Keeping your cool

How can cool brands stay that way? Some businesses have been around for decades yet manage to stay hot, while others find themselves absorbed into the mainstream. Michael Barnett discovers the secrets to keeping off the well-beaten track.

Polar bear

Some brands are just cooler than others. It is hard to define why, but what is certain is that those brands with a rebellious streak get more attention. Think Converse trainers in the 1950s, French Connection’s FCUK in the 1990s and Superdry in the Noughties.

However, many of these cool young things lose their edge as they grow older and more ambitious. Whether it is because they have chased mass-market sales while neglecting their core customers, or have been bought by big corporate companies, their sharpness is blunted. Others, however, have learned how to hold on to their mojo, while a select few have lost and rediscovered their cool.

Fashion retailer French Connection found its edge with the FCUK branding in the late 1990s. Brash and suggestive, FCUK was “a phenomenon” when it first appeared, according to French Connection marketing and PR director Will Woodhams.

But he concedes that the one-dimensional concept was exploited for too long, became over-exposed among the wrong consumers and was eventually tainted by “images of soap stars arguing with their boyfriends in FCUK T-shirts”. It is no surprise, therefore, that sales fell off a cliff in the following years.

It is not a story unique to French Connection. Other fashion brands continue to walk a precarious line between fresh and unfashionable. “Superdry today is compared with French Connection in the sense of this boom and bust,” says Woodhams.

SuperGroup, which owns the Superdry label, issued a profits warning in late April, saying it had misjudged the demand for its goods. Analysts have suggested the company grew too fast, leading its designs to fall out of favour among its original cult following.

What is unique about the Converse brand is the consumer’s relationship with it, and how in invites their personal expression

Verdict Research retail analyst Honor Westnedge explains: “Brands have to be careful not to over-expand. Superdry needs to be really careful to protect its brand image, its edginess and its identity.”

French Connection followed a similar trajectory with FCUK, trying to expand its appeal beyond a niche audience into the mainstream, and losing the original shock factor as a result. But that is not to say a brand that loses its edge can’t claw its way back. French Connection has refocused its design, positioning and marketing, appealing to a modern, non-conformist consumer in the market for premium fashions.

Woodhams says that shoppers now see beyond FCUK, and appreciate other aspects of the retailer’s offering. “People are seeing French Connection in a new light, and are either disregarding FCUK or not seeing it as an irritant or offensive.”

The FCUK brand hasn’t been completely phased out, and is still very popular in emerging markets and in the toiletries sector, but according to Westnedge at Verdict, French Connection “has come out the other side in terms of what it is offering customers”. Though suffering the same weak sales as the retail sector as a whole, French Connection has held a steady market share in the past 12 months, Verdict’s research shows.

As French Connection and Superdry indicate, brands lose their edge when they fail to maintain their appeal in the niche market that made them successful.

Vice

On the other hand, brands that keep their edge appear to do so by continually appealing to the small number of consumers that gave them their edge in the first place. Media brand Vice made its name with a magazine that produces subversive articles and photo shoots often considered shocking by mass-market consumers.

Even though Vice is now part-owned by multinational advertising group WPP, Vice European publisher Matt Elek says that its editorial content still aims to keep that same tone of voice, to represent the interests of its young audience authentically (see Q&A, below).

He says that WPP’s stake in Vice is irrelevant to how it is perceived by the consumers that matter to its brand, since corporate structures are something that are of little interest to them, and that all Vice is concerned with is seeking out the “original, unique and authentic”. According to Elek, achieving this in the eyes of a core customer is only a matter of understanding their preferences. There is no single formula for a brand trying to find its edge.

“We don’t set out to make edgy stuff. We make stuff that we think is a true reflection of youth culture. By its nature that tends to end up being what traditional marketers would call edgy. It is not a commodity.”

Vice sells advertising to many mainstream brands, but Elek says that it has rejected ads because they are poorly designed or a bad fit for its audience. If Vice was to run ads that didn’t use a similar tone of voice to its own editorial style, tailored for people whose interests run counter to mainstream culture, the audience would simply “resent” them for it, he argues.

But having an edge can both help and hinder a brand. Energy drinks maker Pussy Drinks has gained a foothold in its market largely because of the controversial name, but that has also restricted the company in terms of where its drinks are stocked.

Founder Jonnie Shearer says friends told him it was too risky to call the brand Pussy, but he believed it was too risky not to. The product was entering a crowded market with much smaller funds and more limited sales channels than a soft drink produced by a major manufacturer would normally have. Without the name, no one would have considered buying it, he says.

“When I set out I was a one-man band, so I needed a name that would get it noticed. When you have 200 products on a shelf or behind a bar and you are competing against international companies that spend millions on marketing, you need a name that gets people to try it.”

