Sportswear

Can Ubiquity Make a Brand Invisible?

michael-phelps-rio-olympics-gold-medal-1.jpgDo we even see the Nike logo anymore?

 

The USA Men’s Olympic Swim Team faced not one, but two scandales last week — the lesser-known and more interesting of which is that Michael Phelps, the superstar of Under Armor’s stable of representatives wore sweatpants featuring a very prominent swoosh on the cover of this month’s Sports Illustrated.

But did he even realize he was wearing it?

All members of Team USA are required to wear Nike gear when competing in the Olympics per the USOC, even if it conflicts with an athlete’s personal sponsorship. This is a tricky branding situation for which I can’t think of another analogy — if a celebrity represents a designer label, she usually wears that label to events, but not necessarily in everyday life or in magazine editorials. This spawns its own interesting question: is an athlete obligated to wear his sponsor’s gear in an editorial, if other celebrities are not held to the same standard?

My answer to that question would be no, but in any case, Phelps is decidedly not in Olympic uniform in this photo. His clothes could be his own or chosen for him (unlikely; no self-respecting stylist would put him in that Zuck-ish polo), but regardless, did none of the individuals involved in this photoshoot —the athletes, stylists, photographer, editors, et all — even notice that he was donning a Nike swoosh? I think it was completely invisible to them, even to Phelps himself. This should be a smug moment of triumph for Nike, besting Under Armor, but instead it’s an indication of an issue in Nike’s brand recognition.

Nike is such a behemoth that it’s a synecdoche for all atheleticwear, in the vein of Spandex, Xerox, Kleenex, and, in Texas, Coke, standing in for all of their respective related or competitor’s products. It’s so big, in fact, that our brains barely process the logo anymore, like speed-reading through something you already know. I wouldn’t have even noticed that Phelps was wearing Nike pants in the photo had the fashion industry not started buzzing about it. But is that a good thing or a bad thing for Nike?

I think it’s both. It’s great to be the synecdoche because it’s a guarantee of popularity and quality. But a brand can become too big and lose its meaning  unless it’s kept ultra-current, which Nike is good at doing by offering enormous variety and customization options. But still, the logo can go mentally unprocessed. Who are Nike’s spokespeople? I can’t name a single one besides Michael Jordan in ye olden days. Perhaps more visible advertisement, beyond a small smooth Swoosh on an athlete’s lapel, would lend the brand more concrete meaning to an audience that doesn’t obsessively consume sports. Perhaps they should also consider non-athlete or famous spokespeople to front or even design for the brand, like what Puma has done with Rihanna, or non-traditional athletes, like Misty Copeland for Under Armor. I would love for a celebrity trainer like Mary Helen Bowers to be a spokesperson for Nike, or for Nike to do a black-and-white photoshoot starring an icon like Mikhail Baryshnikov (who, does, I can ah, say from personal experience, wear sneakers in his downtime.)

My next instinct would be to advise Nike to carve out niches within its bigness, like going after the fashion set. Adidas already has the upper hand here, however, with its ultra-popular Stan Smith and its collaborations with Kanye West, Raf Simons, and Stella McCartney. Reebok, too, is collaborating with interesting non-apparel labels like FACE Stockholm to appeal to a young, trendy set.  Nike could continue to expand its fashion collaboration attempts, like the one launched with Ricardo Tischi earlier this year. Carine Roitfeld for Nike has a nice ring to it.

In the short term, to boost its falling stock, Nike could push the Huarache shoe into becoming the next Instagram star, like the white-and-burgundy Nike Free was few years ago. This style is on the precipice of really “happening,” and just needs some more Instagram and editorial coverage.

Nike can combat its logo invisibility with a revamped advertising platform, since it’s not the logo itself, but its ubiquity coupled with a lack of meaningful advertising that causes the brain skip. But really, we don’t have to worry about Nike going anywhere despite interesting and innovative endeavors by its competitors. It already has the cultural resonance (and money) for permanent staying power, as long as it doesn’t get too comfortable on its laurels.

 

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Yeezy: A Marketing Miracle

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We all know how a great match between product and brand ambassador can result in great sales and even iconic advertisements — Kate Moss for Calvin Klein, Isabella Rossellini for Lancome Trésor, etc. But what happens when a great match is made initially, but then the ambassador’s reputation falters or becomes uncertain?

You know what I’m getting at in this case — Kanye and Yeezy resell madness. How is the popularity of Yeezy sneakers still so explosive when Kanye has committed painful schadenfreude after painful schadenfreude on social media in the last two weeks? Why do consumers want to associate themselves with someone who at best displays incredibly poor judgement when speaking, and at worse is tens of millions of dollars in debt and on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown?

