Fashion labels mixing with the wrong crowd

Its association with the UK’s ‘chav’ culture has been a marketing nightmare for Burberry. But how can a fashion brand stop such undesirable elements from buying its clothes? asks Caroline Parry

The marketing department at fashion brand Burberry must feel they are being unfairly targeted.

First, there was the decision by two pubs in Leicester to ban people wearing its infamous check pattern due to the brand’s unwanted association with football hooligans and drunken louts. Then it was pinpointed as the uniform of the chavs, the unfortunate term that is being applied to and adopted by the UK’s bling-loving youths who deck themselves out in gold jewellery and designer labels and aspire to celebrity status.

But the brand is not alone in being taken up as part of the chav culture. Those same Leicester pubs are also refusing entry to potential customers wearing Aquascutum, Henri Lloyd and Stone Island labels.

However, Burberry’s association with this movement reached its lowest depths last week when cod Welsh rap collective Goldie Lookin’ Chain organised a celebration of chav culture to promote their latest single. They led a parade through the streets of London travelling in their latest bling bling accessory – a customised Vauxhall Cavalier, painted in the Burberry check and christened “the Chavalier”.

But the Burberry team should take comfort, as the recent past is littered with cases of brand hijacking. Ben Sherman, the predominantly male brand, has been working to overcome its association with Mods and yob culture for several years. Its marketing director Andy Rigg, who announced he was quitting his job last week (MW last week), has attempted to move the brand forwards for the past three years with the launch of a women’s range and a tie-up with the British Olympics team.

Fashion industry insiders say the task is not impossible. They point to brands such as Fred Perry and Dr Martens, once favoured by skinheads, and Lonsdale and Hackett, which were popular with football hooligans. These, they say, have managed to cast off such negative associations over time.

One source says: “It is still interesting to see that, despite the amount of money brand owners plough into marketing, advertising and PR, there is nothing brands can do to stop consumers from pulling them in an undesirable direction. However, that does not mean all is lost.”

Rita Clifton, chairman of brand consultancy Interbrand, says that when a brand is hijacked, its owner must take control of the image, distribution channels and licences to avoid ending up in fashion oblivion. But she admits that whatever action is taken, it can often be hard to shake off downmarket or violent associations. She says: “You can’t take the clothes off these people, so it can be difficult to recover from the power of the image that has been created.”

The irony is that the hijacking of luxury brands by consumers who are not desirable in the eyes of the fashion houses is partly of their own making, says Clifton. In some cases, the fashion houses have actively sought to widen the appeal of their brands and boost revenues from products by developing cheaper diffusion lines, perfumes and accessory ranges.

Burberry, for example, was widely applauded for getting itself back on track during the Nineties. Many credit the use in its advertising of supermodel Kate Moss, clad in the distinctive check, as one of its most inspired moves. The campaign was aimed at winning over the hip and fashionable, but it is exactly this image that caught the eye of aspirational mainstream consumers. Gucci, with its brash and sexy advertising, also fell into the same trap of cultivating a widespread appeal.

FutureBrand brand consultant Magli Tardy says that today’s consumers are playing with class in the same way that they played with age in the past. Poor youngsters now dress as if they are rich and vice versa. She adds that it is obvious badging, through elements such as the Burberry check or big logos, that allow the wearer to show off the brand and that is part of the appeal.

It is this obvious branding that has also made it easy for counterfeiters to ply their trade on a grand scale, in turn fuelling the craze for and undermining these luxury brands. Popular Nineties youth brand Joe Bloggs was eventually withdrawn from the UK because its problems with fake goods could not be controlled.

But while Dolce & Gabanna may find it upsetting to be associated with mass-market consumers who like to resemble characters from Footballers’ Wives, other brands find themselves drawn into much darker movements from yob culture to the far right.

Two years ago athletics brand New Balance found itself being adopted by Neo Nazi groups in Germany, which drew parallels between the big “N” on the side of the shoe and the SS lightning strike, a recognised Nazi symbol. Jack Gordon, founder of marketing consultancy and corporate affairs adviser Silverhammer who has been working with New Balance for several years, says there is no set response to this kind of problem.

He says that when a brand is first hijacked, the best course of action is to do nothing, but if the problem persists then drastic measures are required. “The brand then has to go out and do something such as supporting the other side or put out a statement that points out that none of their communications support that cause.”

New Balance opted to take a course of action that undermines hijackers by sponsoring music events such as Rock Against Racism.

Gordon says that any hijacked brand should stay true to its core values while taking control of every aspect of its communication that it can. One brand that has managed to keep a tight control on its positioning is Ralph Lauren. It has limited its popularity by defining a preppy American look that is sexy yet does not have mainstream appeal.

Where a brand has been unable to control its appeal then its owners might consider launching a diffusion range to help separate brand values and to serve a variety of consumers – a strategy that Ben Sherman has adopted with the aim of broadening its appeal among women and children.

But fashion is a fickle world and a brand can always reinvent itself. As Clifton says: “The door only tends to swing one way for each generation, so a brand can always try to come back as there is an endless supply of young consumers.”

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