but the foundation of business is getting the finer details of your product and your service right. Without that, everything else is built on quicksand.

In the Harvard study, Augustin’s watchword is ‘realness’.

If you genuinely want to learn how to turn around your brand, ask a wide assortment of real women if they would be willing to try on your clothes and provide brutally honest feedback – the ones you’ll find walking through your store any day of any week.

Take off the price tags and ask them to try on eight or so of the key items from your latest range, in their sizes. Let them have the design they like most, or a voucher, in return for a frank assessment of the others. They’ll soon tell you what’s wrong and right with them. Do this well and you’ll have all the information you need to revitalise your fortunes.

By all means freshen up your stores and find ways to communicate your new, more enlightened brand values. Introduce attractive new ranges under the new pricing structure. Don’t rule out a 10% offer to pique their interest or reward their loyalty though, now and again!

Remember that it takes just as much creativity, passion and thought to keep your brand evolving in the right direction as it does for revolution.

Check whether you can translate some of the insight Augustin discovers, as he develops his new brand, into something that will resonate with Emilia customers, and improve their experience of shopping with you. Make sure you feed back to him the ideas you’re coming up with as well.

And get your marketing teams out talking to customers, customer service teams and industry influencers – and trying out your products themselves: that’s how they’ll grow.

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