Pussy

Originally distributed in nightclubs, where the sexually explicit connotations of the name might be considered helpful for sales, Pussy has since tried to expand into retailers. It has secured distribution deals with Ocado, Itsu Sushi, Virgin Trains and upmarket department store Selfridges, but being stocked on supermarket shelves has cost the brand at least some of its edge. Tesco sells censored cans branded with the name P***y.

Shearer says the aim is to position Pussy as a premium mass-market drink, so he is looking to sell it “everywhere”. But as the drink’s ingredients are naturally derived and therefore quite expensive, Pussy’s premium pricing is likely to retain some exclusivity among the consumers that drink it.

In that sense, it will keep its edge by being selective about its target market. The company is also looking to art colleges to help design merchandise in an upcoming marketing campaign – a move that could help it bolster its credentials among young and artistic consumers.

Though Pussy modified its name for Tesco, Shearer says that in every other respect the brand will guard its positioning carefully. He claims that responses to the name are generally positive, and the company will seek to use its full branding as it expands its distribution further.

But Shearer still faces a struggle, as few companies can keep the cachet of subversive coolness while also gaining mass-market popularity.

Nike-owned Converse is one brand testing that theory to its limit. Considerable growth in recent years means its shoes are now worn by many age groups, where previously they were associated with fans of alternative culture.

Converse UK senior marketing director Cheryl Calegari claims it is possible to target both specialist and mainstream audiences as long as the needs of both are considered and met separately.

She adds that because Converse’s Chuck Taylor design, with its signature white toe-cap, has remained virtually unchanged for nearly a century, generations of consumers can now associate their individual experiences with the style (see case study, below).

“I don’t think there’s a struggle with how old consumers are, or being over-popular in certain groups,” she says. “Four-year-olds can wear the brand and 104-year-olds can wear the brand, and it can still retain that personal connection. What is unique about the brand is the consumer’s relationship with it, and how it invites their personal expression.”

When over 600 million units of any product have been sold, as in the case of Converse, the fact that any group of consumers could consider it edgy is remarkable in itself. While manufacturing baby shoes clearly points to Converse’s intentions to be considered inoffensive and family-oriented, the brand is also hoping to make sure it appeals to the countercultural niche that see it differently.

We don’t set out to make edgy stuff. We make stuff that we think is a true reflection of young culture. By its nature that tends to end up being what traditional marketers would call edgy. It is not a commodity

It has mostly done this through music, with designs inspired by musicians, recording collaborations with well-known artists such as Gorillaz and sponsorship involvement in music venues that nurture emerging talent.

When Converse communicates with this group, it does so through Facebook, which Calegari says is their preferred channel, and constantly seeks feedback from them.

“We ask them questions and they give us lots of free advice. That is critical for us because every aspect of the brand comes from our relationship with our consumers.”

Converse’s fortunes have passed through several phases, ranging from near ubiquity to bankruptcy in 2001, so it is clear that brand perceptions constantly change – for better and for worse. If a brand can lose its edge once, it can do it again. But Converse hopes it can hold on to it this time by keeping in touch with the needs of the young customers who fall outside the mass market, even as its shoes are increasingly worn by their parents’ generation.

To do so, it will need to respond authentically and sincerely to what those consumers really want because, as Vice’s Elek comments, they “can smell bullshit a mile away”. If Converse can achieve that, it will accomplish a rare feat – being a mainstream brand without losing its edge.

Q&A

Matt Elek

Matt Elek
European publisher
Vice

Marketing Week (MW): Can Vice remain credible to its young, independent readership, being part-owned by a company as big as WPP?

Matt Elek (ME): We get asked that question a lot, and there is a really straightforward answer. Young people are interested in consuming authentic content. As long as we continue to make engaging, authentic content for young people, we are never going to lose that audience.

In the world of marketing and media, it is easy to get caught up in these corporate structures, but your average 18-year-old couldn’t give a shit about who we’re owned by. It makes no difference.

MW: Would you say Vice’s young readers want edgy content, and if so what does that mean?

ME: Young people tend to like things that are original, unique and authentic. In marketing speak, that is called edgy, but we just call it real life – the real things that young people are into.

Young people are more naturally interested in things at the fringes that are atypical or untraditional. Whether that’s music or going out, they are instinctively drawn to rebel against social norms or things that they see as mainstream. As people get older, they are less fussed about rebelling, or being seen to be countercultural in some way.

Vice

MW: Do you specifically seek out advertisers that share these principles?

ME: The advertising that is relevant for Vice and a lot of like-minded media brands is, to some extent, self-selecting. In an ideal scenario, they are inclined to do ‘edgy’ marketing campaigns because that is the best way to affect young people. Brands that want to reach young people but aren’t willing to push the boundaries of mainstream marketing get out of it exactly what they put in, which is half-assed, incomplete or poorly targeted messaging.

MW: Would you turn down advertising if it didn’t fit with Vice’s own brand and tone of voice?