I think the answer here is two-pronged —  an instance of absurd good luck that paired a good product and its narcissistic personality disorder Frankenstein with a forgiving public with an appetite for rarity and athleisure.

First, the product is remarkably good and strategically scarce. The Boost 350, which was released exactly a year ago, originally retailed for $200, but now are as much as $1,500 new for certain colors on Ebay; around 500 pair of the new Boost 750 were released to lucky fans last weekend, and have been sold for as much as $5,400 online. It’s a great looking shoe and scarce enough to stir up hype independent of Kanye: it’s a Yeezy before it’s an Adidas or Kanye West product. It appears that if the product is truly good and can create its own identity in pop culture, it doesn’t matter if the face of the brand is in a period of uncertain personal brand coding: sales will remain strong.

Secondly, I think perhaps people think of the face of a brand in more of an archetypal way, taking his or her entire career into consideration when deciding what the ambassador means in the culture, rather than deploying an up-to-the-moment pop-culture analysis of his or her actions. Consumers and Yeezy fans look at Kanye as someone who has been a successful, if megalomanic, entertainer for ten years, who courts controversy as part of his personality — and this recent series of stunts will be an inconsequential blip on his oeuvre.

Another example of this long-term archetypal thinking is Johnny Depp being selected to serve as the face of Dior’s Eau Sauvage cologne this fall. Once the embodiment of a filthy strain of cool, in the last two years or so has become a punchline, a bloated caricature of himself hurtling toward a midlife crisis all pistons firing. And yet, I thought to myself, who else could be Dior’s elegant savage? Only Depp, or at least, the legacy of Depp (and the photoshopped version of Depp in the ads) fit the bill. It turns out the public agrees with me — Eau Sauvage was the number one men’s fragrance in most countries where it was distributed in 2015 after its launch in September of the same year. Even though he’s making a fool of himself in the tabloids just right now, his archetype remains intact in the public’s mind.

And the media doesn’t care as much about the embarrassing antics of West and Depp because the two are male entertainers. Although they aren’t representing the brands they are fronting well, they’ve faced no consequences from sale outcome or industry bosses. When Kate Moss was photographed doing cocaine in 2005, the speed with which the axe fell was incredible: not only did she loose nearly all of her contracts, but was blistered in the media for months. (I did benefit from this incident by writing about it in my SAT essay, which, if memory serves, garnered a perfect score,) Men certainly have it easier when representing a label — their personal brand archetypes aren’t subject to as much scrutiny as women’s are. Depp is a walking advertisement for substance abuse and overindulgence, but faces no consequences except for ridicule on gossip sites.

The success of Yeezy is a special case, a marketing miracle, because it’s a perfect storm of a great product that has taken on a life of its own beyond its creator, and a product that is fronted by a man whose long entertainement legacy can make up for his current actions. If even one of these layers were not intact, I don’t think Yeezy would see the kind of success that it currently –and will continue to–experience. I don’t recommend this combination of insane marketing elements for any other label, but for Yeezus, it’s only fitting.

Tremendous Eye Roll: More on Tommy Hilfiger and Celebrity Collaborations

Save Tommy Hilfiger from himself.

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Tommy Hilfiger has announced a design collaboration with Gigi Hadid, a line called Tommy x Gigi, to debut in the fall of 2016.

Cue the largest eye roll physically possible.

Not that this is a terrible idea — it’s not. It’s just bad strategy for Hilfiger in the long run and a case of history repeating itself.

As I discussed in a previous article, Tommy Hilfiger needs to be playing the long game with his brand if he wants it to be an non-laughable, established lifestyle brand again — which, by all the evidence I’ve  seen, is still his goal (luggage, linens, and tablewear are all still for sale on his website, hilariously titled just ‘tommy.com’). His brand collapsed in a cloud of shadenfreude in the early 2000s because of two reasons — it was ultra-trendy, driven totally by logos and random-but-popular celebrity endorsers, and it was publicly owned, which meant it kept churning out insane quantities these truly embarrassing looks long after they were cool too keep shareholders happy. Tommy Hilfiger is now a privately owned company, but Hilfiger needs to guard himself against getting endorsements solely from the hot young stars of the moment, as well as relying too heavily on trendiness.

Which is the problem with Gigi. She is the hottest young thing in both fashion and Instagram culture at the moment, showing up in both ad campaigns and (more and more frequently) gossip columns. She embodies trendiness and mainstream youth culture, the very things Hilfiger should be handling with caution, instead of grabbing with both hands. He’s going to make the same strategic mistake again, and the man can’t help himself.

