Another push-up trick?

Wonderbra is branded in consumers’ minds as ‘the’ cleavage bra, but its new ads reveal a wish for a more varied effect. By Catherine Turner

A quiet revolution is under way at Wonderbra. The Sara Lee-owned underwear brand is striving to reposition itself away from in-your-face cleavage to subtle sexiness.

New ads, breaking this week (MW last week), feature fully clothed models promoting the effect of the bra, not its look. It’s a far cry from the voluptuous, scantily-clad models and tongue-in-cheek slogans that propelled the brand into the public consciousness so dramatically in 1994.

In the decade that spawned the Spice Girls and saw the rise of “ladette” culture, Trevor Beattie’s “Hello Boys” advertising perfectly captured the raunchy, go-getting attitude of the day and women everywhere rushed to buy the brand.

At its 1994 peak, the Wonderbra was said to be selling more than seven units a second, while sales of cleavage-enhancing bras quickly grew from ten per cent to almost 30 per cent of the bra market in the UK, with similar success overseas. That year, the Council of Fashion Designers of America honoured Wonderbra for “creating a phenomenon never before experienced in the industry”.

Interbrand chairman Rita Clifton says: “It was very much linked in to Girl Power, the ‘do what you want to do’ attitude. It absolutely caught the zeitgeist and had the look and the feel of the moment.”

Just over a decade on, the brand’s marketing team is rallying against the rise of ultra-fashionable and luxurious rivals, and a stream of imitators. Playtex marketing director Hervé Bailly says: “The 1994 campaign was very, very good in its day, when women were still trying to prove they were equal or superior to men. That’s gone. It’s over as a trend.”

The Wonderbra portfolio focuses on four “Wonder Effects”: plunge, rounded, uplift and cleavage, each with three levels of padding to appeal to women wanting underwear for different occasions. This is, says Bailly, what women want: underwear to make them look better in outerwear, to be imperceptible under clothes rather than flaunted.

Playtex, which is repositioning after two years of review and research, is ploughing &£2m into advertising Wonderbra in the UK and an estimated &£5m across Europe. A new strapline “Experience WonderYou” was created by Publicis Paris, which won the account earlier this year.

But will a public so used to seeing Wonderbra as a brash, exhibitionist brand buy this new outlook? Though last year it shifted 1.6 million bras in the UK, equivalent to three bras a minute, with sales worth more than &£32m, there is a sense that it is struggling to keep up with fast-changing fashions. Indeed few, including Bailly, expect it to repeat the performances of its mid-1990s heyday.

He says: “[That success] came at a very special moment. At that time, the competition in the lingerie market was not as big as it is today and the focus was very much on the Wonderbra. That will be more difficult to achieve today.”

Contrary to messages in the media vaunting the demise of the push-up, Wonderbra – armed with TNS Fashion Track data – says the sector has grown two per cent year on year, with more to come. Bailly believes that Wonderbra sales will rise by at least 30 per cent over the next six months and says he wants it to be known as much more than “just a cleavage brand”.

The brand has, Bailly confesses, been slow to pick up new trends, preferring instead to dabble with product variations. “Apart from cleavage, we were just not there,” he says. “We are trying to change that and, in concentrating on creating a series of ‘effects’ women may desire to have, I believe we are doing something new.”

Clifton is sympathetic to the new approach and believes it is the best the brand can do under difficult circumstances. But she warns of the dangers of diversifying – and diluting – such a strong brand. “A strong brand has to be clear about what it stands for over the years, which for Wonderbra is being slightly risqué, extrovert and outgoing. Wonderbra has been challenged by a series of me-toos, while its risqué proposition has been taken on by brands such as Agent Provocateur and Myla, which are sexy, sultry and more modern.”

Bailly is adamant that the brand, consumers and commentators must stop dwelling on the past. “I care about Wonderbra today, not the brand in 1995,” he says. In more ways than one, it seems, Wonderbra will be hop

History

The first Wonderbra was designed in 1964 by Canadian Louise Poirier for Canadelle and was sold under licence in countries including the UK. It was not introduced in the US until 1994.

The basic design and construction of the “original” Wonderbra has remained the same, consisting of 54 elements to lift and support the bust while creating a deep plunge and “push-together” effect.

It is estimated that 11 million Wonderbras had been sold up to 1991 – by 1992, the then UK licence-holder Gossard claimed it was selling 22,000 units a week.

Gossard’s licence to produce the Wonderbra expired in 1994. Competitor Sara Lee, which had bought Canadelle in 1991, owns the rights to the design and has reintroduced the Wonderbra. Gossard, which was bought by Sara Lee in 2000, introduced a modified version, the Ultrabra, at the same time.

Today, 78 per cent of Wonderbra consumers are under 45, with 59 per cent under the age of 34.

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