ME: We have often turned down advertising in the past. When advertisers come to us and they have a piece of creative that is poorly targeted or is really bad, nobody wins if that ad runs. Our audience will look at it and just say it is awful. They will resent us for having the audacity to try and push it to them.

Even worse, they will reject the brand because they can smell bullshit a mile away. It reflects badly on the advertiser and badly on us – it is a zero-win situation.

Most advertisers are generally – but not always – very receptive if we tell them they have done the wrong thing. Most media brands don’t have that view and are just happy to take whatever advertising money they get. That is why you end up with the back third of a lot of magazines filled with total garbage.

Case study: Converse

Converse

While its fashions have always been distinctively informal, Converse’s brand associations have ebbed and flowed. Founded in 1908, it first made its rebellious streak known in 1913 with a vow to be “independent enough not to follow every other company in every thing they do”. Converse was synonymous with basketball in the mid-20th century, but its shoes were also worn by cultural icons such as Elvis Presley and James Dean, and from the 1970s punk bands such as the Ramones made them a symbol of defiance.

However, in the following decades the money in the American ‘sneaker’ market was in sports shoes, and Converse’s market share was swallowed up by competitors such as Nike and Adidas. In 1992, basketball star Magic Johnson accused Converse of being “stuck in the Sixties and Seventies”.

Converse filed for bankruptcy in 2001, but was quickly reborn as an icon of countercultural youth and in the past decade has again become the chosen footwear of gig-goers.

Converse UK senior marketing director Cheryl Calegari says/ “The consumer doesn’t necessarily understand the economics of going into bankruptcy. The brand has been consistent. We are very privileged to be a part of these generational moments. You could call it edgy or evolution. Converse continues to be embraced by optimistic rebels.”

She adds that rebellion in itself is not what Converse stands for. Calegari instead defines an optimistic rebel as “anyone who chooses their own path”. But now the white toe-caps of the brand’s Chuck Taylor design are almost ubiquitous, with even celebrity baby Harper Seven Beckham photographed wearing them.

The brand has sought to serve its niche consumers by sustaining its influence in grassroots music. It sponsors monthly gigs at the 100 Club in London – the Oxford Street venue that helped launch punk rockers the Sex Pistols – which earned it Music Week magazine’s partnership of the year award.

Converse

It also owns Rubber Tracks, a New York recording studio that upcoming musicians can apply to use free of charge. Calegari claims Converse is not trying to piggy-back on the success of any artists that emerge from these ventures, but is widening access to those experiences to young musicians and fans.

Converse is not just targeting the music scene. Verdict Research retail analyst Honor Westnedge says: “It has seen huge growth over the past few years and has expanded its range of designs and colours. It has had a lot of marketing help from celebrities buying their shoes. It was a teen brand, but now you see children and their parents wearing them.”

Chasing mass-market adoption has often been the trigger for brands losing their edge. If Converse wants to avoid this, it will need to maintain a unique appeal among the smaller groups of consumers that make it look cool.

The new edgy brand: Dudebox

Dudebox

“I worked for Disney for years and my life was a misery,” says toymaker and entrepreneur Robert Beecham, who has gone it alone and launched Dudebox, a brand of limited edition figures designed by street artists.

Beecham claims its ethos of unbridled creativity is in contrast to his previous life of working at a global corporation with strict boundaries in terms of its licensed properties.

As well as working at Disney, Beecham bought the original rights to manufacture Star Wars-themed children’s toiletries in the UK and Europe, and eventually sold that business to Hasbro.

He says that Dudebox has something that those established brands may lack – the credibility that comes from shunning mass-market awareness and big commercial interests.

Dudebox is targeting an audience that likes contemporary and urban art, so the brand is only likely to gain traction if it is perceived as authentic, independent and true to those tastes.

Fed up of the strict brand guidelines that applied to his former business, Beecham has drafted in 52 artists from around the world to come up with new figures. He claims to have cut the Dudebox designers free from all constraints by not giving them rules because he wants “to see them express themselves”.

Beecham wants a return on his investment, so the figures need to be commercially viable. But the designers have a vested interest in ensuring that they are because they receive royalties from sales rather than a flat fee. It is a popular model among the artists, who are often exploited by business, he says.

Dudebox’s commercial strategy is to provide collectible art at an affordable price, while Beecham hopes that it becomes compulsive for a small set of enthusiastic fans.

He has a detailed business plan laid out until mid-2013. The next stage of development will be to release a collection of designs known as ‘monster fiends’, appearing in around four months’ time.

Beyond that, Beecham says, “we will make it up as we go along”. In the short term at least, Dudebox is unlikely to lose its edge within its niche market, because only a limited number of each design will be made. But while he admits that the key to making the business work is to constantly strive to be new and different, Dudebox is not trying to be seen as edgy – just creative.

Beecham says: “Our strapline is ‘Inspire to create’, and that sums up exactly how I feel, how the team I’ve got on board with me feel, how we motivate everybody.”

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