Hifiger could have made so many other choices of collaborators, ones that would appeal to an older audience with 1) more purchasing power and 2) previous experience with the brand in its pre-hot mess days. These might include Alexa Chung, Leandra Medine, or Solange. He could have still gone for a youthful collaborator, but someone less ubiquitous and bland than Gigi is — someone like Brooklyn Beckham or Tavi Gevinson. He’s a big art collector and could have done something with Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, or Yayoi Kusama (all of whom he collects) to do something more cerebral. But no. The most obvious, popular choice is always Hilfiger’s go-to.

What I would have liked to have seen him do most was to collaborate with another designer for a capsule collection. Gucci just announced a collaboration with Commes des Garçons on a small range of silk scarves — an absolutely brilliant move in line with the Michelesance. Hilfiger should do something similar to this, and specifically partner with a label that can boost his cool factor, like Hood By Air, Public School, or Rodarte.

There are just so many more interesting, smart, and nuanced collaborative options out there for Hilfiger than the model of the moment, and his obstinacy and short sightedness in the matter is off-putting. He doesn’t’ deserve to succeed in this venture, and who knows if he will? Will Gigi be as hot and relevant in a year, when the collection debuts, as she is now? It’s a question Hilfiger should be seriously asking himself. This line may need to move up its timeline.

Tommy Hilfiger and the Case for Reissues

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Last week, Tommy Hilfiger and MyTheresa rolled out a capsule collection of 90s-inspired, logo-heavy reissue pieces. All of the nine pieces available have, smartly, been updated “with innovative fabrications, luxe fabrics and modern silhouettes,” including scuba material and longer-line crop tops and sweaters that look chic. sporty, and, even – yes, shockingly – European.

This is brilliant brand strategy for Hilfiger – for the short term. It comes at the perfect timing, at the peak of 90s nostalgia; and the collaboration with MyTheresa gives it a cool, youthful, and Justin O’Shea-approved feel that it wouldn’t have if it were partnered with say, Net-A-Porter, or god forbid, Hilfiger’s old stable, Macy’s. Suki and Immy Waterhouse front the campaign, which is a good, but random choice, as they are not exactly the postergirls for American sportswear – they are much more at home bloodlessly modeling Burberry and Muberry and the like. The collection’s price point is surprisingly high, with the least expensive item, a bandeau top, coming in at €130, which is certainly too high for the 16-21 year-old Instagram users and Waterhouse fans who would be desperate to get their hands on a bit of the 90s that they, albeit briefly, experienced and are now painfully wistful for.

But nostalgia pieces won’t do in the long-term for Hilfiger and it will tempting for him to ride the 90s-00s throwback train for the next two to three years without planning for his long-term brand strategy – which has in desperate need of redefinition for some time now.

The last few years at Tommy Hilfiger have been a schadenfreude nightmare, full of strained efforts to revitalize the label with a string of mismatched cool, young celebrities and try-hard, themed runway shows. Mr. Hilfiger ought to position himself as the Kate Spade of preppy American staples, and not keep trying and failing to be the zeitgeisty-cool designer he once was. Instead of targeting millennials, he should cater to an older crowd, the men and women who grew up wearing his label in the 90s and 2000s, who are looking for something sportier and more fun than JCrew and Brooks Brothers, and less tragic than Tory Burch. There’s certainly room in the marketplace for this kind of label, and lots of people hoping that Hifiger succeeds – he just needs to stop playing the short game and stop resting on the laurels of his once-popular name.

The reissue model for fashion is brilliant, though, and I’m surprised more designers haven’t seized the ‘heritage’ PR and marketing angle that is so ripe for the picking. It’s also an incredible chance for the average shopper to own a real piece of brand history – not a fast fashion take, a knockoff, or a vintage item in middling to poor condition. Fantastic reissue pieces are what fashion consumers want, but labels must be thoughtful about the pieces they choose to reissue. Few items in classic shapes, like the Mark Cross “Grace” overnight bag (a reissue of the suitcase Grace Kelly carries in Rear Window) and the Max Mara 101801 camel coat are perfect examples of reissues done right, while Topshop’s recent archival rollout achieved only middling success because of the wide range of available pieces, apparent randomness of selection (online voters were the culprit – a nice idea in terms of democracy, but not in terms of profit), and un-updated designs. Other major labels need to get in on the reissue game. I can only begin to fathom the kind of hysterics that might break out in the fashion community if Dior decided to reissue a limited release of 1950s and ‘60s cocktail dresses, or if Saint Laurent released some updated accessories from the iconic “destination” collections. People would lose their minds. Snap to it LVMH and Kering – there’s a rabid market out here for your labels’ classics.