- CHANTAL FERNANDEZ
How to Make Your Brand Cool
Cultural relevance doesn’t come easy. BoF identifies the key tactics for making a fashion label feel interesting and of-the-moment without trying too hard.
Brands looking to tap into the kind of hype that makes a new generation of shoppers queue up to buy — and pledge their allegiance on social media — often follow a lot of the same steps: Pay this social media star to post, collaborate with that emerging designer, cast this model in your campaign, release an exclusive line with that retailer.
Today, staid brands across the market are trying to figure out how to stand out to customers who have more options and can sniff out inauthenticity. Many make the mistake of simply following approaches that have worked for others.
But following a perceived formula can be a waste of budget and energy if it doesn’t actually make sense for the brand’s identity, history, position in the market and reason for existing with consumers.
Whereas fashion labels used to be successful by being everything to everyone, today customers can see through empty gestures or opportunistic strategies. They expect brands to have a clear message and positioning that jumps off a crowded social media feed. For many brands, the biggest challenge is developing an authentic point of view.
To boil it down: Chasing cool doesn't work. Being cool — and more importantly, authentic — does. For brands seeking cultural relevance, looking inward is the first step. Read on for the best tips from industry insiders who have helped dozens of brands find their rightful place in the fashion ecosystem.
Figure Out Your Purpose
Before LVMH acquired Rimowa and Alexandre Arnault took it over, the luxury luggage maker was respected but boring. Slowly but surely, thanks to a series of fresh campaigns and collaborations over the last three years, Rimowa has come to align itself with the always-on-the-go lifestyle of a younger generation of global travellers who document their adventures through social media and have multi-hyphenate creative professions.
“Ultimately, the dream is to sell the experience of not having a suitcase; that you go to Tokyo and your suitcase will be there, with everything you need inside," said Rimowa Chief Executive Alexandre Arnault in an interview with BoF last year. "But this is a bit utopian,” he said.
Transition requires soul-searching. Before a brand can have an authentic voice in the culture, it needs to determine what it is about and why it exists. Consultant Charlotte Hall, the co-founder of London concept store LN-CC who works on creative strategies for brands, calls this the “nucleus” of a brand. “Why are we doing it beyond ROI? What is the human element of this?” said Hall, explaining that the answers of these questions become the anchor point for any strategy.
“An issue that I come across often is quick, fear-based responses, and usually that can end up compromising on values for short term gain. And what I try to do is work with them to keep coming back to the values,” said Hall.
Rimowa, for example, competes with thousands of brands on the market, most of them at a lower price point. In order to engage a new generation of customers, it had to represent more than reliable wheels. So the brand enlisted its famous globe-trotting fans like Kim Jones and LeBron James to tell their travel stories, and give the luggage product a larger narrative about ambition and creativity.
But not every brand's meaning is going to be so lofty. Sometimes, purpose is grounded in value, accessibility or dependability.
“Stay in your lane, not everyone has to be cool,” said Chris Black, whose creative and branding agency Done to Death Projects works with brands like Thom Browne and Veilance. “In fact, the people who make the most money aren’t cool. That’s the reality.”
Be Open to Moving Fast and Experimenting
Brands never know where the next influential voice in fashion may come from, whether it's an emerging pop star or a teenage girl amassing millions of followers on TikTok. But the upside of reaching out to untested platforms or personalities can outweigh the risks.
Take Prada’s recent runway show, to which it invited TikTok teen star Charli D’Amelio. The tie-up may have seemed awkward to industry watchers, but it also probably reintroduced the brand to the 29 million mostly young people following D’Amelio’s every move online.
“The number one thing that every brand and every person needs to understand in 2020 is that things move very fast,” said Black. He often sees brands that are too scared to experiment with different approaches, collaborators or strategies that might undermine the brand’s traditional way of working. But what might end up being a “failure” to the brand is unlikely to weigh on the brand’s reputation in the current fast-paced social media-driven news cycle.
“If you do something that’s outside your comfort zone and it doesn’t work, it’s not going to bury you for the rest of your life,” said Black. “People click on something else the next day. But if it works, it could have a long tail, it could really be something special.”
Use Your Budget to Work With New Creatives
Tyler Mitchell was a relatively unknown name in the fashion industry when he exploded onto the scene after becoming the first black photographer to shoot a cover for American Vogue in 2018. (He captured Beyoncé for the September issue). Mitchell’s images have a distinct visual style, one that JW Anderson tapped into by hiring him to photograph the brand’s Autumn/Winter 2019 campaigns.
One of the simplest ways for a brand to experiment with a new point of view is by hiring new creatives who bring a visually different approach to photography or styling. Consumers will recognise a tonal shift, even if the partnership doesn't have a product attached to it.
“More than [product] collaboration, it’s collaborators at this point,” said Black, emphasising the importance of carefully choosing talents to bring another vision to a brand.
Enlisting a younger, unproven creative with an active online following is another way to gain credibility, especially for large, established brands looking for a refresh. Followers of that photographer or artist will give a brand they’ve already discounted a new chance if that brand uses its budgets to give an emerging artist a platform. And the fruits of that partnership can be shared more quickly than a product, which takes months to be designed and produced and released.
Give Your Collaborators Creative Freedom
Whether it is Aimé Leon Dore’s brightly colour-blocked New Balance classics or Rick Owens’ furry Birkenstocks, the fashion collaborations with the highest likelihood of generating conversation reflect the creative freedom of the smaller, more independent designer or influencer. Otherwise, the final product can seem overworked or inauthentic.
Hall stressed the importance of giving collaborators, whether it be a cool indie designer or a buzzy photographer, actual creative freedom in order for the resulting project to have more impact with consumers. Therefore, brands should choose these partners based on more than their number of followers on Instagram. Even if a collaboration is shared by a popular social media account, it can still be overlooked if it doesn’t feel genuine.
“I really encourage relevance over reach,” said Hall, adding that the money saved on fees for a lesser-known partner should be allocated to a higher project budget, for maximum impact.
“If the brand takes the risk to work with a young artist they become cool — it's already another culture,” said Sarah Andelman, founder of the influential (and now closed) Paris concept shop Colette, who consults with brands through her agency Just an Idea.
Andelman also recommends collaborating with partners in more than the most obvious way. If a campaign model has a side passion project, give her a platform to talk about it. “It makes everything more relevant,” she said.
Empower Experimental Projects Within the Organisation
Company politics can kill the kind of experimental or out-of-the-box projects that might reframe a brand in the eyes of the market. Oftentimes, projects that come from outside the communications and marketing teams within an organisation don’t get the support they need to be properly executed.
In fact, Andelman says the follow-through can make or break a collaboration, especially now that the market is so saturated with different brand projects. Just putting two brand names next to each other isn’t enough anymore: consumers need to understand why this partnership is special.
Remember that the Product Has to Live Up to the Hype
Rimowa didn’t become a status symbol for Instagram’s luxury kids overnight; it took a series of small steps to change the brand in the mind of consumers over months and years. The strong reputation of the product itself, which preceded its brand transformation, was just as important.
“To me, it’s really about producing things that are authentic to you and the brand, and having a clear point of view and staying the course,” said Black. “It will pay off if the product is good."